December 12, 2015. My very favorite Christmas activity in Olso is the Julemarked at the Norsk Folkemuseum (the Norwegian Folk Museum). Not only do you get to walk through ancient and incredibly adorable log-cabin homes from all over Norway, but you can watch folk dances, eat traditional holiday foods, attend a Christmas service in a 12th-century Medieval Stave Church, learn about local Jul customs, ride in a horse-drawn sleigh, and shop more than 100 stalls filled with hand-made woolens, antiques, toys, and decorations. Continue reading Norwegian Folk Museum Christmas Market
January 2, 2014. Traveling to a new city seemed like a good way to usher in the new year. And we’d been told that it’s pretty quiet in Oslo, except for the crowds that gather in the parks to light sparklers. So we quickly booked a trip to Copenhagen, about an hour away by air. The trip from the airport into the city center revealed a landscape that looked — and felt — a lot like Chicago: few trees, pancake-flat terrain, lots of industry, and a cold wind that robbed us of our breath and threatened to knock us off our feet. Just like home. Continue reading New City, New Year
December 27, 2014. A couple of days after Christmas, much was still closed, so we decided to go for a walk. This time we picked Sognsvann, which we’d been told had a lovely lake that we could stroll around, as well as paths for cross-country skiing. We thought we’d join the Norwegians, who love to picnic despite frigid temperatures, so I packed a lunch of leftover pickled herring and grilled veggies, along with a thermos of hot coffee. Continue reading A Walk at Sognsvann
On Christmas Day, the sun shone brightly for the first time in what seemed like weeks, and all was right with the world. We donned our winterwear and headed out on the T-bane (the Metro train line) to Frognerseteren to admire the winter scenery from the mountain overlooking Olso. A surprising number of Norwegians had the same idea, and when we pulled up to the Midstuen stop, an enormous throng of people toting sleds (called “sledges” here) climbed aboard. Continue reading Sledding on Christmas Day
We prepared to spend a quiet Christmas all alone in Oslo. By this, I mean that we’d been warned of two things: 1) absolutely everything is closed — even the grocery stores — from about noon on Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26th). And 2) Norwegians are quite private; Christmas Eve and Day are reserved for immediate family, so don’t expect an invitation to join anyone for the holiday. No problem, we did our grocery shopping Christmas Eve morning and scheduled Facetime with friends and family for the next two days. Continue reading Christmas Eve
December 22, 2014. We’re not done with Nürnberg yet, folks! In three days, we tried to squeeze in as much of the old city in as possible, but we definitely need to go back. We had only a few hours for a too-brief visit to the Kaiserburg (Imperial Castle) and its stunning grounds. Just taking in the magnificent views over the city from different vantage points requires at least an hour, then there’s the vast castle itself, the burgrave buildings, towers, stables, and so on … and on. You really need a full day to appreciate the enormity of the site. Continue reading Nürnberg, Medieval & More
Lest you think we came only to eat, drink, and shop in Nürnberg (well okay, so that was our primary objective), we did do some sightseeing. Loads of amazing Gothic sites surround the market, including the fabulously ornate Goldener Brunnen fountain built in 1396 (spin the ring in the gate for good luck), and the brooding Frauenkirche (Our Lady’s Church), which has an enormous, gilded glockenspiel. Continue reading Nürnberg’s Gospel Gothic
December 19, 2014. As usual when on vacation, we somehow ended up staying in the red light district. I guess it’s our penchant for wanting to spend as little as possible on a hotel. So when we found a great rate for the Holiday Inn not too far from the city center, we jumped on it without thought. (Actually, it was quite a comfy, clean place, and the flashing neon of the nearby strip joints blended right in with all the Christmas lights.) Continue reading The Nürnberg Christkindlesmarkt
December 15, 2014. Gotta say, moose are pretty tasty. One night after work, Matthew and I headed over to the Christmas Market on Karl Johan’s Gate for a bite to eat and a little shopping. Three moose burgers later, we decided we liked the stuff. Especially when you wash it down with a little gløgg — a mulled wine made with cloves and cinnamon, served warm with a helping of almonds and raisins. On a tight budget, the drink can easily serve as a meal that’ll sustain you all day. Continue reading Holiday Festivities & Hobbits
The Julenek (Christmas Sheaf)
Far over in Norway’s distant realm,
That land of ice and snow,
Where the winter nights are long and drear,
And the north winds fiercely blow,
From many a low-thatched cottage roof,
On Christmas eve, ’tis said,
A sheaf of grain (julenek) is hung on high,
To feed the birds o’erhead. Continue reading The Julenek (Christmas Sheaf)
December 7, 2014. We returned from the States to find that Christmas had sprung up overnight in Oslo. But not in the screamingly obnoxious American way, where every conceivable surface is plastered in a Crayola kaleidoscope of shiny ornaments, Santa Claus effigies, and tinsel. Here in Norway, they take a more subtle, elegant approach. No one clutters their yard with inflatable reindeer or animatronic tableaus depicting the North Pole. In most stores, you’d be hard pressed to find much more than a wreath or a few wrapped presents in the window. And I’ve not spotted even one colored strand of lights.
In a country with less than six hours of daylight at this time of year, white light — and lots of it — is the predominate holiday accent. Bright strands festoon most of the main shopping streets and a few window boxes, while most homes feature a white paper star in each window, or a lit candelabra. Every restaurant and store advertises their open hours by placing lanterns lit with real candles outside their front door. Candles cover every available surface inside, too, and I’m constantly surprised that the sounds of the season aren’t frequently punctuated by the sirens of fire engines.
Natural decor is big, with birch logs and bark being used for candle holders, carved ornaments, and wreaths. Shoppers tread over doormats made of fresh evergreen branches that release the spicy scent of pine throughout the store. The florist stalls in the city square stock enormous clumps of real mistletoe and centerpieces made of arctic lichen and heather. And my absolute favorite custom is the Julenek (Christmas sheafs) — bundles of red-ribboned wheat (food for the birds) that you’ll see staked in many front yards. According to legend, if you sweep away a circle in the snow beneath the Julenek, the birds will dance around it at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Probably one of the best places to experience Christmas traditions is the outdoor Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Folk Museum). At any time of year, it’s a great place to see an incredible array of Norwegian folk architecture, but at Christmas, it’s more than magical. You can ride in a real sleigh, watch costumed folk musicians and dancers perform, eat buttered lefse (Norwegian potato flatbread), tour traditionally decorated, ancient log-cabin homes, attend a Christmas service in an unbelievably gorgeous medieval stave church, and shop for hand-knitted sweaters and other awesome gifts at the annual Christmas market.
My favorite purchase this year was an enormous Julebukk (Christmas Goat). A legendary beast, the Julebukk possesses a checkered past, apparently having begun life as one of the two goats who ferried the Norse god Thor across the sky. Later, after a stint as a mischief-maker who accompanied young pranksters during wassailing, the Julebukk reformed himself and began delivering Christmas gifts to children. Eventually, he was replaced by the Julenisse (Christmas elf), but you’ll still see him grace the tables of holiday gatherings.
A little more about the Julenisse. The closest thing that I can liken him (or them) to is a garden gnome. One gentleman explained to me that the nisse live in houses and barns. If you treat them well, they’ll protect your home and do your chores, but if you don’t feed them and are a lazy farmer, they’ll become hostile, pull tricks on you, and may kill your animals. Apparently, the Julenisse is a special elf (or group of elves) who wear red hats and expect to get fed on Christmas Eve in exchange for gifts.
My personal brush with the Julenisse occurred last year during my first trip to the folk museum. While waiting in line for the cash station, I was approached by what looked like a giant, red-robed Father Christmas holding a big wooden spoon. (The Julenisse is apparently a shapeshifter and can morph to look like Santa when a more universally commercial figurehead is needed.) He spoke to me in Norwegian, and the lady behind me translated, “He wants to know if you’ve been a good girl. If you have, he’ll give you porridge to eat, but if you haven’t, he’ll hit you with the wooden spoon.” I opted for the porridge, of course, but later the lady told me that as a child, she thought the sticky, rather tasteless stuff was almost a worse punishment than the beating … and on that note … Merry Christmas, kids!