As elsewhere in the North, the Christmas celebration in Norway follows close upon the shortest and darkest day of the year. But in a land like Norway, where midday shadows are long already in September, the “turning of the sun” on December 21 gave rise to solstice celebrations long before the introduction of Christianity in the eleventh century. Heathen superstition, associated with the return of the dead at the darkest time of the year, as well as apprehensions regarding the year to come, tended to add an eerie touch to the rejoicing over the impending return of lighter days. Fertility and the worship of the goddess Freia were also a part of the heathen festivities. So, when Catholic priests set up the cross of Christendom against the mark of Thor’s hammer they were at once confronted with the problems of joining the old with the new-a task which they evidently approached quite realistically. For even today, yuletide festivities in Norway are in reality a fascinating combination of Christian ritual, shot through with scores of quaint and unique customs that in many cases can be traced back to pagan times-some legitimatized by the church, others persisting on their own. Any description of Christmas in Norway, therefore, must of necessity be something more than a recounting of present custom and practice. Equally fascinating is the tracing back, where possible-which may throw light on why, for example, a marzipan pig, or a game called “Christmas buck,” or preparation of the “brownie’s porridge,” are part of the otherwise Christian festival.
Customs vary from district to district, though it is most often in the rural tracts of Norway that interesting holdovers from a bygone day add color to the yuletide festivities. Common to all regions, however, is the thorough house cleaning and the near-orgy of cooking and baking which precede the Christmas feast. On the farms, fall slaughtering is delayed until just before yule. The Christmas pig, whose growth throughout the year has been carefully watched by all members of the family, plays an important part in the yule ritual. Every part of the animal is used for some traditional holiday dish, several kinds of sausage, hams, cutlets, fat and trimmings, right down to the feet, which are pickled in brine. There are other chores too. Wood has to be chopped for the first three days of yule, the farmyard has to be swept and made ready for the arrival on Christmas Eve night of the Julesvenn, the sleds and wagons have to be put neatly in place, and the animals must have an extra portion of feed. On Christmas Eve, all work must be finished by four o’clock in the afternoon, when the village church bell rings in the period of “Christmas peace,” a term recalling the more violent days in Norway, long ago when the sound of the bell heralded in a period during which all “bloody encounter” was forbidden.
Indoors, the women have been scrubbing and baking for weeks, and the last day before yule is one of feverish activity. In many districts, it is still a “must” to have fourteen different kinds of cookies baked and on hand-a different kind for each day of the extended yuletide celebration. Meanwhile, the menfolk tend to the important job of brewing the yule ale-still a matter of pride and great competition in most rural districts. For days before yule it is customary to make the rounds of nearby farms to sample the neighbors’ brew. At four P.M., however, all work must cease. The largest sheaf of grain from the year’s harvest has been hung high on a pole or on the gable as a treat for winter birds. This practice, common today, goes right back to old heathen rites in which the last scythe swing of grain from the harvest was offered up to the pagan god of growth and fertility. But today, the custom has lost its old significance, although youngsters in many rural districts maintain it is possible to predict the next year’s harvest by noting what kinds of birds are first attracted by the grain.
Every animal on the farm is remembered. Horses and cows get a generous portion of the finest oats or barley, usually with a time-honored remark such as: “It’s Christmas Eve, good friend. Eat well.” In bygone days, this matter of making sure that everyone and everything on the farm was happy and satisfied on this particular evening was often carried to extremes. Superstition had it that there were other than earthly creatures abroad that night.
Until a few generations ago, there were farms in Norway where such inanimate things as old trees also were remembered on Christmas Eve. In some districts, at least, a mug of ale, a piece of meat, and a bowl of porridge were placed before a venerable oak standing in the farmyard. In later years, the practice was continued simply as a part of cherished yule ceremonies. Even today there are those who put a bowl of Christmas porridge in the hayloft as a special treat for the family’s “barn brownie” who is said to claim the barn, loft and stable, as his own particular domain. With tongue in cheek, farmers will tell their youngsters that should the brownie be overlooked, it might have dire consequences during the coming year. A harness strap might break just as the heavy sled begins to move, a cow might kick over a nearly full bucket of milk, or anyone of a number of things might happen just at the wrong time. A farmer may still be heard to say-without blinking-that it’s best to be on the safe side of the “brownie.”
A good scrubbing from top to toe is also part of the yuletide preparations. This custom-like many others-stems from the days when folk believed that the new year began with Christmas Day. Folk in city and country still follow the old custom-a good bath and a complete change of clothes for every member of the household in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. On farms, which had a bathhouse in which steam was produced by pouring water over red-hot slabs, it was customary in times past for the last man out of the bathhouse to fire up well before he left; there might be others abroad that night who wished to use it.
Indoors, all is in readiness for the Christmas Eve celebration. The table is set and the fare is traditional, though it may vary from district to district. In most regions, however, it includes a bowl of rice porridge, if rice is available at the store. In one of the bowls, Mother has hidden an almond, which spells an extra something nice for the finder. This dish may be followed by lutefisk, or pork cutlets and sausage, or yet again, boiled codfish-depending on the part of the country. The dish known as lutefisk is made of dried codfish softened in a lye solution, then rinsed and boiled. Inclusion of the porridge, incidentally, dates back to the days when the whole family ate from the same huge common bowl placed in the center of the table. After this relatively simple dinner, the head of the family often reads the Lord’s Prayer, followed by the Christmas story.
Next, the scene moves to the living room, where the Christmas tree stands, brightly trimmed with colored paper tinsel, small Norwegian flags, and a variety of decorations. The Christmas tree tradition is of relatively recent origin. First introduced from Germany about 1830, the Christmas tree did not become widely used until the 1860’s. Nowadays, the tree is a “must” for the celebration of a Norwegian Christmas. To wit, during the recent German occupation of Norway, every year one of the Norwegian Navy MTB boats stationed in England was dispatched to bring back a Norway spruce to be presented as a gift to King Haakon, who spent the war years in England. This practice of bringing a Norwegian tree to England has been continued since the war, and each Christmas a huge Norwegian spruce stands in London’s Trafalgar Square, a gift from the Norwegian people.
Before the introduction of the Christmas tree, the center of attraction was the yule log, actually a whole tree dragged into the room with the butt resting in the fireplace. It generally burned and smoldered during the entire holiday season. Lighted candles have long been a part of Norwegian yule, both on the table and on the Christmas tree. In times gone by, there was often a candle for each member of the family; each light was thought to have particular powers over any person or object on which it shone. Centuries ago, farmers used to carry a lighted Christmas candle through the barn, and into the stable-singeing the sign of the cross in the hair of the cattle for good fortune during the coming year. In northern Norway, the use of the lighted candle in the Christmas festival probably stems from the old light rituals attached to the return of the sun.
Until recently, Norway had no Santa Claus tradition. Christmas gifts were generally handed out by the head of the family, or placed under the Christmas tree for distribution by one or several of the children. During recent years, however, the popularity of St. Nicholas in England and Santa Claus in the United States has led to the resurrection of an ancient Norse figure in the form of the gift-bringing Julesvenn or Julenisse. In ancient times, he was one of the mythical visitors who, on Christmas Eve, would hide a tuft of lucky barley stalks in the house to be discovered Christmas morning. Now he is called on to bring gifts on Christmas Eve-much to the delight of the younger generation. Incidentally, there may be a connection between the Julesvenn and his lucky barley stalks and the attractive little straw dolls and figures which are so common in Norway during the Christmas season. The use of straw in these articles may go back to old rites and customs in which this particular material played a most important part. In days when the floors of Norwegian homes were made of stamped earth, it was the custom to spread them with fresh straw preparatory to the Christmas celebrations. Lying on the floor throughout the season’s festivities in the mystical candlelight, the straw was believed to acquire certain holy properties of its own. On Christmas Eve-when according to superstition, it was dangerous to sleep alone-the whole family, including servants and hired hands, slept together on the floor in the Christmas straw, well protected against the evil forces which were abroad. On this one night of the year, master and servant were equals. Mter the Christmas season, the straw was gathered up and strewn on the fields as an offering for good harvest in the coming year.
Christmas Eve in Norway belongs to the children. Mter the family is finished with the eating and the opening of the presents, usually placed under the Christmas tree, young and old join hands and move about the decorated tree singing the old familiar Christmas carols, recalling the birth of the Savior. Among the colorful decorations are often found a little marzipan pig, which has an interesting background explaining its particular form. The pig was part and parcel of yuletide ceremonies in the north, long before a Christmas carol was ever heard there. It was one of the symbols representative of the Norse goddess Freia, who ten centuries ago was worshiped in Norway at yuletide.
On “First Christmas Day,” December 25, it’s early rising to be in time for morning church services. The peal of church bells sounds far and wide, and in the countryside long lines of sleds-and nowadays cars-head toward the shrines of worship. In many coastal districts it may involve many miles of rowing, providing the fiord is ice free. Mter church service there is a general shaking of hands and innumerable exchanges of season’s greetings: Gledelig Jul or God Jul. And then it’s home again to tables laden with the best of food and drink that can be had in a country where such things as oranges, nuts, and raisins still are scarce.
While the first two days of Christmas are largely family affairs, December 26 heralds in the season of hospitality. Children’s parties begin in midafternoon, with the grownups taking over in the early evening and carrying through until the next morning. In the cities, clubs and civic organizations hold parties for their members, and business firms and factories for their employees. It’s a great time for visiting, especially in the rural districts. Great pride is taken in the quality of the food placed before guests at a time like this. In some districts, the tradition persists that passers-by-rich or poor, old or young-must visit every farm along their way. In the old days, this practice was carried to ludicrous extremes. Then, the object of the visitor was to be as reticent as possible, holding back and making all sorts of excuses for not being able to come in and taste the yule fare. It was the height of good manners to be so demure that at last the host and hostess were forced to come out and literally carry the guest into the house. Once indoors, etiquette demanded his eating as little as possible and being able to say “no” in innumerable polite ways. On dark afternoons and early evenings, Norwegian youngsters dress up in outlandish costumes and go from door to door in small groups, asking for handouts of goodies, very much like American children do on Halloween. This particular tradition is known in Norway as Julebukk, or “Christmas buck.” To explain why a goat appears at this point, it is necessary to delve far back into the Viking times, when the pagan worship of Thor included his goat. In: those days a person clad in a goat skin and carrying a goat’s head would burst in upon a party of singing and reveling celebrants. During the evening orgy of dancing and singing the “goat” would pretend to die and then return to life. This pagan yule game persisted into the Christian era, when it began to take on a different form. The intruder then appeared dressed as the devil and as of yore his entry was the signal for boisterous revelry. By the end of the Middle Ages the Julebukk custom was forbidden both by the church and state but persisted under cover to emerge in more recent times as a rather tame offshoot of the earlier tradition.
Parties, visits, and general celebration continue for eight days, until New Year’s Day. For a long time this day was of little significance, but eventually New Year’s Day became a festive occasion, and for a rather curious reason. As hired hands and persons employed by the year generally received their year’s pay on the last day of December, the first day with a year’s pay in their pockets became a day of festivityregardless of the day of the week on which it might fall.
The thirteenth day of Christmas, January 6, was until a few generations ago regarded as the “Day of the Three Wise Men.” On that evening it was customary for young students to move through the streets singing ancient carols, led by one of their number carrying a lighted “star.” In Bergen, this practice persisted right up until the middle of the last century.
Christmas-even in Norway-comes to an end usually after fourteen days. True, in the rural districts the tree may be kept until the last needle has dropped-and that may be as late as the end of January.