Monday, December 10, 2012

The World of Oleanna: Juletid (Christmastime) in Norway

Ghost stories and animal sacrifice. Getting completely hammered and sleeping with your farm hands (on the floor). Malicious trolls and toasts to Frey, Odin, and Thor. 

Not exactly what you'd associate with Christmas. But in Norway, these are all part of the rich history of the winter celebration, changed since Oleanna's time in 1905—but not that much.

Kathleen Stokker's excellent book Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land is a treasure trove of information on Juletid through history.
The contemporary Norwegian Christmas represents a rich mixture of ancient heritage and modern impulses, merging elements of pre-Christian solstice celebrations, Viking jól, and early Christian practices with more recent folklore. As ancient rituals lost their original function, new customs arose to fit new social realities. Yet a surprising number of today's yuletide practices have their roots in the distant past. (17)
Was it a celebration held for the dead, who were thought to return to their homes during the long, dark nights of the winter solstice? Was it a "festive conclusion to the autumn slaughter and beer brewing"? Or was it "a solstice celebration like those found in many cultures around the world"?

As with many things, the turn of the century in Norway was a time of transition for Christmas celebrations as well.
Christmas Trees

The Christmas tree was an import from Germany, by way of Denmark, in the early 19th century. Many rural Norwegians resisted the tree, considering it pagan (while probably also believing in nisser and huldrefolk), but the upper and middle classes took to it quite early.

The tradition of the Christmas tree spread to the isolated peasant communities of Western Norway later, likely in Oleanna's parents' generation. The tradition was not commonly found in all parts of Norway until after the turn of the century, and then became the focus of festivities (including the tradition of holding hands and circling around the tree, singing carols on Christmas Eve).

But before the tradition of home trees became widespread, schools held juletrefester (Christmas tree parties), where children received gifts and sang carols. I expect during the short time John, Elisabeth, and Oleanna went to school, they may have participated; their uncle in town in Bergen likely adopted a home tree quite early.

The tree, at home or at school, was a kind of gift tree, adorned with gingerbread figures, apples, and oranges, and "also featured Christmas baskets (julekurv) shaped like cones and hearts to hold hard candies and raisins."

Adding strings of paper Norwegian flags to the tree started in 1905, after the separation from Sweden; I like to think that Oleanna and her family took especial pride in adding their flags to the tree that Christmas.

Christmas Eve
The dark days of winter and the ongoing echoes of the Viking jól made Christmas Eve a time of more apprehension than you might think. 
Beliefs that ghosts and other normally hidden beings returned at Christmas caused many Norwegians to seek comfort in each other's company on Christmas Eve, when they shared a bed of straw on the farmhouse floor. It was these fears that the Christian Christmas sought to soothe and mediate. But even as the real fear subsided, the telling of ghost stories--including the legend of the Midnight Mass of the Dead--remained a favored custom of Christmas... (15) 
The most famous hidden being associated with Christmas is the nisse (plural nisser). "According to long-standing popular belief, a farm's prosperity derived from this elf's hard work. To ensure continuation of good fortune, the farmer had to reward the nisse appropriately at Christmastime by providing him with a generous portion of porridge..." If Oleanna or one of her siblings didn't leave out the porridge, they might be doomed to trouble on the farm in the coming year--so it was always best to share your special Christmas porridge with the nisser, just in case.

With the long, dark night and the feelings of apprehension, fellowship was important. Christmas Eve often featured "flickering candlelight, a comforting cleanliness, and much finer, more abundant food than the family had eaten since the last Christmas." (85)

They would probably eat ribbe (spareribs) or pinnekjøtt (lamb ribs) and perhaps sing carols, newly revised older songs or those new-made in the mid-1800s, including Jeg er sa glad hver julekveld (I am so glad each Christmas Eve). 

Unsurprisingly, as with many Norwegian holidays (including Constitution Day), strongly brewed celebration beer was traditional. In fact, as far back as the Viking days, it was required. The Law of Gulating (devised at the assembly at Gula), called the Gulatingslov,
...required that beer be brewed by each peasant and drunk on Christmas night in honor of Christ and the Virgin Mary while uttering the toast "Til árs ok friðar" (for good harvest and fertility and peace). The formulation "til árs ok friðar" is so intricately bound up with the Old Norse way of thinking that scholars theorize that the Viking jól featured similar toasts to the gods Frey, Odin, and Thor--toasts that the identical, attested ones to Christ and Mary merely replaced. (8)
Nothing like strongly brewed beer to make you forget about ghosts and evil spirits and the deep, cold snow and the long, cold night.

Christmas Day
So, you've got a rockin' hangover. What sounds awesome? Rowing (or walking) to church! Norway in 1905 was a Lutheran country (with pagan underpinnings) and church on Christmas was universal.

But given the unique geography of Norway, and the fact that, just after the Reformation, there were not enough Lutheran ministers to go around, it would be impossible to reach all congregations on December 25. With the "deeply ingrained Norwegian sense of equality", the people demanded "institution of a no less sacred Second Christmas Day (annen juledag). While the necessity that mothered this invention disappeared long ago, Norwegians continue to observe December 26 as a full holiday." (12-13)

So First Christmas Day was spent at church, and then at home; Second Christmas Day was spent visiting with friends. And what goes better with Church (and visiting with friends), than beer?  
"The only permissible activity away from home on forste juledag was the church service...While the idea of attending church seems tranquil enough in our day, in earlier times the journey seldom proceeded without event. Beer and other strong beverages, available in plentiful supply at Christmas, often came along to ward off both the cold weather outside and the damp chill inside the unheated churches." (90)
I expect that, given all the celebration beer consumed, not much work got done between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, the official end of the Christmas season!

Christmas Today
I think Oleanna and her family would probably recognize Christmas in Norway today. Yes, there are nods to modernity, with lots of presents and lots of electric lights.

But they'd also recognize echoes of the Vikings and the Lutheran experience: Christmas trees with straw julebukk and Norwegian flags. Ribbe or pinnekjøtt on Christmas Eve. Setting out porridge for the nisse (who have been conflated, to an extent, with Santa Claus), and lots of joy throughout the whole Juletid, holding back the darkness with the light of fellowship.

So, here's to fellowship, joy, light, and of course, lots of celebration beer (if you're so inclined) to you and yours this holiday season!

Want to know more about the world of Oleanna? Click here for all of the posts that give context to her world--Norway in 1905.


  1. Great post, Julie. My father's side is Norse, so this was an interesting post for me. I've always observed that if you put Absolut in the freezer, it doesn't freeze. I'm thinking that's why they drank so much.

    Norwegians have gone secular:

    1. I've always observed that if you put Absolut in the freezer, it doesn't freeze. I'm thinking that's why they drank so much.

      LOL! You need something to keep you warm during those long, cold, dark nights!

      Where are your Norse folks from?