Town & Gown: Having a Norwegian Christmas


This article was written by Emil Loeken, a graduate assistant in the Jacksonville State University Office of Public Relations  

After being an international student at Jacksonville State University for more than five years, I have learned a great deal about cultural differences.

My journey started in August, 2007 when Mrs. Ena Aguilar, house coordinator, gave me keys to room 107 at the International House.

Subsequent to spending wonderful years among students from many countries including Tanzania and Montenegro, Belarus and Colombia, Iraq and the U.S., I started to really appreciate how we are all different, how our religious beliefs differ, how our cultures are opposite, and how our traditions vary.

I would like to take this opportunity to share how my family and countrymen celebrate the holidays in my native country, Norway.

Interestingly, the Norwegian name for Christmas comes from a pre-Christian Viking drinking festival Jul. During the 10th century, King Haakon moved the heathen custom of consuming Jul (Yule) to December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Little by little, the pagan feast was Christianized. The name Jul is still kept, but the celebration became all about Jesus.

The Norwegian Christmas celebration starts on the first Sunday of Advent. Typically, families light one candle, normally purple in color on a four-armed candleholder, on each Sunday of Advent. The candle will burn for a week and then the next candle will be lit. For each lit candle, it is normal to say a verse of Norwegian Author Inger Hagerup’s Advent-Candle poem. In the poem, the candles symbolize joy, hope, longing, and peace.

A highlight of the Norwegian Christmas takes place on December 13 during Santa Lucia. The festival celebrates the “queen of lights” where children walk in parades led by a young Lucia dressed in a white robe with a crown of lights on her head. Traditionally, the young Lucia carries a basket of saffron buns, handing them out to those watching the parade. Santa Lucia’s origins can be traced to the 4th century martyrdom of Sicilian virgin, Lucia.

The Norwegian “Nisse” is not like his American relative, Santa Claus. In Norway, we have two types of Nisser, “Fjøsnisse” and “Julenissen.”

The Fjøsnisse can be found in barns and stables taking care of the farm animals. The Fjøsnisse often wears clothes of wool and a red knitted hat. The Fjøsnisse is full of pranks, playing tricks on anyone passing by. The Fjøsnisse can become friends with the people living on the farms. However, if he does not get his portion of the porridge (similar to oatmeal) on Christmas Eve, he may move the farmer’s animals around in the barn or braid the horses’ manes and tails. Julenissen is in the process of Americanizing, becoming more or less identical to Santa Claus.

Julenissen is not as shy as Santa Claus, however. He uses the front door to deliver gifts rather than climb down the chimney in the middle of the night.

On December 23, also called “little Christmas eve,” most Norwegian families decorate the Christmas tree. Traditionally, the father in the house would go out in the woods, fighting his way through three feet of snow, chopping down the perfect tree.

Nowadays, however, most families find their trees at the local gas station. After the tree is decorated, the children put a bowl of porridge topped with a tablespoon of butter, sugar, and cinnamon outside their front door to make Julenissen happy. We all want our gifts, don’t we?

In Norway, the main event of the Christmas season takes place on December 24.

My family normally enjoys a long breakfast following some traditional Christmas movies. After watching the Journey to the Christmas Star we go cross-country skiing or ice-skating. Christmas Eve officially starts at 5 p.m. when the Silver-Boys Choir sings on national television. I always look forward to watching the young men perform because I know the delicious food will be served soon.

There are three traditional Christmas dishes: one of lamb, one of pork, and one of fish. My mother serves “pinnekjøtt,” which is a rib of lamb. The lamb is steamed on top of birch twigs, which makes it nice and tasty. With the pinnekjøtt, we eat mashed rutabaga, boiled potatoes, sausages, and other delicious sides.

In Norway, Christmas day and the second and third day of Christmas have become the holiest days of the year. Normally, the days are spent together with the closest family. It has become somewhat unacceptable to contact and interrupt friends and others, so all cell phones are turned off. My family spends the days enjoying outdoor activities, building snow castles or snowball fighting. It is a lot of fun!

The holiday season is celebrated differently around the world. Some do not celebrate it, while others have their own traditions. Whether one celebrates Christmas or not, it is a great occasion to enjoy time with those one loves and cares for.

This year, my fiancée Hayley will get to celebrate Christmas in Norway. She better watch out! Maybe the Fjøsnisse will play his tricks on her.

I hope you all have a happy holiday! Merry Christmas and GOD JUL!

This article originally appeared in the "Town and Gown" of the Jacksonville News.