Image Credit: Hva Skjer i Oslo
I am not sure if you’ve realized this yet, but I freaking LOVE Christmas. In a way that is probably rather obnoxious and involves much Mariah Carey. But seriously, this holiday is like a 40-day event for me, and that’s not just because I have a weird obsession with terrible Hallmark holiday movies, it’s mostly because it’s a very special time of year at home. And I just happen to love home.
My love of Christmas is very much rooted in the traditions I grew up with in Norway: the celebration of advent, holiday crafts and “pepperkakehus” (gingerbread houses), as well as the decadent food and time spent with family and friends. So here’s my guide to (pretty much) everything you need to know about Scandinavian Christmas.
Image Credit: Opplysningskontoret for Brød og Korn
Many Scandinavians prepare for the holidays by celebrating advent. There is more than one version of the advent calendar, or as we call it “julekalender.” The traditional lighting of four candles on a wreath, one for each Sunday leading up to Christmas, is of religious origin and is still common in many homes.
But some time in the 1940s, Norwegians also began to adopt the German tradition of having cardboard calendars with small windows for each day until Christmas. Behind each window is a picture, a piece of chocolate, or another small prize. They are deliciously gaudy, used to cost 10 kroner, and I still make my mom buy me one every year. And note that there are only 24 windows, because Scandinavians celebrate on Christmas Eve.
In modern times it has become popular to create homemade advent calendars, often with a series of small gifts that kids will open every morning. Recently I came across another lovely idea that I am doing with my own kids this year, of creating simpler calendars where you write 24 little encouraging notes and pop them in a jar for the little ones to open and read each morning. (To be clear they also have chocolate calendars and a homemade advent calendar from their tante: we’re pretty into this tradition.)
Image Credit: Viivilla.no
Ok, so this might seem like a weird rule, but the majority of stores, both grocery and retail, are closed on Sundays in Norway. (We also cut off wine and liquor sales at about 3 o’clock on Saturdays so that’s just mildly stressful...) But for Christmas? Oh, we make an exception. Shops stay open the four Sundays of advent to give everyone a little extra time to find the perfect gifts for their loved ones.
It’s like Christmas starts 4 weeks early - everywhere is open! Aaahh!!! (I guess it’s hard to relate to the joy this brings me unless you’ve experienced closed shops on Sundays.) But just trust me it conjures up just the Kos-iest feeling with bright shop windows lighting up the otherwise dark days.
Remember how I said Christmas in Norway was a bit intense? Well, on top of everything else, you are expected to bake literally ALL the christmas cookies!!! “Syv slag,” which translates to seven sorts refers to the Norwegian tradition of preparing and serving no less than seven different types of cookies on Christmas, from smultringer (cakey doughnuts), to krumkaker (a thin waffle cookie rolled to resemble an ice cream cone), to pepperkaker (which is basically a gingerbread cookie, but then again not. The list of ingredients are pretty much identical, the difference lies in the prep method. We heat the sugar, you whip it.)
It may be a lot of work to bake all these cookies, but like most things Christmas, we do it together and THAT is where all the joy comes in.
Image Credit: Sweet Paul Magazine
A “marsipangris” is quite simply put, a pig made of marzipan. So what does that have to do with Christmas you say?
Well on Little Christmas Eve families get together, in some cases to decorate the tree or perhaps for an ice-skating adventure, and when we get home we eat rice porridge (“risengrynsgrøt”) with a blanched almond hidden in the bowl. Whoever finds the almond, providing they don’t need the Heimlich maneuver, wins the pig.
Image Credit: Nidar.no
So maybe I’m spending too much time on food and beverage-related items here but really, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? You may have heard of Gluhwein, the German version of “Gløgg,” which is often served at traditional holiday markets. It’s basically mulled red wine packed full of spices like cinnamon and cloves, but don’t worry we make a non-alcoholic version if that’s your jam too.
On the topic of hangovers, this tradition feels almost like it belongs to Christmases of yore.
But seriously, ‘julebord” refers to the at-once-fabulous-and-wretched tradition of celebrating the holidays by eating dinner and drinking too much with your entire office at some terrible restaurant. And while that may be on hold this year – trust me, we’ll be back. You can’t keep Norwegians away from their “akevitt” and “lutefisk” for long.
Like I said, Norwegians know how to keep a party going, and that is why we celebrate the week between Christmas and New Year too, we call it “romjul.”
And man, oh man, it is my FAVORITE week of the year. If you’re in the office, no one is doing anything useful nor do they expect you to. If you’re at home you are making big decisions about whether to watch the Disney holiday marathon or go skiing. It’s also a time to double down on holiday parties, with more extended family, with friends, with anyone you love really.
It’s almost like we have to push pause after all the excitement leading up to Christmas, and a long year behind us, and really let ourselves kick back and relax.
Which brings me to my last term. We’ve kind of talked about “kos” before. And it may be potato/poh-tah-toh to you, but this is the word I grew up using as opposed to the more familiar “hygge.” (Also, I’m Norwegian, I love potatoes.)
More than anything, “kos” is a feeling. It’s warm and snuggly, and safe and happy, it’s all the things we need right now. And it’s what we aspire to feel during the holidays, whatever that means to us - whether it’s snuggling up with a warm wool blanket, a cup of gløgg, and reading your favorite book, or playing a board game with your nieces and nephews.
I think we can all agree it’s been a pretty rough year guys. So if I can wish one thing for you this year, whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukkah, or nothing at all, it’s that you find time for a bit of kos. You deserve it.