Christmas in Norway (Northern Europe)
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
A Brief History
Christianity was brought to Norway by King Olaf I of Norway. His life before and after conversion are fascinating. He was converted by an Anglo-Saxon, thought to be St. Lide who lived on an island off the coast of Great Britain. Some years after his conversion, he returned to his homeland to reclaim his throne from the man who had killed his father, King of Viken, grandson of Harald Fairhair, first king of Norway.
King Olaf was a man of war and of his times, and as such, sought to destroy the paganism in his homeland by force. He converted his countrymen by the sword (and ax). Of course, many who complied only did so in word, for true conversion takes time and consideration. His son, King Olaf II, went on to continue the ‘conversion’ process and is credited with Christianizing Norway.
Thus, Norway has historically been a Christian country, with a majority belonging to the Church of Norway. Consequently, Juletid (Christmas time) or just Jul, is an important celebration of traditions and family. Jul is really an eight week celebration counting from Advent to Epiphany.
Despite the long and joyous celebration of Christmas, very few Norwegians actually attend church or consider themselves religious at all. Nativity scenes are not likely to be found in any public venue. Also, Norwegians do not decorate with colorful light, only white lights. Norway, sitting on the northernmost tip of Europe, has the longest and darkest winters in Europe. Hence, lights are an integral part of their winter celebration.
A very important part of the Christmas celebration for Norwegians is St. Lucia Day. St. Lucia Day, which is celebrated on December 13th, is a festival celebrating the “queen of lights.” St. Lucia was an early Christian martyr, who is believed to be a victim of the Great Persecution under Diocletian. St. Lucia, or St. Lucy, is venerated in Norway, Sweden and Swedish-speaking areas of Finland. Until the middle of the 18th century, St. Lucia Day coincided with the longest night of the winter-- Winter Solstice.
After the Reformation, St. Lucia was all but forgotten. However, after WWII Norway re-adopted St Lucia Day, largely because of all the immigrating Swedes. ‘Lucia’ has reclaimed its former Latin meaning of ‘light’ and now Saint Lucia day is a parade of light during the darkest time of the year.
The celebration is observed in schools and community organizations all over the country. Children march in procession, dressed in white with a red sash and a wreath on their head-- today electric lights are used instead of real candles. A child is chosen to lead the procession (usually a blonde girl), who represents St. Lucia. Traditionally, the procession would be made up only of girls, but now boys may join in dressed as julnissen (the julnisse is a Norwegian Christmas elf). The children sing the Saint Lucia song while handing out lussekatter (Lucia buns).
Christians in Norway celebrate Advent beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas day. Traditionally, each Sunday when a candle is lit, the family sings the Advent Song. Purple candles are most common, though white candles are also used. Purple is also used to highlight the house with decorations. Many Norwegian Christians like to number the candles. This can be done by stencils or the use of press on holiday numbers.
A relatively recent addition to the Norwegian Christmas celebration is the Advent calendar. Advent calendars are usually wall hangings with numbered pockets. Each pocket has treats, toys or special messages tucked inside. An Advent calendar can even be a string of pepperkaker (gingerbread), each cookie with the number of the day to be eaten.
A traditional Advent calendar is made with an orange and cloves. Twenty-four cloves are spiked into the orange, which produces a yummy Christmas-y smell. Each day a clove is removed, and when the last one is removed, the next day is Christmas! These types of Advent calendars are popular in Norway, because they are rustic and can be placed on table wreaths, or Christmas platters.
The dominant Norwegian Christmas season icon is the evergreen tree. Every town square and every mall has one. It is usually decorated with tinsel, homemade ornaments, Norwegian flags and candles (usually electric, though occasionally real). The evergreen is usually a pine or spruce, and is traditionally not put up until December 23rd, Little Christmas Eve. A famous Christmas tradition in Norway is the big Christmas tree that Norway sends to the UK each year. The tree stands in Trafalgar Square and is sent to thank the UK for their help during WWII. Hundreds of people come to see the lighting of this tree.
Norwegians enjoy holding hands around the Christmas tree and singing classic Christmas carols as they circle. If there are too many people for one circle, a circle will be formed outside of this one, and they sing and dance in the opposite direction.
On Christmas Eve, families gather for a festive meal that includes pickled herring salad and roast duck, goose, or pork loin. Children will usually open their presents on Christmas Eve as well. Gløgg, a spiced, mulled wine is also a common part of the day’s celebration. "Wassail" comes from the Old Norse "ves heill" — to be of good health. This evolved into the tradition of visiting neighbors on Christmas Eve and drinking to their health.
Christmas day is a time to visit family and friends. Churches have services and children play with their new toys or go outside in the snow. For dinner, extended family comes together for a big Christmas feast. A typical Norwegian Christmas dinner may include Pinnekjøtt (salted and dried lamb ribs), ribbe (roasted pork belly), lutefisk (dried fish that is soaked in lye and water before baking), Christmas ham, medisterkaker (fried minced pork and flour patties), Rødkål (sweet and sour red cabbage) and småkaker (or ‘seven sorts’ of cookies). Tradition dictates that seven different kinds of Christmas biscuits and/or cookies should feature on the table at Christmas, and that all should be home-baked, although today’s busy families often make do with the ready-made variety. The pepperkake (gingerbreadman) is arguably the most popular of them.
Christmas Day officially marks the first day of Christmas. Following are 20 days of juletid celebrations. Although it is a dying tradition, after church on Christmas day, Julebukk (or caroling) groups go door to door singing in exchange for goodies.
'God Jul' means Merry Christmas in Norwegian.
Although about 87% of Norwegians claim to be Christian, only about 5-10% attend church regularly. The Church of Norway, which is Lutheran, emphasizes missions work, and Norway is one of the top missionary sending countries in the world. Pray for church plants and spiritual awakening as the population is increasingly secular and many of those who are members have no conviction to attend or be involved in church life.