Friday, December 16, 2011

Norwegian Christmas Traditions

Norway is totally transformed at Christmastime.  Nearly every house has candles or white lights in the windows (I've seen very few colored Christmas lights).  Here in Bergen, they set up "The World's Largest Gingerbread Village" and put huge Christmas trees up all around town, including IN the lake at the center of the city:

Juletre in Lille Lungegårdsvann, Downtown Bergen
The grocery stores are transformed, too.  Starting in November, regular foods (milk, flour, etc.) appear in new Christmas packaging, and lots of special Christmas foods show up on the shelves.  Here are a few examples:

Julebrus - Christmas Soda

Julepølse - Christmas Sausage

Juleøl - Christmas Beer

Oscar discovered another important Christmas product at school a couple weeks ago.  It was a snowy day and they took the kids up into the mountain just behind the school and made a bonfire.  They ate lunch around the fire and drank something called "gløgg."  It's spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom and it's served warm.  Oscar's bonkers about it.

Gingerbread (pepperkaker) is huge around here at Christmastime, both for eating and for decorating (making ornaments, gingerbread houses, etc.).  Jonah and Oscar have both spent whole days at school doing nearly nothing but baking gingerbread cookies.  It's common here, even in the older grades, for regular academic lessons to come nearly to a halt during December to allow the children to instead make and do things for Christmas.  Jonah, for example, visited the gingerbread village with his class yesterday.  Today they're all going ice skating.

Oscar had something called "Nissefest" (Elf Fest) at school yesterday.  When his teacher told me  about it she said, "So if he has a Santa costume or a little red Santa hat he can wear those, otherwise just dress him in red clothes."  Since (of course) he doesn't have a Santa costume, I sent him in a red sweater and thought I'd done a great job.  But when I brought him to school I saw I'd made a huge mistake.  Nearly every single child was dressed in an elaborate elf costume (some complete with fake freckles).  I didn't have my camera with me, but I found a photo of another preschool's Nissefest online to give you an idea:

A preschool Nissefest

One very important Christmas tradition in Norway is "going around the Christmas tree."  Everyone holds hands and dances around the Christmas tree while singing Christmas songs or carols.  Oscar did it at school yesterday, Jonah will do it with his class as well, and people all over Norway will do at their own Christmas celebrations. 

Jonah told me that at school he learned that here in Norway Santa brings the kids their presents after dinner on Christmas Eve, while the kids are still awake (!).  He comes in the front door and asks, "Are there any good children here?"  This was very surprising news for me, but I asked around, and apparently it's true.  Sometimes, though, Santa's in such a hurry that he only has time to leave the presents outside the front door and ring the doorbell.  I'm interested to see what will happen at our house...

I've also been told that in the days leading up to Christmas I should be prepared for carolers who might come to the house dressed in costumes and expecting candy.  It's something like America's Halloween.  I find this really fascinating.

But the tradition I'm most excited about involves Norwegian rice porridge (which I think is delicious, by the way).  Apparently, all of Norway eats risgrøtt (rice porridge) on Christmas Eve day.  I'll make it, too.  It's eaten commonly throughout the year--served with sugar, cinnamon, and a dollop of butter--but the difference on Christmas Eve is that a single peeled almond is added to the pot.  Whoever finds the almond in their dish wins a marzipan pig:

Here, like in the US, people do a lot of baking at Christmastime.  Unfortunately, this is only exacerbating the already crippling NORWEGIAN BUTTER CRISIS.  Maybe you've heard about it.  If not, you can read about it here.  We use a lot of butter in our house, so this has been pretty rough on us.  Luckily, after two weeks of searching, Davin found a store on Tuesday that had some Belgian butter and was able to stock up.

In other news, we got a lot of snow here recently, but it's almost completely melted by now (and the weather is back to the usual--lots of rain).  But the cold weather allowed me learn about another Norwegian custom:  leaving babies outside in their strollers to nap--even in the winter!  I went to pick Oscar up one day and found a baby (about one year old) crying in his stroller just outside one of the doors to the school.  He was all alone.  I thought he must have fallen asleep while his group was out playing and had been forgotten.  I quickly wheeled him inside, thinking the staff would be mortified when they realized he'd been left out, but they only said, "Oh, did he wake up?"  It turns out they consider it more healthful to have the children sleep in the fresh air rather than indoors passing viruses to one another.  I looked into Norwegian pneumonia rates, and they're no higher than the rates in other developed countries, so probably it's a fine way of doing things, but it still feels pretty shocking to me.

The snow was exciting, though.  It made the mountains near our house look really beautiful:


And the kids were SUPER excited about sledding.  There were maybe four snowy days in a row, and every day of it, I'd drop Oscar off at school and he'd sled there until lunchtime.  After lunch he'd go back out and sled again until I picked him up.  The hill in the schoolyard was always crowded with 3-5 year olds on sleds.  Each day right after school, Jonah, Oscar, and Sergie would sled together near the house until dark, then come in and drink hot chocolate or gløgg.

This is the type of sled usually used here.  Oscar's using his to catch hail,
which he explained will definitely be clean enough to eat.

Wheeeeeeee!  (Jonah, Oscar, and Sergio)

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