Christmas is a Christian holiday that is celebrated by billions of people around the world. While hundreds of countries celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas, each country has it’s own customs, symbols, typical food, traditions, and songs, related to the holiday. Did you know that the “yule log” came from Norway? Or that the 30+ feet tall spruce Christmas trees in Washington DC, Trafalgar Square, London, and Edinburgh, Scotland are gifts from Norway? Christmas in Norway (“Julaften”) is a beautiful time of year, when trees are decorated with candles (or white lights), strings of Norwegian flags, woven heart decorations and bundled straw ornaments. A Christmas elf- Julenissen- brings presents to the children, and families and friends hold hands singing Norwegian Christmas carols around the Christmas tree before opening the gifts. Let’s learn more about how julaften is celebrated in Norway, and make an easy Norwegian Christmas craft.
Before starting, have your children locate Norway on a map. Point out how far north it is located, and which countries are nearby. Three countries are included in the cultural region of Scandinavia: Norway and Sweden sharing a peninsula, and the kingdom of Denmark located just south. Norway is the most northern country in Europe- can you see which part of Norway lies in the Arctic Circle? There are parts of Norway that have 24 hours of darkness in the winter- in a country that is this far north it is easy to understand why the winter solstice (and the coming of spring) would be celebrated!
• Origin of the Yule Log: Christmas wasn’t celebrated in Norway until about 1000 or 1100, when Christianity first came to the area. Before this people celebrated jul (pronounced yule) in the middle of winter. It was a celebration of the harvest gone and a way of looking forward to the spring. Yule came from the Norse word hweol (meaning “wheel”) to celebrate the return of the sun at winter solstice. These logs are lighted during the darkest winter months to bring good luck in the New Year.
• Julenissen (YU-le-ni-sen): Julenissen is one of the most popular figures of Julaften (Christmas). In the evening of December 24th, Christmas Eve, Julenissen arrives with gifts for the children. Jule means Christmas and nisse is an elf-spirit dating to pre-Christian days. Most children believe that Julenissen is a mix of a nisse and Santa Claus: he brings gifts to good children from a sack on his back, and has a long, white beard, and a red cap. Unlike Santa Claus who lives in the North Pole, Julenissen normally works on the farm as a guardian spirit to the animals, making sure that the animals have enough food, and are kept warm. Norwegian farming families traditionally would leave a Christmas bowl of rice porridge to thank him for his services throughout the year- and he has been known to play tricks on the children if they forget to leave him the porridge! When he comes on Christmas Eve he asks “Er det Noen snille barn her?” which means “Are there any good children here?” If the children have been good, they will receive presents from him such as toys, books, games, sleds, skates, or warm clothing.
• Norwegian Christmas Decorations: In Norway, many families decorate their homes for Christmas. Norwegians might hang a julenek: (pronounced YUH-le-neck), a stalk of oats tied to a branch or pole on Christmas Eve as a symbol of hope for good farming, and now in cities as a symbol of Christmas.
It is considered good luck if the birds eat from the julenek. On December 23, the day Norwegians call Lille Julaften or “Little Christmas Eve” (since it is the day before Christmas Eve), most families put up a Christmas tree lit up with candles or white lights, and decorated with strings of Norwegian flags. Sometimes families do this while the children are sleeping as a surprise for them. Some families gather branches, pinecones, and moss to place in baskets around their home, and many also make their own decorations. It is a tradition for Norwegian children to make these colorful paper, woven hearts filled with candies to hang on their trees (see below for instructions).
• Norwegian Christmas Foods: Julaften (Christmas Eve) on December 24th, a lot of people go to church before they gather with their families around the table for a nice Christmas Eve dinner. Common foods include lutefisk (LOO-te-fisk, codfish soaked in lye), julekake (YUH-le-kah-ke, sweet bread with raisins), lefse (flat sweetened bread eaten with butter and sugar), and cookies. For Christmas Eve meal, it is common to eat pork with boiled potatoes, cauliflower, and sweet and sour cabbage. There is special rice porridge (risengrynsgrøt) served with whipped cream and berry sauce, and with a magic almond inside (and a prize for the person who finds it), gingerbread and a spicy punch called gløgg with raisins and chopped almonds. The following day there is another large meal that can last for hours.
Here is a simple Norwegian craft to make for your Christmas tree. Our exchange student from Norway told us that all Norwegian children make this at school during Christmas time. All you need are 2 different colored pieces of construction paper, and a pair of scissors. This craft is a little difficult for the littler kids, I would recommend it for ages 7 and older.
Fold the papers in half with the fold at the bottom (an easier version is to not fold the paper, and simply cut the papers in this form. This will create a flat project instead of a paper “basket” that can hold things). Then cut the corners to be rounded, and cut the slits on the folded side as shown. Weave the strips of one color into the other color by opening and closing the strips to allow the other color to pass through and then around.
When you are finished, fill with goodies or hang them on your tree as a decoration.
God jul! (goo-yul) Merry Christmas!
Do you know any other traditions of Christmas in Norway? Share them in the comments!