Norway Journal, chapter 8: December’s four hours of daylight
Andrea Nelson and her husband, Jerry, lived in Hamar, Norway, for a year in 1997-1998. During that year Andrea wrote articles bi-weekly for several newspapers in Wisconsin and Minnesota in order to help her readers visualize what it was like to be living there. The following excerpt is from her “Norway Journal” in which she describes what Christmas in Norway is like and especially the preparation days leading up to Christmas.
Days are long and dark now. The last two weeks of December will have fewer than five hours of daylight, and that time between 10:00 and 3:00 is usually light gray rather than bright sunshine.
Temperatures hover around freezing and so moisture often comes down as rain or sleet rather than snow, causing extremely icy conditions. Therefore, all cars have changed wheels for winter to “piggdecker,” (studded tires), and even bicycles have donned their “piggdecker” for winter. Because walking is so dangerous on the ice, and the salting and sanding that we are all so familiar with in the northern states of the U.S. are nearly non-existent in the villages here, people of all ages use their “sparks” (kick-sleds). They act as a sort of “walker” on runners that one uses for balance with one foot on top of a runner and the other kicking the ground to propel the sled forward. They are fantastic for getting around town quickly and safely: for hauling groceries, school books, back packs, or another person on the seat in front of the handlebars. Sparks come in all sizes and we see people from ages of six through the hundreds using them. It’s rather embarrassing to be shuffling along on the ice trying to stay upright and to have a little gray-haired 80-year-old whoosh by on her spark.
Because of the dark winter days the city of Hamar and the surrounding areas have miles and miles of lighted cross-country ski trails. The dark does not keep people inside, and the best prescription against depression is to be outside skiing and sparking and biking under the lights. Homes have many lights left on all night long, and the Norwegians always light candles when guests arrive—a carry-over from the days when there was no electricity and candles were made by hand and therefore very dear and used sparingly. But for a guest arriving in the dark, candles were always lit. It is also truly warming to see rows of electric candles in every window of every home when out on a dark day.
We had many inches of beautiful white snow here, but in the third week of December it all melted. They call such a warm spell “kake line” and blame it on all the baking that is going on right before Christmas, which warms up the air. That is why, they say, years ago they always butchered in November when it was cold and the meat could be safely preserved for Christmas, before the “kake line” hit in December.
Jul is the biggest holiday of the year in Norway, and advertising and preparations began in October. Much is similar to the U.S. with gift buying, special foods, music, and decorating. But they do not decorate the homes until the very last week before Christmas, and many do not decorate the tree until Christmas Eve. Lights on the trees are all white, and trees are decorated simply with straw and hand-made ornaments. White lights gleam in windows and on some trees outside, though the outdoor extravaganzas of colored lights common in the States are non-existent and considered somewhat garish.
Special foods this time of year are “pinnekjøtt” (a salted or smoked rack of lamb), lutefisk, “julepølse” (Christmas sausage), “medistakaker” (spiced finely-ground meat balls), and the many wonderful pastries such as krumkake, fattigmann, sandbakelser, rossettes, lefse, and kransekake. Although fish or lamb are the entrées in some of the western coastal areas on Christmas Eve, here in Eastern Norway, the meal is always “ribbe” (broasted beef ribs), julepølse, medistakaker, sweet-sour red cabbage, potatoes, pastries, and rice-cream pudding with one hidden almond in it, so no matter how full the children are they keep eating the pudding until someone gets the almond, which “earns” them an extra small gift.
Rice-cream pudding is also placed in the barn for the “nisser,” the small creatures who help with and at times interfere with all the Christmas preparations. Families who no longer have a barn place the pudding in the garage or shed, and it always disappears.
One thing that the Norwegians make time for before Christmas is to either attend or perform in concerts. Just in the Hamar area there have been over 100 concerts in the past month. I would guess one out of every four persons either sings in a chorus or plays an instrument in a band, and every musical group presents a concert before Christmas. Many are community groups rather than school-sponsored, and so people from high school age through age 100 can be in the same group. Concerts are often in churches and some churches offer three or four concerts a week. We have gone to church on Sunday mornings to find 20 people or fewer at a service in a huge church but find churches jam-packed for concerts. The children’s choirs are delightful to hear as they sing out so clearly, and the adults seem to love to perform when in a group, which is interesting to see considering the inhibitions that one usually associates with the Norwegian personality. As one old gentleman said, “without all the concerts, we could not get into the Christmas spirit.”
Although people here seem every bit as busy with their holiday preparations as we do in the States, once Christmas arrives they stop everything. Hotels are closed the entire time between Christmas and New Year’s. Many businesses and all stores are closed for two to three days after Christmas, including all grocery stores. We were warned to stock up on food ahead of time. And the celebrating continues on through the entire week up to and through New Year’s Day with parties amongst family and friends. It is definitely a time to “slapp av,” to kick back and enjoy.
Andrea Cowles Nelson is a graduate of Luther College. She spent her career as a German teacher but has always been in love with all things Norwegian, which is part of her heritage. She and her husband, Jerry, now live in Mound, Minnesota. They have traveled to Norway many times but credit the year they had the privilege of living there with being one of the highlights of their 53 years together.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.