A Norwegian Christmas, 1945

Memories of a post-war Jul north of the Arctic Circle

Photo: Dean Jarvey / Flickr Church steeple in winter. When all the bells in Norway ring together, the holiday spirit is everywhere.

Photo: Dean Jarvey / Flickr
Church steeple in winter. When all the bells in Norway ring together, the holiday spirit is everywhere.

Mari-Ann Kind Jackson
Seattle, Wash.

It is three o’clock in the afternoon December 24, 1945. Christmas Eve in Borkenes, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Norway is at peace; the war is over.

I am all dressed up and so is my brother, Pål, my mother and father, as well as my farmor. The house has been cleaned from the cellar to the second floor. It smells of grønnsåpe and fresh lacquer on the staircase in the entry. In the kitchen the svineribbe in the oven gives off an enticing aroma, and the living room is filled with the fragrance of the Christmas tree, all aglow with the lights. The day before, on “little Christmas Eve,” my uncle brought the perfect noble fir freshly cut on my grandparents’ farm, and the whole family decorated the tree while singing Christmas songs along with the radio. The same radio that was hidden in the root cellar, illegally, during the five years of WWII.

Mother has made hot chocolate to go with the plate of cookies on the coffee table, and in the dining room, the bowl filled with oranges and gravenstein apples gives off a special “Christmas smell.”

“Time to put on the coats, hats, scarves, boots and mittens” says mother. “We have to start walking to the church so we will be there in time for the Barnegudstjeneste, and don’t forget the candles.” We walk in deep snow to the white wooden church at the top of the hill. It is already dark, and the Advent star shines brightly in the window of every home along the road. In the cemetery surrounding the church, families are gathered to place candles and lantern on the graves of their relatives buried there. We put candles on the graves of our grandfather and great grandparents. Then the heavy church doors open to reveal a huge Christmas tree with real candles, Norwegian flags in long strands from the star at the top to the bottom of the tree. The flags are especially beautiful and appreciated after being illegal to display for the full five years Norway was occupied.

We shed our coats because the tall, black parlor stoves on each side of the nave have been well fed with wood. The pipe organ intones the familiar hymns and Christmas carols, and we all sing with loud, happy voices. The minister knows not to make too long of a sermon; he has children of his own, so knows how antsy we all are to get home for dinner and package opening.

The service ends with the church bells ringing, and we go out in the cold, dark winter afternoon where we are met with the sight of the hundreds of candles twinkling at the base of the gravestones surrounding the church. Our spirits are lifted with every clang of the bells and the wishes of “God Jul” from the families around us, hand in hand walking each to their homes. The snow comes down softly, landing on our cheeks, snow flakes sit momentarily on our eyelashes and cover my father’s brows. All the while the church bells ring—they ring for a whole hour.

At home, the others walk inside to the warmth, but I stand on the snow-covered porch alone, looking at the Advent stars in the village homes, listening to the church bells. With every cell in my body feeling sure I can hear every bell from every church in the whole country, from Kirkenes to Lindesnes. I am part of the whole, part of the Christmas peace that I am sure every single person in all of Norway feels as they also hear their church bells ringing in Christmas.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Mari-Ann Kind Jackson

Mari-Ann Kind Jackson is an active member of the National Nordic Museum in Seattle and the Norwegian community in Ballard.