A peaceful Norwegian jul—with pizza

Photo courtesy of Michael Kleiner
Ingrid dressed up for the julenisse program in Rauland in 1990.

Excerpt from Michael Kleiner’s Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway. His parents were in Oslo for seven months as his father helped to set up a community mental health program at Ullevål Hospital. Debbie was an American who settled in Norway and lived with a colleague of his father’s. Kleiner visited with a friend, Seth. The book has been a “Great book to give and get” in The Norwegian American’s gift guide. For more info about Kleiner and the book, see www.beyondthecold.com.

19 December 1990
We were to leave for Oslo later in the morning. Debbie was rushing out of the house with (two-year-old) Ingrid. Debbie pleaded, “You must come to the day care center for the Christmas program before you leave and see Ingrid.”

The prospect of experiencing a children’s Christmas in a small village in Norway was hard to pass up.

After loading up the car, we took pictures of my parents, Seth, Torbjørn, and myself in front of the house. It was snowing! Hooray! The first snowfall of the trip.

Torbjørn drove to the day care center, located a short distance up a road from the “center” of town. Torbjørn explained that more than Santa Claus, the central figures for Norwegian children are julenisser (pronounced Yula neesa), Christmas elves. There are good and bad elves. The good elves are dressed in red. Fairytale legends claim that nisser descended from trolls, who moved from living underground to becoming “house gods” in Norwegian homes. They took care of the cattle. The Norwegians fed the nisser well to keep them happy. Porridge was placed in the barn every Christmas Eve (Trolls and their Relatives, by Jan Bergh Eriksen, Dreyer Bok, Aase Grafiske, Stavanger, Norway).

We walked into the day care center and there were all these children dressed in red, wearing what looked like red crepe paper hats tied at the top in a cone shape. The beautiful children, mostly blonde, sat at tables eating porridge, drinking juice, and listening to the story of the julenisser. Most of the parents and teachers also wore some red.

Ingrid was shy and tried to avoid our looks and the camera. Everybody then went into another room to sing, listen to music, and dance around the Christmas tree. One young boy, who we were told would be appearing on national television later in the week, sang a solo. One young girl in the audience crouched for a long time with a blown-up balloon in her mouth. The British man who had visited with us the night before played the flute and performed magic and a puppet show for the intensively attentive children.

Soon, Christmas in Rauland was over for us; it was time for us to say our goodbyes and head back to Oslo…

21 December 1990
It was early to rise again for the ride to Bergen. I had wanted to take this trip because it has always been advertised as one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful train ride in the world. It is worth doing both in the winter and summer. I was also interested in seeing Bergen again… My parents reported to me before I came that they had located Morris Gardner, an American we had met during our year in Norway, and my fellow potato chip aficionado. He was now divorced, but all the Gardners lived in Bergen. Rachel, the oldest daughter, I was told remembered me. How much she could remember was debatable considering she was four years old at the time. The younger daughter, Rebekka, was about to be born when we left Norway in 1970. We could look forward to seeing the Gardners again…

Finally, the train pulled into Bergen. We disembarked and walked down the platform. It was a small station. Somewhere near the end of the platform, we recognized Morris. With him was an attractive blonde woman. This was Rebekka.

“How are you for walking? I don’t have a car,” Morris said. The walk gave us an excellent chance to look at the city. How different Bergen is from Oslo. This is not a city of skyscrapers dotting the skyline. The second largest city in Norway is on the west coast and therefore closer to the rest of Europe. Bergen was founded by Olav Kyrre in 1070. It was an important port city in the Hanseatic League in the 16th century, a trading collaboration of European countries. It was also the capital of Norway at one time. They speak a dialect of Norwegian and there has always been a rivalry between Oslo and Bergen about who are really Norwegian. Bergen has maintained the old historical look in some of the buildings, stores, and homes around the sentrum. We walked along some cobblestone roads past old churches, small stores, and old buildings. If you looked left down alleyways and streets you could see the harbor…

Morris was well-prepared and well-stocked for my arrival. He had bought six different varieties of potet gull (potato chips). It wasn’t long before we were all grabbing at the bags—plain, paprika/barbecue, dill, sour cream, and onion (new from America!). Rebekka had also followed in the family tradition.

Eventually, Liv and Rachel joined us and we all walked to Peppe’s Pizza. We pigged out on pizza with shrimp, fish, meat, veggies, etc. Pizza didn’t exist in Norway 20 years before. Now, there were Peppe’s locations all over the country. The pizzas were huge and came in a rectangular shape rather than circular. They also cost about $20 each.

After returning to Morris’s condo, Seth and I left with Liv, Rachel, and Rebekka. My parents were staying at Morris’s and we were staying at Liv’s house. The four of us walked downhill along some cobblestone streets to a bus stop carrying the luggage. They lived on the outskirts of the city in Sandviken…

22 December 1990
The evening was pleasant and special… We enjoyed a good dinner. Liv was quite active in politics in the city and planned to run for the town council. Seth was quite impressed by her commitment.

We retired to the living room, which had a decorated Christmas tree. We never expected what happened next. Liv had bought gifts for each one of us! I received a book, Trolls and their Relatives, which had been translated into English. Seth received an audio cassette of Jan Garbarek… The moment was quite overwhelming for us. In retrospect, maybe more so now. If any of our Norwegian friends fit the “stereotype” of the reserved, quiet Norwegians, it was Liv and her daughters. Underneath there was still the sociability, generosity, and graciousness. It was seen in Liv hosting Seth and me at her house 20 years after I had seen her and then giving us gifts. She would answer my later Norwegian letters, sending them back with corrections. So much for the so-called typical Norwegian, whatever that means…

24 December 1990

Christmas in Norway was upon us. Ragnhild Dalgard warned us that everything closes from 1:00 p.m. Christmas Eve through December 26. Everything meant everything: stores, restaurants, museums… It meant that any shopping for souvenirs or food would have to be squeezed into the early part of Monday the 24th.

I had succeeded in discovering some of the Christmas food of Norway. A colleague of mine had read an article in a magazine that said there are seven different kinds of cake served on Christmas in Norway. My assignment was to bring the seven back. Our Norwegian friends told me the tradition of the seven “kaker” (cookies) wasn’t as common as in the past. In the bakeries, however, I did notice the popular pyramid ringed cake with the finishing touch of a small Norwegian flag on top (the flag was not edible). Most, if not all these cakes, were sugar coated.

Another concern was that the public transit would be reduced for the holidays. We had to be sure to get the revised schedule. The holiday schedule was every 15 to 20 minutes instead of every 10. Quite a setback, when holiday schedules in Philadelphia might be every hour or two!

…We spent a quiet evening in the apartment as Christmas descended on Norway….

25 December 1990
…We found out Peppe’s Pizza was open… Afterwards, we went home and watched Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on television.

It had been interesting to see the city so peaceful and silent and so many stores and restaurants closed.

This article appeared in the Dec. 16, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.