Dreaming of a Norwegian Christmas

Photo: Tine.no The marsipangris (marzipan pig) is an important part of certain Norwegian Christmas tradtitions.

Photo: Tine.no
The marsipangris (marzipan pig) is an important part of certain Norwegian Christmas tratitions.

Christmas in Norway includes time with family, fun traditions and, of course, delicious food and drink!

Sunny Gandara
Arctic Grub

As a young kid growing up in Norway, I always found the best thing about Christmas was the anticipation and the days leading up to the actual holiday. Hence, my favorite time is what Norwegians observe and call “advent” and “førjulstid.” Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus Domini, which means “the coming of the Lord.”  Ever since the time post-WWII, Norwegians have marked the four Sundays before Christmas Eve with a special advent “Stake” with four candles; one candle for each Sunday. The stake is put up in people’s homes, schools, kindergartens and shops around the country. Children receive advent calendars, consisting of little compartments filled with chocolates or toys that are dated for each day of December. As a child I remember the thrill of looking forward to each morning so I could open a new slot for that corresponding day, brimming with excitement of what I would find inside.

The advent time is otherwise spent cleaning and decorating the house, shopping for Christmas presents, picking up the Christmas tree and baking the traditional “Seven Kinds of Cookies.”  People attend “julebord” (literally “Christmas table”) which are either private or work related parties, displaying a smørgåsbord filled with all the typical Norwegian Christmas foods, and perhaps even more important: lots of beer, aquavit and other alcoholic drinks. Christmas concerts, theater plays or a special Christmas market are also activities people participate in during this period. This is a festive period where the everyday pace slows down a bit, people allow themselves to party and let loose and this time also serves as a reflection of the year that has passed. The Norwegian Christmas celebration is based on Christian traditions, with contributions of Norse mid-winter celebrations.

In the old days, Christmas was the only time people allowed themselves a little extra luxury in ways of food and when it was possible to get access to exotic things like figs, nuts and dates. One food item that is always associated with the holiday in Norway is marzipan, a confection consisting of mostly ground-up nuts and sugar. Enormous amounts of marzipan are sold before Christmas; it is estimated that around 40 million pieces of marzipan candies are devoured during the holiday – quite impressive considering there are only 5 million Norwegians! Cakes, candies and chocolates are filled with marzipan and while today it may not be viewed as such a luxury, it still makes for a traditional delicacy and belongs in my tummy along with gingerbread cookies, gløgg, which is a spiced, mulled wine related to the German “gluhwein,” and julemenn (Christmas cookies shaped as “men” that are painted with edible colors).  Norwegians celebrate “little Christmas Eve” on December 23rd – and this is typically when Norwegians pick up and decorate their Christmas tree, make gingerbread houses and many make “risengrynsgrøt,” a creamy rice porridge topped with cinnamon and sugar and a dollop of butter. An almond is hidden in someone’s bowl of porridge, and the person who finds an almond in their porridge wins a marzipan “pig” as a prize. A bowl of risengrynsgrøt is then placed outside for Santa Claus to eat during the night to make him happy and reassure he will deliver presents to all the children the next evening.  In Norway, Christmas Eve is the big celebration where people attend mass at church, enjoy our very large meal and hand out presents. The celebration doesn’t end on this day. We observe the time between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, labeled “romjul,” where many or most people are still off work, and we continue eating, drinking, partying and enjoying the company of family and friends.

Who wants to spend next Christmas in Norway?!

I’ve included an assortment of recipes you can try out in this advent time to re-create a Norwegian inspired pre-Christmas celebration. Have fun with your family traditions, reflect upon your heritage and enjoy every moment of this very special time of year!

Chocolate Covered, Marzipan Stuffed Dates
Marsipanfylte Dadler Med Sjokoladetrekk

20 large dates (free of pits)
100 grams (3.5 oz) pistachio marzipan*
150 grams (5.5 oz) dark chocolate

Cut a small slice along the side of the dates. Fill the gap where the pit was with a small dot of marzipan.  Fill until the dates turn smooth. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler on the stove. Dip the dates one by one in the chocolate and let them cool on a sheet covered with parchment paper.  Keep cool until ready to enjoy. Makes about 20 pieces.
*recipe for Pistachio Marzipan to follow

Pistachio Marzipan

About 1 cup (7 – 8 oz) pistachio nuts without their shells
About 1 cup (7 – 8 oz) toasted whole almonds
About 2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 egg white

Add the pistachio and almonds in a food processor or blender and grind until fine meal. Add the confectioners sugar, the slowly add the egg white while the machine is still running. The mixture will turn into a dough quickly.  Remove from food processor, shape into a ball, wrap in plastic and preserve in fridge until ready to use.  Alternatively you can roll the dough into small bowls and cover them with additional chopped up pistachio nuts and confectioners sugar for a treat on its own.

Photo: Tine.no Pepperkaker (gingerbread cookies) are the definitive Norwegian Christmas cookie tradition.

Photo: Tine.no
Pepperkaker (gingerbread cookies) are the definitive Norwegian Christmas cookie tradition.

Large Gingerbread Cookies
Store Pepperkaker

1 cup light syrup
¾ cup dark brown sugar
2.6 oz (75 g) margarine or butter, room temperature
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cloves
1 egg
½ cup kefir or buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda (or 2 tsp baking powder)
1 tsp hornsalt (substitute for baking soda if you can’t find this very typical Norwegian baking powder)
About 4 cups all purpose flour

In a small sauce pan, combine the syrup and brown sugar and cook over medium heat until melted. Remove from heat. In a small bowl, combine the margarine/butter and add the spices. Pour the syrup mixture over and mix well. In a separate bowl whisk the egg and kefir. Combine with the syrup mixture. Let sit in fridge until the batter is cold. Combine the baking soda/baking powder with the hornsalt in some of the flour. Add to the syrup mix. Add the rest of the batter in batches until you get a smooth dough. Wrap in plastic and leave in fridge over night. When ready to bake, remove dough from fridge and let sit in room temperature for an hour or two. Shape the dough into big round buns and pat them down so they turn into round circles about 2 ½ inches (6 cm) in diameter. Place them onto cooking trays that have been coated with cooking spray. Bake the cookies in the middle of the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200C) for about 10 minutes. The cookies will last about 1 month in airtight containers. To keep them moist and at the right consistency, place a slice of fresh bread in with the cookies, and exchange it when it becomes dry.

Sunny Gandara is the voice of ArcticGrub.com. Visit her blog and Facebook page (facebook.com/ForkAndGlass) where she regularly posts about Norwegian food, drink and traditions!

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 20, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.