Find out what’s true in children’s songs

Are all the birds coming back? Does a little lamb really have enough wool for Sunday clothes?

fact check: children's songs

Illustration: Marco Vagleiri / NRK


If you’re familiar with Norwegian culture, you may have heard these children’s songs at home, at school, or on children’s TV. But have you ever wondered about the truth of what they claim?

NRK has now done the fact-checking for you. We’ll start by finding out what happens when one uses a children’s song as a recipe.

The Gingerbread Baker’s Song
Claim: There will be gingerbread if one follows the recipe of Baker Harepus from Thorbjørn Egner’s children’s book and radio show world, “Hakkebakkeskogen.”

Here are the Norwegian lyrics:
Når en pepperkakebaker
baker pepperkakekaker,
tar han først en stekegryte
og en kilo margarin
Oppi gryta smelter smøret,
og det neste han må gjøre
er å røre sammen smøret
og en kilo med farin
Og mens smør og sukker skummer
tar han åtte eggeplommer
som han rører rundt i gryta
med en kilo hvetemjøl
Og til slutt i gryta slepper
han en liten teskje pepper
og så rører man omkring
og tømmer deigen på ei fjøl!

And here is the English translation:
When a gingerbread baker
bakes gingerbread,
first he takes a pot
and a pound of margarine
In the pot he melts the butter,
and the next thing he must do
is stir together the butter
and a couple pounds of powdered sugar
And while the butter and sugar bubble
he takes eight egg yolks
and stirs them around in the pot
with a couple pounds of wheat flour
And finally, in the pot, he drops in
a little teaspoon of pepper
and then he stirs it around
and pours the dough onto a board!

fact check: sebastian engh

Photo: Christian Nicolai Bjørke / NRK
Sebastian Engh is head chef at the gourmet restaurant Curtisen in Halden’s Fredriksten fortress.

Fact check: Baker Harepus in the Hakkebakke Forest is a pedagogical genius. This is surely the recipe that most folks have memorized. But is it correct?

We melted butter and put in the sugar, added the egg yolks, and stirred in wheat flour and a little pepper. Afterward, we were left with a dough that was quite sticky and runny.
Forget using a gingerbread form.

The children’s song says nothing about baking temperature or time. In several other gingerbread recipes, 350º Fahrenheit for 10-15 minutes is common, so we’ll go with that.
The result looks like a light-colored cookie.

Sebastian Engh, chef at the gourmet restaurant Curtisen in Halden, Norway, thinks Baker Harepus’ recipe isn’t gingerbread at all.

“It is crunchier, has a different color, and doesn’t have the really spiced taste we are used to. But it is possible to detect that hot taste of the pepper in the far back of the throat. It’s pretty good!”

Bjørn Egner, who is the eldest son of Thorbjørn Egner, the author of the song, told NRK that he agrees that it tastes more like a cookie.

“My dad found out the same thing. The recipe was kitchen- and taste-tested at our house in the 1950s. He didn’t bake them himself, but got a lot of help from Mom,” Egner said.
Note: In the song, the assistant baker’s recipe, which uses a couple pounds of pepper instead of sugar is obviously wrong, something the Fox’s powerful sneeze confirms. We have opted not to test this recipe to avoid wasting food.

Fact: False.

fact check: children's songs

Illustration: Marco Vagleiri / NRK

Rest, Rest, Little Man
Claim: Foxes and mice sleep during the night, and the fox sleeps with its tail under its head.

Here are the Norwegian lyrics:
So ro, lillemann, nå er dagen over
Alle mus i alle land
ligger nå og sover
So og ro og tipp på tå
Sov min vesle pode
Reven sover også nå
med halen under hodet

Here is the English translation:
Rest, rest, little man, now the day is over
All the mice in every land
now lie down to sleep
Sleep and rest and tiptoe
Sleep my little boy
The fox is also sleeping now
with his tail beneath his head

fact check: fox

Photo: Reinhard Krause / Reuters
A sleeping fox does, indeed, use its tail as a pillow.

Fact check: Oh, boy. Here comes a song that is off-kilter from the start. Both mice and foxes are definitively nocturnal animals that don’t lie down to sleep when the day is over.

Moreover, the planet spins such that when it is day one place on the globe, it is night somewhere else. So it is odd to think of all the mice in every country sleeping simultaneously.

But is it true that the fox sleeps with its tail under its head? According to several fox researchers, the children’s song is on dry land in this case.

“It is within reason to say that the fox sleeps with its tail under its head. When the Arctic fox rolls itself together, it lays its head a little bit up on its tail and uses it like a mattress. It looks awfully cozy to lie on that big, bushy tail,” said Eva Fuglei of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

This balled up shape helps the fox retain warmth. The temperature difference between the inside and outside of this ball can be as much as 126 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fact: Partially true

fact check: children's songs

Illustration: Marco Vagleiri / NRK

All the Little Birds
Claim: All the little birds are coming back.

Here are the Norwegian lyrics:
Alle fugler små de er
kommer nå tilbake!
Gjøk og sisik, trost og stær
synger alle dage
Lerka jubler høyt i sky,
ringer våren inn på ny
Frost og snø de måtte fly,
her er sol og glede!

Here is the English translation:
All the birds, so small they are,
are coming back now!
Cuckoos and siskins, thrushes and starlings
sing the whole day long
The lark is singing up in the clouds,
ringing in the spring anew
Frost and snow had to go,
here is sun and gladness!

Fact-check: If a bird is to come back, it must first have fled. Is it true that the five bird species named in this song are migratory birds?

Well … four of them are easy to place.

The cuckoo, lark, starling, and all the thrushes (except the common blackbird) leave during the fall and return from places like Tanzania, western Europe, and the British Isles when it is again spring.

The siskin, on the other hand, has a somewhat different tactic: some head south, some remain in Norway. Nevertheless, we can say that roughly all the little birds, for a time, fly a little ways from their breeding grounds. For species like the Siberian jay, the gray sparrow, and the tree sparrow, it can be as little as a few miles.

Thus, the children’s song is correct in that all little bird species go somewhere and come back. It is, on the other hand, uncertain whether all the little birds themselves do so.

The migratory bird populations are in fact dropping rapidly. Climate change and loss of natural areas are making it more difficult to survive the journey. Many birds also die because of illegal hunting, pollution, and collisions with power lines, wind turbines, or glass high-rise buildings.

The population of long-distance migratory birds dropped by 23% between 1980 and 2010, while the close-range migrants dropped by 7% in the same period.

It would be more correct if we could sing “most of the birds, so small they are, are now returning” instead.

Fact: Partially true

Children's songs fact check

Illustration: Marco Vagleiri / NRK

Baa, Baa, Little Lamb
Claim: Wool from one lamb is enough to make Sunday-best clothing for a woman and a man, along with two pairs of stockings for a little boy.

Here are the Norwegian lyrics:
Bæ, bæ, lille lam, har du noe ull?
Ja, ja, kjære barn,
jeg har kroppen full
Søndagsklær til far
og søndagsklær til mor
Og to par strømper til bittelille bror

Here is the English translation:
Baa, baa, little lamb, have you any wool?
Yes, yes, dear child,
I have a body full
Sunday clothes for father
and Sunday clothes for mother
And two pairs of stockings for tiny little brother

Fact check: Some breeds of sheep produce a lot of wool, others very little. But according to the organization Norsk Sau og Geit (Norwegian Sheep and Goat), a little lamb produces about 2.7 pounds of unwashed wool.

This wool contains some dirt and oil that is washed out at the yarn factory. In addition, yarn producers estimate that about 20% of this weight is lost in the production process.

Thus, a little lamb gives about 2.2 pounds of knitting yarn.

To knit a sweater from Norwegian wool requires between 1 and 2.2 pounds of yarn. This number depends on other factors like the size, the tightness of the knit, and the pattern.

One pair of wool socks for a little child requires about 4 ounces of wool.

Therefore, the wool from one lamb can be enough to knit two lightweight wool sweaters for adults and two pairs of socks for one child. But is this enough for Sunday best? We called in some help from other versions of the children’s song: In the Swedish translation from English, there is enough wool for a “weekend jacket” (resembling a man’s bunad jacket) for father, a Sunday skirt for mother, and two pairs of stockings for little brother. The same is found in the Nynorsk version.

It is possible to knit a Sunday skirt for mother and two pairs of socks for little brother with about 1.3 pounds of yarn. But a wool jacket for father requires much more than the remaining weight.

Thus, one lamb is not enough for Sunday best.

Fact: False.

All translations by Andy Meyer

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Andy Meyer

Andy Meyer is a literature and language teacher with over 15 years of experience in colleges, universities, and independent high schools. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and teaches Norwegian there. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway.