It’s Christmastime in Bergen!
From gingerbread to lights to music, Norway’s second city fills yuletide with wonder
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
No one has ever said that I’m not lucky—and what could be more fortunate than the opportunity to kick off the yuletide season in Bergen? As I write this, I’m sitting on an SAS flight bound for Chicago, looking back on my last ten days spent in Norway’s second city and surroundings, where I was traveling with a group of Seattle musicians on Christmas concert tour with the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association. Together we got to experience the magic of a Norwegian holiday season at its best.
No, you can’t escape it: For about five years now, Black Friday has taken hold all over Norway, not the least in Bergen. While virtually no one knows the origins of it (the Norwegians don’t even bother to translate it), everyone likes a good bargain—and who can blame them?
The phrase Black Friday is believed to have originated in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, where it was first used to describe the heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic the day after Thanksgiving when shoppers were out in full force. The phrase became more widespread, with the popular explanation that this day was a milestone for retailers going from being “in the red” to being “in the black.”
In Bergen, signs were out everywhere, advertising markdowns: at bookstores, clothing stores, electronic stores, and more. For some, the entire week was “black,” and most retailers extended their sales through the “Black Weekend,” to be followed online by “Cyber Monday,” where savings could go up to 50 percent.
As an American visitor, I noted how quiet and civilized Norwegian Black Friday seemed. People were politely lined up at sidewalk bins of bargain merchandise, and in this city designed for walking, Philadelphian traffic jams were absent. I checked out some of the buys but decided to forego any purchases, because I noticed that many of the specialty items from Norway were not on sale (alas, I would have to pay full price for my Oleana scarf).
I couldn’t resist asking a few of the shoppers I encountered about their Black Friday experiences. Some were very skeptical, noting that some retailers had artificially marked up their prices in the weeks leading up to the big sale, while others had seen the day as a chance to buy things they had coveted for the past year, especially sporting goods. A few remarked that the best buys could be found at the big shopping malls where people lined up hours in advance, while others said that it would have been better to stay in bed and sleep through the snooze alarm. Others were even more critical and lamented the commercialization of Christmas that had come to Norway via America and the Internet. Conversely, others expressed concern that cyber commerce was posing a threat to brick-and-mortar retailers in the city and were happy to see shoppers out in full force. With reports not yet in on the sales, the general expectation was that Black Friday was a good boost to the Bergen economy and is a new tradition that is now part of the local culture.
A gingerbread town of wonder
With my window-shopping done, I went to take in a totally non-commercial Bergen tradition, Pepperkakebyen, the famous gingerbread town that each year comes together as collaborative community effort. Kindergartens, schools, offices, and citizens get baking to put together the largest gingerbread city in the world (there is even an official measurement), and the results are magical.
This year, the gingerbread fantasyland was housed in a disused swimming hall, from the outside a rather banal-looking structure. Once inside, however, be prepared to be amazed. It is a feast for your senses with the scent of sweet gingerbread fashioned into a variety of miniature houses, most representative of the most famous places in Bergen. I immediately recognized Bryggen, the historic old wharf, the Håkonshall fortress, and Troldhaugen, the home of Edvard Grieg. There are trains weaving through the houses, and sailboats and ships at sea, all set against a winter wonderland of white with an ambient lighting of white and blue.
Preschoolers, kindergarten classes, and parents and grandparents alike took in the marvels. It’s a place where you could spend several hours. There is also a café where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and purchase freshly baked gingerbread cookies to eat. Adults took a break as kids slid down an artificial snow slope over and over again. I took the chance to chat with my host and the brains behind the entire concept, Steinar Kristoffersen, who works for the City of Bergen.
Conceived in 1991, the idea of Pepperkakebyen was to bring families into the center of Bergen during the holiday season while bringing the community together. For the first few years, it found its home at Galleriet, an indoor shopping mall, and there were even live animals so kids could experience “Christmas in the country.” But with time, the gingerbread town became so popular that a larger location was needed.
The entire effort is spearheaded by the City of Bergen and any profits go to Save the Children and SOS Children’s Villages. With gingerbread structures donated by various groups and organizations, entrance tickets and café sales cover many of the costs (children younger than 12 get in for free). People travel from all over Norway and as far as Malaysia to visit Pepperkakebyen, many returning year after year. I happened to run into a pair of honeymooners from Alabama who said they found the entire installation “absolutely marvelous” and said they would be back has soon as they had kids of their own.
Kristoffersen, who professes to have the “best job in the world,” shared some of the challenges of putting a gingerbread town of this scope together. There is a great deal of work that goes into coordinating the gingerbread donations, and once arrived an army of town planners, builders, and electricians have a very short time to pull everything together. He told me how in 2009 a catastrophe struck when a crazed individual destroyed the entire installation where it was housed in an outdoor tent. Fortunately, the citizens of Bergen refused to let anyone ruin their gingerbread magic. They set to baking in a frenzy, and within a week, the entire installation was restored and open to the public again.
Next year’s challenge is to find a new location for Pepperkakebyen, as the old swimming hall is being converted into a space for a dance company, and such a large space is not so easy to find. There will also be at least one more building coming in 2019: inspired as I was, the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association will be sending over a replica of its most iconic structure—a gingerbread Space Needle!
Lysfesten and Julemarked
In Bergen and much of Norway, during the fall there is increased “winter elimination” as public places are lit up with strings of light to combat the darkness. The result is beautiful and somehow it works: it is hard to feel depressed with all the twinkling illumination in warm white.
There are Christmas trees set up all over town, with the largest and most prominent in the center of the pond adjacent to Festplassen, and the KODE Museum complex, also the location for the yearly Lysfesten, or “Festival of Light,” which takes place the day after Black Friday. With clear and crisp weather, throngs of Bergensers young and old came out to watch the lighting of the big Christmas tree. A stage was set up for musical performances by local celebrities and school choirs. Some energetic rapscallions even climbed trees to get a better view. Volunteers paraded through the crowds with torches to add ambience as Bergen kicked off the Christmas season together.
When the stage came down at the end of the festival, work began on setting up the Christmas Market, the Bergen Julemarked, to open a few days later. A Ferris wheel and tents were set up for vendors to sell traditional Christmas crafts, food specialties, and other Christmas gifts. Many items are handmade and most are made in Norway. It is even possible to pick up a Christmas tree at the Julemarked, as you listen to Christmas music blast from the loudspeakers. Most of all, it is a happy family-friendly environment where you can visit with friends and support the local economy. Kristoffersen, also the architect behind this concept, explained that the city is looking for places where people can shop and come together inside the city, and from all impressions, the Julemarked has been a great success.
A year-round Christmas House
For those unable to make it to the Julemarked, there is a place that is open 365 days a year where you can pick up your Christmas decorations. Julehuset, located in one of the historic wooden houses at Bryggen, offers a wide selection of traditional Scandinavian Christmas decorations: wooden and straw ornaments, woven table runners, glass and porcelain knickknacks, and Christmas elves of all varieties. These days, do not expect that everything will be manufactured in Norway, but you can at least expect Norwegian design. And while there, be sure that you don’t miss the second-floor exhibit of traditional Norwegian decorations—but be careful not to wake the nisse!
A Christmas concert
Christmas would not be Christmas in Bergen without concerts, and I was lucky enough to be part of one, together with the four talented musicians of the Seattle-Bergen String Quartet: Allion Salvador, Rachel Nesvig, Aleida Gehrels, and Zoë Kohen Ley. Last spring, local pianist Inger-Kristine Riber and soprano Reidun Horvei invited the Seattle group to collaborate on the production Vinternatt, a musical extravaganza of Christmas music framed by a narrative of local Christmas customs.
Riber created the original arrangements, Horvei wrote the narrative, and as president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, I served as the Seattle fundraiser, producer, and travel manager. We first took Seattle by storm, and then continued on to Norway for eight performances, with the culmination at St. John’s Church in Bergen. The church was packed with 750 ecstatic concertgoers as I experienced the highlight of my trip. It was a sister city exchange at its very best.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.