Keeping Christmas

This book is the definitive reference for all things jul, from lutefisk to feeding the nisser

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

In my search for the practical origins of making and preparing lutefisk, I was delighted to run across a wonderful book that delves deep into Norwegian Christmas traditions, both as practiced here in the United States as well as in Norway itself.

The name of the book is Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land. This handsomely designed book is published by the Minnesota Historical Society and it is chock full of interesting facts, stories, and recipes that illustrate the long and deep relationship Norwegians have had with Christmas. The author is Kathleen Stokker, Professor Emeritus of Scandinavian Studies at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She is one of the two kind scholars who helped me find answers to the mysteries of lutefisk.

In the book she takes you back to the very beginnings of jul in Norway. She then takes you on a fascinating journey through Christmases past to the present. And she gives attention not only to Norway’s traditions, but to those of the immigrant Norwegians to the United States whose notions of Christmas differed both by their region of origin and by the era of their immigration.

Much of the book is about food and its importance to Norwegians. If you are interested in lutefisk, then this is the book for you. She explains not only its value and nutritional benefits, but also the special place it holds in the lives of Norwegian Americans. In addition, she covers most of the other foods that Norwegians and Norwegian Americans hold dear, from ribbe to fattigmann.

Professor Stokker also addresses any questions you may have about the origins of Norwegian Christmas customs like putting out the bowl of risengrøt for julenissen. This practice, she explains, is probably a very old one that goes back to the Viking Age when Jul was the time of year that the dead ancestors came back to share the bounty of the living. The nisse is a historic remnant of what was once called the haugbonde (farmer in the grave mound), gardvord (farm protector), or tuftekall (the one who first established the farm site). He was the farm’s ancestral founder and the belief was he remained its supernatural protector. To ensure his continued protection, traditional Norwegian farm families honored him at Christmas with beer or porridge, and to be on the safe side, often with both.

In the old days, Norwegians believed that ghosts and other types of strange beings wandered about on Christmas Eve looking to do mischief and eat everything on the julebord (Christmas table). To counter their fear, many would spread straw on the floor of the largest room in the farmhouse and all the residents of the farm—masters and servants, men and women—would sleep together for their mutual protection. Related to this fear of the supernatural on Christmas Eve is the practice of julebukking, where adults and children dress in masks and odd clothing and go around asking for good drink and goodies, usually after Christmas Day. Professor Stokker points out that this custom made it to America and it is still very popular in some Norwegian-dominated communities.

So, if you want to know anything at all about Norwegian Christmas, get Kathleen Stokker’s book, Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land (Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 2000, $22.95).

Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.

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

Avatar photo

Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.