Knask eller knep?
Halloween is gaining popularity in Norway
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles, Calif.
After an uncertain start in the 1990s, the American tradition of celebrating Halloween has started catching on in Norway.
Until recently, there were no pumpkins (of any size) in Norway. Pumpkins – gresskar in Norwegian – weren’t introduced until 2000. And now, production exceeds 1,000 tons a year.
It’s becoming more common for households to have a carved jack-o-lantern outside their doors and for children to dress in costumes and go trick-or-treating.
Some observers say it all started when Norwegian school children would catch a Halloween episode of their favorite cartoon. Parents and teachers would explain that Americans celebrate Halloween by going door to door collecting free candy and wearing monster costumes. It wasn’t long before the combination of costumes and candy lured Norwegian children to add a “new” holiday tradition. Instead of “trick or treat,” Norwegian kids say “knask eller knep” or “digg eller deng” when the door is opened. But according to recent media reports, some Norwegian kids take the “trick” part too literally, with egging and other forms of vandalism becoming more common, especially the houses that ignore the holiday.
Although no country celebrates Halloween like the U.S., the holiday had Irish beginnings. Celts celebrated it as Samhain – All Hallows’ Eve – when the dead were said to revisit the mortal world. The celebration marked the end of Summer and the start of the Winter months.
During the 8th century the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as All Saints Day. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that Norwegians observed All Hallows’ Eve by lighting candles in the family graveyard, according to Kathleen Stokker of Luther College in Decorah, Ia.
The tradition of wearing costumes also dates back to Celtic times. Celtic Druids would disguise themselves as spirits and devils in case they encountered other devils and spirits during the night. By disguising themselves, they hoped that they could avoid being carried away at the end of the night. This explains why witches, goblins and ghosts remain the most popular choices for the costumes.
But for centuries before that, there was the Yule or Christmas version of “trick or treating” in Norway, with Julebukkers – people wearing often grotesque masks and costumes – traipsing door to door, collecting goodies. The Julebukk (Yule goat) tradition originated in Norway back when the pagan population worshiped Thor, the god who traveled in his chariot drawn by two goats.
Yule is the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice. This Yule – not Halloween – is the night Norwegians would ward off the ghosts that came back to life on the longest night of the year, a night when the darkness is filled with fear instead of joy.
Whatever its origin, the belief in the yearly reappearance of the dead lived on until the 19th century in Norway. According to this belief, the ghosts of one’s ancestors returned to the homestead. And so at Yuletide, food and drink was brought out for the nisse, who were believed to come out of their graves, hungry and thirsty.
Feared even more throughout Northern Europe was the Asgårdsreia, the Wild Ride, a horde of the living dead coursing through the night skies. Mortals getting in their path could be kidnapped and brought to the land of the dead. Odin was usually considered the leader of the rampaging pack, but in Norway the leader was a woman.
With the people haunted by fears of the supernatural powers swirling about them, Yule in old Norway was far more terrifying than any Halloween monster movie. Nonetheless, Halloween seems to be catching on in Norway, with or without a goat’s head mask. The spooky spirits of the 21st century want their knask eller knep.
This article originally appeared in the October 25, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.