Ole the Troll & the Christmas Star

An original holiday tale by NAW’s own Larrie Wanberg

Photo: Larrie Wanberg Ole the Troll ready to celebrate Christmas.

Photo: Larrie Wanberg
Ole the Troll ready to celebrate Christmas.

In the beginning there was a cottonwood seed floating high in the sky above the ocean waves. The tiny seed carried the spirit of a family of cottonwoods from Norway that were known to sometimes have Trolls hiding inside. Trolls sometimes took the form of gigantic trees rather than stones.

This seedling was looking for troll relatives on his journey to see the world. On send-off, his family of cottonwoods chanted: “Follow your star!”

The westerly winds blew extra strong across the North Pole to North America and suddenly stopped above the center of the continent. The billowy seed drifted down to earth, like a spiraling parachute, and picked a soft spot to land.

Where he landed, a large family of cottonwoods had settled. Indians lived along the Knife River there, where the waters flow into the Great Missouri. The Indians welcomed him as if he were human and called him “One Leg.”

As a sapling, Ole planted himself next to an Indian village where lodges were built from large cottonwoods that were home to both families and horses. One day, he saw men with soldier caps cutting logs to build a fort nearby. The men took some of the largest cottonwoods to make into dugout canoes—dozens of them.

After snows came, Ole was startled and shaken by three canon volleys from Fort Mandan, as the nearby fort was called. It was Christmas Day (1804) and everyone was celebrating. Ole thrived for months as the Indians and the American expedition spent the winter together, sharing food and shelter and exchanging stories.

Over the following years, Ole gradually grew into a large cottonwood tree that served as a beacon for immigrant families to seek shelter while crossing the prairie. Many played familiar music and talked of trolls, like he remembered from years back. They did not know that he was listening.

Photo: Britt Wanberg Ole the Troll looking sharp in overalls.

Photo: Britt Wanberg
Ole the Troll looking sharp in overalls.

Large numbers of Ole’s family of cottonwoods were cut down for logs that, in turn, were used to build houses on the prairie. Many trolls were trapped in the logs, but preferred to be a part of a human house than firewood in the fireplace.

One day many years later, a man with a chainsaw in hand approached the tree, checked its straightness, and saw something unusual.

One of the stubby branches, only a few inches long, sticking out from the bark reminded him of a strange nose in a storybook from his childhood in Norway.

He cranked up the chainsaw and carefully began to carve around it with the saw’s sharp teeth … watching not to nick a tiny seedling growing out from the end of a stubby branch, pointing upward like a miniature tree.

The sound of the chainsaw made the cottonwood shiver, but he began to feel a sense of freedom.

Soon, the form of a face began to show—a scary but smiley face. Then the ears … the shoulders … then a short body, with big, big feet—feet that seemed locked together.

“It’s a troll!” he yelped. As the last swipe of the chain saw freed the long tail, the troll fell free of the tree, and he stood up, tall—as tall as a three-foot chunk of cottonwood could be.

“I’ll call him Ole,” he said. Ole was impressed that the carver had gotten it right. The man took him home and placed him as a sentinel by his doorstep. “Greet people!” he told the Troll.

One day, the rains began and didn’t let up.

A torrent of rushing water picked Ole up and carried him downstream for miles and miles. His nose stood out of the water like a periscope as he went with the flow. He felt sad that he would never see the carver again.

After hours and hours, he got entangled in thickets of driftwood and was stuck. He cried out to see if any of the logs were Trolls. Everything was silent. As the water receded, the thicket began turning to crusty mud and entrapping him.

A young boy camping with his family on higher ground came to the water’s edge and began poking a stick into the thicket. He saw this strange stubby branch sticking out from the mud. He began grabbing Ole’s nose and rocking it back and forth until his whole form broke free from the mud. He ran to get his father. Together, they pulled Ole out of the mire and carried him to the campfire.

The boy pleaded to clean him up and take him home to California with them. “He’ll have to ride on the luggage rack,” the father said.

Ole never had such a ride—watching the Rocky Mountains pass by, starring into the night sky, and thoroughly drying out across the desert. When the family returned to their home in Solvang, Ole heard Troll music again. He felt at home in Solvang, a Danish storybook town with a statute of Hans Christian Andersen in the central park. “Trolls are welcome here,” he said to himself with a sigh of relief.

The owners were shopkeepers of a quaint gift shop on Main Street. They dressed up Ole in a cap, scarf, and banner to welcome customers into the store. They placed a poster by him, announcing a contest. “Guess Ole’s secret and win a prize,” the sign said. A slip of paper was supplied for people to enter their guess into the contest.

Ole became the talk of the town. Tourists would take photos hugging Ole. Guesses galore filled the bucket, but nobody got it right. The contest went on until Christmas. People began to murmur that Ole had no secret.

The boy knew the secret since washing off the mud at the campsite. The parents helped him research Cottonwood DNA through a forestry specialist, tracing his roots back to Norway and migrating to a settlement along the Missouri River across the Plains, where only this species with heart-shaped leaves and medicinal bark was known.

The storekeeper called the mayor of Solvang. They agreed to unveil the secret at a Christmas event in the Hans Christian Andersen Park and to have Ole ride with the mayor in the passenger seat in the official car at the Christmas parade the next morning.

At the Christmas event at the Park, the boy stood on a stage next to Ole with a microphone in his hand.

He told his story of finding Ole buried in mud along the Missouri River, and when he washed him off, he discovered a star shape at the top of Ole’s head that ran through his body like a spine and showed again under his feet.

The boy took off Ole’s hat, rocked him forward for the audience to see. The star shape on Ole’s scalp was well defined, like a tattoo, a rusty red in color, and clearly was the core of his being. The audience clapped.

He tilted Ole backwards to reveal the star under his feet. The children cheered, as the boy hugged Ole and rocked him gently, side to side, as if dancing.

The father joined in and spoke into the mike, “An Indian story tells of a curious little star in the heavens that came to earth and hid in a cottonwood tree to always be near people. A curious little Norwegian troll did the same. Trolls can be on journeys like people, you know. After following his own star across the world, Ole’s journey ends here, where he is a star with our family.”

“So,” he added, “when you see a star on the top of a Christmas tree, remember the journey of Ole and his secret of an internal star.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.