The Twelve Days of Christmas in Norway
A good old-fashioned Yuletide in Hallingdal
Donald V. Mehus
Christmas in Norway! The very words evoke images of a winter wonderland of pine-clad, snow-decked mountains; quiet villages nestled in scenic valleys; cozy homes and the gathering of families; a time to rest, relax, and enjoy the holiday season.
For this Norwegian-American one memorable December, the images became the reality. Some time ago while studying at the University of Oslo, I was invited to spend the Christmas holidays with relatives at my ancestral home, the small village of Hol in Hallingdal, lying in the mountains midway between Oslo and Bergen.
Here was one place where “the twelve days of Christmas” were more than mere words of a traditional juletide song.
Nearly everyone in Norway, it seems, tries to take off for a long holiday, from just before Christmas till a day or two after New Year’s. As though officially to sanction this, the Norwegians have special names for various days—lille juleaften (“little Christmas Eve”) on December 23, in addition to Christmas Eve, first and second Christmas Day, etc. Then, of course comes New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day—and a day or two later the twelve days of Christmas draw to a close.
Oslo to Hallingdal
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I left Oslo for the several-hour-long trip west through the mountains and valleys to Hol.
Soon after we departed from Oslo, I was happy to meet some university friends on the train. This is one thing you soon discover in Norway: when you begin to meet Norwegians, you keep running into them all the time. And when you have become acquainted with a number of them, you are sure to find that you have friends in common. Norway has vast distances and widely separated communities, but the people do seem to get around a lot. Perhaps it has something to do with the far-roaming Vikings!
Arrival in Hol, Hallingdal
Late that afternoon my cousin Erik Haugen met my train at Hol Station, way up on the mountainside, with a magnificent view for many miles around.
There being no taxi available and the family car otherwise engaged, we loaded my luggage onto a “spark”—a sled with a chair-like seat and high handles extending above it—and down the snowy mountain road we went to the home of my cousins and their mother, Margit Reinton. There at Solhaug (Sunny Hill) I was warmly welcomed by the family and immediately served a refreshing, tangy, non-alcoholic home-brewed “beer.”
The town of Hol lies on the edge of a large lake in the Hallingdal valley. From both sides of this long lake, Holsfjorden, mountains rise steeply to a plateau, and then the terrain rises still higher to mountains beyond. Homes and farms are perched along the mountainsides. Past and present intermingle in a certain harmony: some of the buildings, of traditional Norwegian design, date back many years; other edifices, recently constructed, are up-to-date in all respects.
At the center of the town is Gamle Kyrkje (Old Church), a picturesque wooden structure, parts of which date back some 800 years. A few yards away stands the thoroughly modern town hall.
Christmas Eve at Solhaug
Late afternoon of Christmas Eve we had a delicious traditional Christmas dinner. First course was—what else? —lutefisk and lefse. It was the best lutefisk I had ever had—tasty, delicate, yet firm of texture. We had a good visit over the main course—meatballs and pork, peas and carrots, potatoes, pickles and sweet preserves, wonderful homemade flatbrød (much better than the kind one can buy in stores, as good as that is), and finally for dessert, a fruit pudding with cream.
After dinner we relaxed in the living room (peisstue), listening to Christmas music, musing, and dreaming as snow drifted slowly outside. Cousin Aagot (Erik’s wife) lit the candles on the Christmas tree. A real Christmas spirit pervaded the dwelling.
Coffee and Tasty Desserts
Later we had coffee along with mouth-watering pastry. I never ceased to marvel at the tastiness, variety, and plenitude of these “småkaker.” Wherever we visited relatives during the next week or so, we were always served coffee and “småkaker.”
That Juleaften Margit and Aagot graciously served nine or ten different kinds of cakes and cookies and other pastries—a sweet lefse with sugar and butter, rommebrød (one of my special favorites—a paper-thin pastry, crisp and sweet and flaky, like the top of a pie crust, only better), kringla, fattigman, two or three kinds of cake, and several sorts of sweet, rich cookies.
Arrival of the Julenisse
When we finished our coffee, we opened presents, which had been arranged around the Christmas tree. Erik served as the Julenisse, bringing us each our presents in turn.
The presents were articles of clothing, useful household objects, humorous yet practical items, decorative pieces, books, etc. I think the favorite present I received was an old wooden bowl carved and painted in Hallingdal, with a lovely rosemaling design.
Christmas Day at Solhaug was quiet and restful. Breakfast was the traditional smørgåsbord, an abundance of food served with cups and cups of steaming coffee. Here were three or four kinds of bread with plenty of creamy, home-churned butter; geitost and gulost and roquefort; eggs and anchovies; several kinds of meat and sausage; strawberry jam and cherry preserves; and more. Though I had been in Norway for some time, I still had a hard time deciding where to begin, wanting to try everything.
Late Christmas morning Aagot, Erik, and I walked the mile or so by a rushing mountain stream to attend Christmas service in New Church. The simple but attractive church was nearly filled with several hundred parishioners. A number of men and women wore their regional Hallingdrakt (Halling dress). The service continued for nearly two hours with prayers and Bible readings, choir anthems and no fewer than eight congregational hymns, as well as a substantial sermon. My Norwegian was a bit shaky at the time, I must confess, but I am sure that the sermon was most enlightening.
Back home at Solhaug in mid-afternoon, we had our Christmas Day dinner—as beautifully prepared and delicious as one soon came to expect in the homes of Hallingdal. The rest of the afternoon we continued to relax (I became impressed at how much everyone managed to relax at Christmastime), visit, hear good music, write Christmas cards (I don’t know about others, but I never seem to finish mine before the holiday arrives), and do odds and ends around the house.
The morning of our “andre juledag” (Second Christmas Day), Erik, Aagot, and I prepared for our first skiing expedition. How different it was from skiing in America! We simply went out the door, strapped on skis, and away we went up the mountainside. (One Norwegian friend of mine remarked that if they had to go to all the trouble Americans did to go skiing—shopping for expensive equipment, traveling hours to a ski resort, paying high hotel rates, waiting for ski lifts, et al.—then Norwegians would not have bothered to invent skiing in the first place.)
Erik found a pair of skis and poles in the barn for me, we bundled up warmly, and set off. I was still something of a novice on skis, and Erik proved to be an excellent teacher. It was a fine day—the firm snow a foot deep, the weather clear, brisk, and bright.
At an easy pace we zigzagged up the mountain, the view becoming more and more spectacular as we went. We found a ski trail, and back down we went.
Tante Anna—and Folk og Fortid I Hol
Erik and I ended up near Gamleheimen (Old People’s Home), where we stopped to visit our great aunt, Tante Anna. Then in her 80s, she was lively with a good sense of humor. Many years ago she had immigrated to the U.S., but after a few years she returned to the mountains of her beloved Norway.
The same evening we paid a visit to other relatives, Sigurd S. Reinton and Einar Reinton. Sigurd and his brother, Dr. Philos. Lars Reinton, had long been historians of Hol Community. In a project that had taken some 40 years, they had prepared a series of volumes on the history and people of the area, entitled Folk og Fortid i Hol. I was fascinated to read about my own family history, going back to the mid-1400s. Their multi-volume work is considered one of the finest regional histories in Norway. If you would like to research this work on this side of the Atlantic, a copy may be found in the library of the Norwegian American Historical Association in Northfield, Minnesota.
Cousin Osvald and Family
The dinners, visits, and parties continued during the ensuing days. On the third Christmas Day, I visited Cousin Osvald Medhus (why different branches of the family spell the last name with or without a “d” is another story) and his wife Aslaug. Their ten-month-old daughter radiated much joy. To her parents I remarked that “Hun er så frisk og sunt og flink!” (She is so lively and healthy and bright!) Whereupon the child, looking right at me, broke into the happiest smile. We all laughed, and I said, “Hun forstår alt!” (She understands everything!)
Much more could be written about the visits and reunions, the parties and dinners, the walks and ski trips, the people of Hallingdal and their warm hospitality. It was truly a memorable twelve days of Christmas in Hallingdal, the very heart of Norway.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.