Traditions in the time of COVID-19

How the pandemic could affect the way Norwegians celebrate Christmas


Photo: Ørn E. Borgen / NTB scanpix
This year’s Christmas market in Oslo operated at a 10% capacity of that in previous years.

The Local

Christmas will undoubtedly be different in Norway this year.

Health authority guidelines currently advise that private arrangements have no more than five guests in addition to household members. Local restrictions, in their current form, would also be likely to affect many people’s Christmas plans.

In Oslo, gatherings in private homes can be attended by up to 10 people if infection control measures are complied with. In Bergen, until recently, a maximum of five people were allowed in private homes, with exceptions for homes where more than five people live and where children have guests from their regular school or childcare center. The city recently eased that restriction slightly, allowing households with at least four people to have up to two visitors from outside the household.

“If we are able to lower the cases of infection, then we can be more relaxed,” Minister of Health Bent Høie told VG last month.

“But it’s very important that people don’t have to start their Christmas with a loved one in the hospital,” he added. “That we don’t want.”

As the holiday nears, residents of Norway eagerly await the government’s new COVID-19 guidelines. They are keeping their fingers crossed that they will still be able to celebrate a traditional Norwegian Christmas.

The history behind the holiday
Depending on which country you are from, the day on which you eat the traditional meal and open gifts will vary. Everywhere, the biggest holiday is Christmas Eve on Dec. 24.

Norway first began to celebrate Christmas in the first millennium CE, after Christianity was first introduced into the country. Christmas celebrations in Norway are a mixture of old pre-Christian traditions, Christian traditions, and modern consumer-oriented habits driven by advertising, as Roald E. Kristiansen, a historian of religion and professor at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, explains on the university’s website.

The tradition of having a Christmas tree inside is relatively new in Norway, having first begun in Europe at the end of the 1800s. In the past, the Christmas tree was decorated with dried fruits, cakes, and candles, but today, Norwegians traditionally decorate them with lights and ornaments, with a star on top.

The Christmas table
Companies are traditionally known to throw a julebord—Christmas table—for their employees during the holiday months. Unlike in other countries, it is not common for an employee’s partner to be invited. It is a popular belief that the party tends to be largely fueled by alcohol and at least one coworker or boss will end up embarrassing themselves.

This year, the government has strongly urged against company celebrations, and in Oslo, current restrictions would make these gatherings practically impossible.

Christmas shopping
As in many other countries, stores are extra full of shoppers during the month of December all over Norway.

This year, coronavirus guidelines have been issued for holiday shopping. The Norwegian health authorities have made recommendations, including trying to spread out shopping times to avoid congestion, regular handwashing, and avoiding public transportation whenever possible.

Seasonal food and drink
Marzipan is a popular treat during the entire month of December. It is also popular to hide an almond in a bowl of rice cream after a holiday meal. Everyone is responsible for dishing out their own serving, and the person who ends up with the almond in their bowl wins a pig-shaped marzipan treat.

Julebrus, or Christmas soda, is sold throughout the holiday season. It is traditional for different areas around Norway to have their own special recipe.

In general, what you eat on Christmas Eve depends on where you live in Norway and your family’s customs. Two of the most popular choices for Christmas Eve dinner are ribbe and pinnekjøtt. In the south of Norway, boiled cod is on the menu, and up north, lutefisk is enjoyed. Popular sides include boiled potatoes and cooked cabbage.

Christmas markets during a pandemic
This year, the traditional Christmas markets, selling gifts, wool, sausages, gløgg, and other delights, looked a little different.

In Oslo, locals were be happy to see the twinkling lights and smell of burnt almonds at the “Jul i Vinterland” market on the city’s famous Karl Johans gate, albeit at a greatly reduced capacity, with coronavirus measures in place.

But in Bergen, locals were disappointed that the annual “Julemarked” was canceled.

What is with all the stars in the windows?
If you are living in Norway, you will have perhaps already noticed a star hanging up in a lot of windows around this time of year. The Advent star, also known as the Christmas star, was originally hung in the windows of residents in Norway to symbolize the star of Bethlehem, a tradition taken from Germany. While it may still be a religious symbol for some, many residents choose to hang up a star in their windows to bring in more light during the darkest time of the year.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.