If you hadn’t already noticed, Christmas is a big deal in Norway. And it comes with a whole host of unique traditions. Whether you have been invited to celebrate with a Norwegian family or are planning your own celebration, here are some handy tips to make sense of juletid in Norway.
Visit a Christmas market: Most Norwegians include a trip to a Christmas market among their pre-Christmas preparations. This is the place to sip gløgg (hot spiced wine) or hot chocolate and browse for woolen mittens, traditional foodstuffs and reindeer hides to gift to friends and family (or yourself). Near the Nationaltheatret T-bane station is the Jul i Vinterland market, which is open through 21:00 on December 23rd for your last-minute Christmas shopping needs.
Feed your local Nisse: In old Nordic folklore, Christmas stories are peppered with the appearance of Nisse, mischievous gnome-like creatures the size of a small children yet resembling old men with long beards and red woolen caps (yes, these may be a precursor to Santa Claus). Legend has it that leaving a bowl of rommegrøt (sour cream porridge) or risegrøt (sweet rice porridge) outside for the neighborhood Nisse will ensure they don’t stir up trouble over the course of the next year. This tradition is still practiced by many Norwegian families who place a bowl of grøt outside their door on December 23rd or 24th.
Sample traditional cuisine: Norwegians eat their big, celebratory meal on the evening of December 24th. It typically consists of ribbe (cured pork belly), pinnekjøtt (smoked lamb ribs), lutefisk (lye-cured cod) or rakfish (salted, fermented trout), all traditional products developed for storage through the long winter. All are worth trying if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Norwegian family dinner but, be forewarned, the two fish dishes could be called an “acquired taste” (keep a glass of aquavit close at hand).
Sing Norsk Christmas Carols: Many Norwegians include the singing of traditional Christmas songs as part of their celebrations, either in church or at home. Some are unique to Norway and others are common English tunes translated into Norwegian. To avoid the pressing question most English-speakers face (okay, maybe just me) when presented with the Norwegian version of Silent Night, know that “Fred” is not the brother of Jesus you have never heard of, but the Norwegian word for “peace.”
Bake cookies (lots of cookies): There is an old Norwegian tradition of baking seven types of Christmas cookies each year, which harkens back to when sugar, spices and butter were prized luxuries. Even though these ingredients are a touch easier to find these days, the lure of a plate of homemade cookies is as strong as ever. So, as a Christmas gift from me to you, here is my favorite recipe for Norwegian pepperkaker. Enjoy!
Pepperkaker (makes about 60 small cookies)
1.5 dl dark syrup
80 g butter (salted)
75 g sugar
1 dl sweetened condensed milk
375 g white flour
2 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbs. ground ginger
1 tsp. grated orange zest
½ tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. salt
- Place syrup, butter, sugar and milk in a pot and heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat.
- In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, spices, orange zest and salt. Pour the syrup mixture into the flour mixture and stir until incorporated.
- Refrigerate until cold and firm.
- When ready to bake, pre-heat your oven to 180°C.
- Flour your countertop and roll out dough until very thin (about 2 or 3 mm) and cut into shapes.
- Place cookies on a cookie sheet lined with baking paper and bake about 10 minutes.