Christmas is filled with traditions, rituals and customs based in part on a number of old superstitions that continue today. Old and young, friends and family draw close together through several weeks of festivities. People become more reflective and caring. In ancient times, Christmas was a mid-winter sacrificial feast - a festival of lights marking the transition from the dark winter to spring and summer. Christmas was a time for celebrating the harvest, fertility, birth and death. In the 900s King Haakon I decided that the heathen custom of drinking Jul (Yule) was to be moved to December 25th, in honour of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Gradually, the pagan feast was Christianized. The name Jul was retained, but the holiday was dedicated to Jesus Christ, the babe in the manger. Christmas is thus a mixture of ancient heathen and Christian traditions. Today, Christmas is the most popular celebration of the year in the Christian church, and for families and friends.
In the past, barn doors were marked with a cross to keep evil spirits away. The cross was also used as a decoration on bread, as a pattern in the butter or on the ceiling over the Christmas table. Menus varied from district to district, but everywhere the table was laden with the best and finest food the household could offer. All the people living on the farm - servants, family and guests - ate Christmas dinner together. Often the food stayed out till the next day in case spirits and little people should visit the farm during the night. The nisse could not be forgotten, otherwise ill fortune could befall the farm.
Advent is described as the preparation for Christ's Nativity and marks the beginning of the church year. It comprises the four Sundays before Christmas Day on December 25th. Church leaders decided early on that it was to be a time of fasting to ensure spiritual preparation. In the old Agrarian society children were fed little fat during Advent so they would appreciate the rich Christmas fare.
Advent is a time for preparations. Day-care centers, schools and families spend time preparing for the Christmas holiday. Around the country, a number of Christmas arts and crafts fairs are held to the delight of people who would rather buy homemade decorations and gifts.
Concerts are held in churches and concert halls and Christmas carols are sung up and down the country. Christmas literally begins to creep under one's skin, lifting spirits and creating a cheerful, joyful atmosphere. Every Sunday during Advent candles are lit, and every day a door is opened on the children's Christmas calendar.
December 13th is celebrated in honor of Saint Lucy, the young girl who according to legend died a martyr in Sicily. St. Lucia's Day is celebrated in other countries including Sweden. This day is celebrated in schools, day-care centers, nursing homes and hospitals, with processions led by a young Lucia in a white robe with a crown of lights on her head and a candle in her hand. In Norway, this night used to be called Lussinatten. It was the longest night of the year and no work was to be done. From that night until Christmas, spirits, gnomes and trolls roamed the earth. Lussi, a feared enchantress, punished anyone who dared work. Legend also has it that farm animals talked to each other on Lussinatten, and that they were given additional feed on this longest night of the year.
During the midwinter feast in Norway, evergreen branches, mistletoe and holly were used long before the Christmas tree became a tradition. Not until the first half of the 1800s did this German tradition come to Norway. Today the Christmas tree has a central place in the celebration of Christmas in Norway. The tree, a spruce or pine, is usually bought in town or chopped from one's own forest. It must be fresh and green and fragrant, with a good shape and thick branches. Outdoor Christmas trees put up on squares, in parks and other places where people walk are lit the first Sunday in Advent, but the tree in the home is not lit until Christmas Eve. Year after year the tree is decorated with homemade and bought ornaments. Norwegian children proudly present the decorations they have made at school and these are hung on the tree.
All kinds of lights are sold, but nothing is more beautiful than tiny candles on a tree. They create a special atmosphere, but must always be used with caution.
Christmas is a festival of lights and candle-making was one of the annual and necessary steps in the preparations for Christmas. The job was often turned over to the oldest people on the farm. All fat from the slaughtering was saved. The tallow was melted and strained. Tallow from small animals made the finest candles. Wicks were made of linen or hemp. Airing out was forbidden to prevent bubbles or crooks from forming in the candles.
The candles would turn out better if the weather was good. The first batch of candles was the whitest and most beautiful and was therefore saved for holidays and parties. The way the candles burned on Christmas night presaged what would happen in the coming year. If a light went out it meant death for the person to whom the candle belonged. Even today making candles for the Advent wreath is a cherished tradition enjoyed by many.
The most characteristic features of the Norwegian Santa Claus "Julenisse" are his red stocking cap and long white beard. The nisse wears knee breeches, hand-knitted stockings, a Norwegian sweater and a homespun jacket. On top he wears a heavy fur coat - it can get cold in Norway in the winter. He is jolly and happy, but can also be stern. According to old superstition, the nisse was the original settler of the land. His primary duty was to protect the land and buildings. He kept the farm in good order and would be helpful as long as he got his Christmas porridge or Christmas beer and lefse on Christmas Eve. Many farms would make up a bed for the nisse on Christmas Eve and the honorary place at the table stood ready and waiting for him. Make no mistake, the Norwegian Julenisse is real. He comes to the house with a sack of presents on Christmas Eve. When the Christmas porridge is put out in the barn on Christmas Eve, it is gone the next morning. It is best to stay on his good side. If you forget, he can stir up a lot of trouble.
At 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve all the churches begin to ring in Christmas. After church, the family gathers for a holiday meal. Food traditions vary, but a porridge meal with an almond hidden in someone's bowl is on most menus. Not everything has changed with time. Before the family sits down to dinner a bowl of porridge with butter, sugar and cinnamon has to be put out for the nisse. Afterwards the family sit down to listen to the Christmas Gospel and then join hands to walk around the Christmas tree, singing carols. The children anxiously await the knock on the door, announcing the arrival of Julenissen with his sack full of gifts. Before he takes the presents out of the sack he always asks "Are there any good children here?" Shop-bought presents have gradually replaced the homemade presents that used to be common.
After the presents are opened and the excitement subsides, the family sit down again for coffee and cake.
Christmas food traditions vary from district to district. Coastal traditions are different from those found inland and the traditions of Eastern Norway are different from those of Western Norway. Years ago, diets reflected locally available foods and the resources and bounty of nature. In the coastal districts and in North Norway, the traditional Christmas dinner naturally consists of lutefisk, cod or halibut. In Eastern Norway pork ribs, pork patties, Christmas sausage, and spiced cabbage are served. Western Norway supplies Norway with delicious mutton, so what is more natural than salted lamb's ribs and sausage. Desserts range from cloudberry cream, crème caramel and creamed rice to fruit.
1.3 kg loin of pork with ribs
300 ml/5 1/2 fl. oz. water or stock
Score the rind and saw through bones at two and a half inch intervals. Rub the roast with salt, pepper and a little mustard and refrigerate for two days. The roast should be steamed to make the meat juicy and the rind crisp. Lay the roast rind side down in a flat pan. Add 50 ml/2 1/2 fl. oz. of water. Cover the pan with tinfoil. Place the pan at the bottom of the oven and steam for 20 min. at 375°F/200°C. Remove foil. Put a rack on top of the pan and place the ribs on the rack rind side up.
Place the pan on the lowest rung and roast at 350°F/175°C for about an hour for plain ribs and 1-2 hours for ribs with the loin. Do not baste. You will get a crispier crackling by turning up the heat to 500°F/275°-300°C towards the end. Never leave the oven unattended when the rind begins to blister and pop. Serve with rib fat, boiled potatoes, Norwegian spiced cabbage, apple wedges, prunes and stirred lingonberries. Cold ribs are also served with lefse on the Christmas buffet table.
1 litre of thick soured cream
400 ml plain flour
1 litre milk
Boil the soured cream, covered, for two minutes and stir in half the flour. Stir vigorously until the butter separates. Skim off butter and keep warm. Stir in the rest of the flour and mix in milk. Simmer the porridge for five minutes. Season with salt. Serve with the butter, sugar and cinnamon.