It’s probably easy to believe your holiday traditions are the most normal, most logical, and most festive. And why shouldn’t you? You’ve marinated in these traditions, they have shaped your experience and possibly infused your life with meaning.
It is perhaps especially easy for me to feel my holiday traditions, as an American, are ‘default normal’, since Americans have a tendency to foist our culture upon other countries (sorry about that). But, American traditions are certainly not the only way to celebrate Christmas, nor the best, they are just one of many.
Inspired by David Sedaris’s writing about Dutch Christmas, I’ve developed a curiosity about typical stories and celebrations here in Norway and in this blog I’ll compare them to American ones. I’m focusing on Christmas here because my personal experience was growing up with a Christmas tradition, but if you have experiences of other holiday traditions in Norway or other countries, I absolutely want to hear about them – please comment below!
You may be (very) aware, in the U.S. we have Santa Claus. He is old, bearded, fat, and jolly. He lives in the north pole (Wait, what’s that? Like, with polar bears? Of course he does, of course he does). His helpers are elves (because they exist). They make presents for the entire world (feasible). He drives a sleigh (okay, that’s not that weird). It flys (seems less likely). It is pulled by magical flying reindeer (pushing it, pushing it). He lands on rooftops – quietly – with his crew. And then, this giant, fat, white bearded man in red, slides down your chimney (or breaks into your house in some other fashion, apparently, if you don’t have a chimney) and delivers presents to your family. So. There you go. Clearly a believable story.
Let’s take a look an example of a Norwegian Christmas tale:
According to some websites, the present day “julenisse” is very similar to the American version of Santa. He has a sack of toys and visits children in their homes on Christmas eve asking if there are good children present. However, far more intriguing are the older stories of nisser.
A nisse, derived from the name Nils (Nicholas), is a mischievous gnome-like creature who protects farmsteads. Nisser were “paid” with a bowl of julegrøt (Christmas porridge) with butter on Christmas Eve. Apparently, nisser are porridge and butter-greedy. There is a legend that notes a trick a farmer played on a nisse one Christmas eve, hiding the butter for the nisse’s grøt (porridge) at the bottom of the bowl. When the nisse thought there was no butter on his Christmas porridge, he retaliated by killing the farmer’s best cow. Then, upon eating the porridge anyway and discovering the butter at the bottom of the bowl, he felt guilty and stole the best cow from the farmer’s neighbor in order to replace the murdered cow.
Now, before you decide to pass any judgement, let me just remind you, American Santa has a reindeer with a glowing red nose. Clearly many Christmas tales have their quirks.
On to the ‘important’ bits of Christmas – food and presents!
Most Norwegians celebrate with a big dinner (often of pork or lamb ribs) and potentially a Christmas church service on Christmas Eve following. Dinner may also included boiled potatoes, sausages, meatcakes and lingonberries and could be accompanied by Norwegian beer and aquavit. Gifts are opened on Christmas eve after dinner, and sometimes there’s even a visit from the “Julenisse” (Santa Claus) himself. On Christmas Day, most families have a big brunch at noon or dinner in the afternoon. I’ve been told that it is traditional for Norwegians to decorate a Christmas tree on the day before Christmas eve.
I’m not sure we have a specific day for tree decoration in the U.S. – but generally by mid-December trees are up and decorated. Like Norwegians, my family also opens gifts on Christmas eve, but we have never claimed to be normal. In my childhood, we’d often go to midnight mass, also on Christmas eve.
It certainly varies, but most Americans open their presents on Christmas morning, potentially after or before a church service. Hanging stockings and having Santa “fill” them is traditional. Turkey one commonly eaten Christmas dish. My family, however, often eats beef stroganoff on Christmas eve and maybe ham on Christmas day, this year the meal is still being hotly debated. If you’re obsessed with international Christmas foods, you might take a look here for some lists of what people eat in different countries.
What did I miss? Let me know below!