International Student Blog

Christmas vs. Christmas

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.


Bergen city centre, December 2014


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.


nissen1 julenissen


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!

7 comments for “Christmas vs. Christmas

  1. Konstantina
    18. December 2014 at 14:23

    As a Norwegian student in Manchester, this is very interesting reading! I can definitly relate to wanting to learn about the local (British) Christmas traditions, whilst also wanting to share my own Norwegian ones – which this article helps me to do :)) I do, however, miss this northern tradition in your article: Most families like to hold hands in a circle around the Christmas tree, and walk around it whilst singing Christmas songs, after the big dinner on Christmas eve. To me, it’s not Christmas without doing this. I don’t know if you do this in America – people usually don’t in the UK.
    Other than that, I don’t think you missed anything (oh, except for all the special Christmas programs we watch on the telly before the big dinner on Christmas eve). But yeah, a wonderful article! 🙂

    • khi005
      19. December 2014 at 20:33

      Konstantina, I didn’t know about singing songs while holding hands around the Christmas tree, thank you so much for sharing it. What a lovely tradition! I don’t know of any Americans that do that traditionally, but maybe there are some. Any recommendations for classic Christmas programs to watch if I want a taste of the Norwegian experience? Or do you care to share any of your observations of interesting British traditions?

      • Fredrik
        27. December 2015 at 18:29

        Tre nøtter til askepott and Jakten på julestjernen. The first one is a horribly dubbed german/Czech creation the seccond is a norwegian one 🙂 And then there is the disney moovie of Scrooge

        • Stand Hiestand
          2. January 2016 at 06:42

          Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve heard about the Czech movie… I need to see it. And the Norwegian one!

  2. 'Yemi Thomas
    19. December 2014 at 10:40

    Interesting insights on Santa Claus and Julenisse.
    Christmas is an important holiday in our National life here in Nigeria. It’s a season everyone looks up to because it affords families the opportunity to reunite after months of seperation due to work, study or relocation. Nationally, it’s a rallying point for all because Christmas is a common denominator that brings together Christians of all faiths and beliefs, and non-christians alike.
    Christmas food here is traditionally, Rice(be it Jollof, Fried, Coconut, White or Ofada) and Chicken; though some families indulge in Turkey but there’s this popular notion that well-spiced Chicken is tastier and more delicious than Turkey (we stand to be corrected).
    Significantly, Christmas to some children from low-income families is the best time of their lives because it is the only time they get to eat Chicken in the year!
    National Income/Wealth redistribution is a huge challenge here in this part of the clime and festive seasons like this brings to the fore the huge divide between the rich and poor.
    Governments across the globe should do more to bridge the inequality between the rich and poor as this would drastically reduce crime rate, insurgencies and poverty-induced vices.

    Happy Holidays.

    • khi005
      19. December 2014 at 20:29

      Certainly inequities in resources are challenge world-wide, I appreciate you sharing a view of what some people experience in Nigeria. Sending greetings and hoping there are many people who will with their families be enjoying well-spiced chicken (which sounds delicious) soon. Happy Holidays!

Leave a Reply to khi005 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *