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Christmas Traditions in Norway

Jul i Norge

From what's on the dinner table to the work party, let's take a closer look at Christmas in Norway.

I recently published a post about the best Christmas markets in Norway. I had such a good response to the article that I felt compelled to write more about the festive traditions in this part of the world!

A Norwegian Christmas

Most people outside of Norway think Christmas time here must be really magical, snow everywhere, colourful lights, reindeer strolling along the streets, and of course, Lapland is the home of Santa Claus, right?

The reality, as you shouldn't be surprised to learn, is quite different! Here are just some of the Norwegian Christmas traditions I've learned about over the last years. Perhaps it will inspire some of your celebrations this year?

Christmas Traditions in Norway

When do Norwegians celebrate Christmas?

It sounds like a stupid question, right? Well, I grew up with 25th December as the focal point of Christmas. I know many of you will have, too. But here in Norway, the focal point of the celebration is very much the evening of the 24th December.

Julaften (Christmas Eve) is the day when presents are exchanged and the whole family gets together for the main Christmas meal. Christmas Day is a much quieter affair and often quite private.

This is followed by romjul. It's one of my favourite words in Norwegian as it's only six letters long yet we don't have an equivalent word in English! Simply put, it translates as: “that time between Christmas and New Year when no-one is really sure what they should be doing.”

Employees are often encouraged by their employers to take the period of romjul off as part of their annual leave. Some may give bonus days to reduce the amount of vacation days an employee needs to take from their annual allowance.

The Norwegian Santa Claus

First up folks, sorry to say but, there's no such thing as Santa Claus! But seriously, the real Santa Claus lives in Rovaniemi, Finland. The Santa Claus Village tells the story as follows:

When Santa Claus declared Rovaniemi as his hometown, he told how his home at Ear Mountain (Korvatunturi) was revealed at the beginning of the last century and how this closely guarded secret spread the world over. In order to retain the privacy of his secret location, the Elf folk decided to build a place where Santa could meet people from near and far at the Northern Arctic Circle.

But despite his home being so close, Santa Claus is not the most common Christmas icon here in Norway. That honour goes to julenisse.

Julenisse
Tomte by jpellgen (Flickr Creative Commons)

A creation from Scandinavian folklore, a nisse (tomte in Sweden) is a short creature with a long white beard and a red hat. Julenisse means the gift-bearing nisse at Christmas time. Sound familiar?

Christmas markets in Norway

The festivities tend to get going in the early part of December. That's when Christmas markets spring up in towns and cities across the city. While snow is not guaranteed at this time of year in many places, you are pretty assured of chilly temperatures! That makes the spiced, mulled wine (gløgg) taste all the sweeter.

Stalls typically offer a selection of products from local craftspeople and artists. There's also a strong focus on food. This ranges from opportunities to buy local produce from farmers (meats, cheeses and gifts) to tucking into a reindeer burger in a tent by an open fire.

Julebord

Ah, the good old fashioned Christmas party! Every company, school, sports club and social group hold their own julebord (literally ‘Christmas table'). Partners are usually welcome. That means that most Norwegians will attend two or more of these events during December, or possibly even in late November.

These communal gatherings are an important part of Norwegian culture. Traditional food (more on that later!) is often served. Large amounts of alcohol are consumed and normally followed up with a late-night party (with the exception of school julebords of course!)

Curiously enough, while Norwegians normally dress fairly casually, the julebord is one of the rare occasions when they dress up in formal attire. If you're about to attend your first julebord, don't show up in jeans!

Christmas food

While the English eat turkey and Americans tend towards ham, roast beef, or goose, Norwegians have totally different traditions for the Christmas dinner table. But it also varies. The food Norwegians eat at Christmas is largely defined along regional lines.

Norwegian Christmas Dinner
Ribbe by torbus (Creative Commons by Flickr)

Perhaps the most common Christmas dish is ribbe, which is simply seasoned pork belly. It's usually served with sauerkraut and redcurrant sauce. Pinekjøtt (mutton) is popular in the western counties, as is cod or other fresh fish.

But what about lutefisk, I hear all the Norwegian Americans ask! Well as far as I can see, lutefisk is eaten in the couple months prior to Christmas, but not necessarily at the main dinner. If you're wondering what lutefisk is, head on over here for the full details.

Christmas drinks

In the run-up to the festive period, most breweries release batches of juleøl. These are Christmas versions of their beers, most usually darker and spicier than their regular brews.

Norwegian magazine Klikk rated Trondheim's own Dahls Juleøl the best of 2014, closely followed by Tuborgs, Grans and Ringnes. Skål!

For those who don't drink alcohol, most breweries also produce julebrus, It's a sweet soda loved by Norwegians young and old, and a great alternative for designated drivers or those who don't drink alcohol.

If you want to amuse yourself at this time of year, just tell a Norwegian from Bergen that Lillehammer's julebrus is the best you've ever tasted. Sit back and watch the fireworks. Yes, Norwegians get very precious about “their” Christmas beers!

Gingerbread houses

The most popular sweet treat at this time of year is pepperkake, a crispy gingerbread. They are available in shops in small cookie form, typically in the shapes of stars or people, but are often home-made too.

Pepperkakehus

A common sight during the Christmas period are gingerbread houses, made from a thicker mixture and decorated with icing and other sweets. The best I've seen were at the Røros Christmas market, although I'm told Bergen's pepperkakebyen (gingerbread city!) is a sight to behold.

The Trafalgar Square tree

One of the biggest Norwegian traditions is actually n the British capital, London! Each year, Norway fells a tree in the forests outside Oslo. This ceremony is usually attended by senior politicians and the British Ambassador, among others. Typically, a 50-60-year-old Norway spruce at more than 20 metres tall is chosen.

The tree is then sent to London to stand proudly in Trafalgar Square as a vital part of London's festive makeover. The reason for all this? The tree is a token of gratitude for the British support of Norway during World War II.

Christmas in Norway now on Kindle

Before we get going, if you want the full story you can check out Christmas in Norway, available now exclusively on Kindle!

Find out how Norwegians celebrate Jul in this short Kindle book, designed to inform and inspire your own Christmas celebrations, wherever you are in the world. It's available now in all Amazon stores including Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

Full disclosure: This ebook was published several years ago and hasn't been updated. However, traditions are slow to change so there should still be plenty of relevant information inside.

Merry Christmas Everyone. Or as they say around these parts: God jul!

Norway Weekly Email Newsletter

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

17 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your posts. I am president of Gulf Coast Vikings, sons of Norway Lodge in Estero, Florida ( southwest Florida on the Gulf of Mexico).

    Would it be alright with you if I share your posts in our Gulf Coast Vikings Page on Facebook. Most of our members were not born in Norway. Their parents, grandparent or great grandparents are from Norway. Harriet

  2. I am a Norwegian living in Dublin atm and wow, did this give me a longing for home. I will go home for Christmas and I am looking tremendously forward to it.

    Another tradition is the movies on Christmas eve morning/afternoon (the same movies EVERY year – they tried to change it one year and basically got death threats), and the Christmas calendar on TV with one new episode every day. Without the snow, julebrus and juleøl the NRK calendar is all I have to try to get into the holiday spirit (that, and winter sports).

    And aquevit, of course. I hate the stuff but it’s a Christmas tradition for a lot of people.

    God jul!

    1. Sorry for the double post, but just some trivia for those interested: The “nisse” tradition in Norway goes back centuries and centuries. In many ways it is connected to old beliefs of elves, gnomes etc. Norwegians used to believe nisse families lived in barns etc. connected to the farms. They believed the nisse families would help them with the farm during the spring and summer and sometimes did pranks. A lot of Norwegians to this day swear the farm nisse on their family farm exists (some even that they’ve seen it). Because of this tradition a lot of Norwegians put out Christmas porridge on the porch at Christmas Eve for the nisse families to eat.

      So the nisse is much older than Santa Claus! 🙂 That being said, Norwegians also celebrated Christmas long before Christ, which is why Christmas is called jul (yule) here. It was a celebration of the winter solstice and the sun turning and light coming back, a festival of light in the darkest part of the year. Which is probably also one of the reasons Christmas Eve became the most important day here, as the 24th is closer to the solstice than the 25th.

      1. my grandmother came to America at the age of 16. all my life we left a saucer of milk for the missed to bring us luck through the year my family 3 generations later keep it alive. thank you for your post.

  3. Thanks for this site David and for the time you put in to it. I’m an 82 year old first generation Norwegian/American born in Bayridge Brooklyn (more Norwegians lived there than in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city) in 1932. My mom, Solveig, held fast to the holiday traditions as did our neighbors. The most delicately delicious krum kakke, Fattig man, hazelnut cookies, sand kakke and various other delicacies were baked the whole week preceding Julaften. I had it better than other Americans who celebrated on the 25th in that after the depression we had big Xmas Day roasts as well and went visiting our relatives for “coffee & cake” and leftover turkey and such. A real treat was to sample the other Norwegian Cookies that folks from different home towns in Norway had baked with great variation and whipped cream fillings of rum and fruit ‘saft’. Mom had anold hah ‘hexe’ woman riding a broom hanging over the fire place opening and if she faced in it was to be bad weather and vice versa if facing out. She was surrounded by Jule Nisser all hanging by silken red threads. To my Dad’s shagrin, she strung lines of tiny Norwegian flags hanging on lines of red thread spiraling down around the Xmas tree. He’d say, in Norwegian, We’re in America now and what do patriotic flags have to do with Xmas? I guess she was very home sick at Xmastime.

    1. Very interesting to read your family traditions first hand, George! You could make an oral history project with any other American Norwegians you know. Good yule!

  4. Hi David, I’m enjoying reading your Christmas in Norway posts! We will be int Tromso for Christmas this year (with a 12 yo and a 10 yo who both still believe in Santa Claus) and expect it to be a very, very different type of Christmas than we have here in tropical Queensland (in Australia).

    I’m wondering what you, or your readers, might recommend we do for our Christmas celebration. I understand most restaurants will be closed….. thanks!

    1. Sounds lovely! But yes, you can expect shops and restaurants to be closed. I’ve never been to Tromsø at Christmas so can’t pass on specific advice, but I would suggest contacting hotels to see if they are offering a Christmas dinner/event (which will be on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day). Enjoy!

  5. Great post. My husband & I are both descendants of Norwegians (I was an Olson, he is a Sande). My in-laws never touched a drop of alcohol, but surely made and ate wonderful lefse, krumkake and lutefisk. You’ve inspired us to make some of these old favorites this year. Thank you.

  6. We had non-alcoholic gløgg at work last week (a couple of hours north of Trondheim) and fresh lefse with lots of fillings (cheese/local salmon/jam/rømme). I have made lussekatter for the first time and discovered that it’s traditional to make about 7 different types of biscuits (but apparently people make less in recent years). Here a different meal each day of Christmas is enjoyed apparently. It’s interesting to learn about different traditions and we’re trying to figure out how our English-Trøndelag Christmas will be for our children. As Santa comes to the front door and delivers a present each on Christmas Eve afternoon to local children (apparently a neighbour or relative dressed up) , I don’t know if they will adjust to such a big change 😁 Seasons greetings everyone

  7. At our Sons of Norway Lodge 3-515 we had a major Julefest celebration which included salmon, ham, fruit soup, rice soup, cucumbers, beets, lefse, krumkakke, sunbakkels, and lots of other cookies and cakes. Unfortunately no lutefisk or aquavit but we did have gloog, from Ikea store. We had a presentation from a immigrant Norwegian, sang songs and reminded me of my childhood. I have two nissers that didn’t want to leave the workshop to go to the party cause they had beer and porridge.

  8. I am enjoying your articles. It takes me back to a time when I lived in Stavanger for 9 years. My daughters grew up in this wonderful place. Their children do not know the wonderful traditions of Norway so my next children’s storybook, Farting Four-toed Troll, will give them an insight to the beauty and goodness. The children will learn in a fun take on the Julenisse that it is good to be kind, call people by the correct name and help feed the animals.

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