Many of the Christmas traditions in Norway originate in ancient times, based on festivals of Saturnalia and other pagan holidays. However, many more modern Norwegian Christmas rituals are based on the countries new national independence and national spirit in the face of Nazi occupation during World War II.
Julestria – The Christmas Rush
Also known as Advent, Justria refers to the weeks leading up to Christmas. Originally not celebrated by most Norwegians – mainly just the clergy- following World War II, Advent (the coming of the Lord) became mainstream. People use advent wreaths and advent calendars as a way to celebrate the impending holiday.
Christmas Eve in Norway
Just as in many other European countries, Christmas Eve is a time of great feasting and merry-making for Norwegians. During Christmas Eve day, people hang a sheaf of grain, sometimes referred to as a “bird tree,” in their front yard, to share Christmas with the local animals. By four o’clock on Christmas Eve, people are dressed in their finest and the festivities begin. People eat from the Julebord, or Christmas Buffet, dining on ribbe (pork ribs), pinnekjøh (steamed mutton ribs) or sylte (headcheese). And of course there is lutefisk, a gelatinous cod dish that people either love or hate.
On Christmas Eve, Julesvenn (similar to the Danish Julnisse) brings gifts. This tradition is a holdover from the ancient Jul feast of Viking days. December 23 is known as Lillejulaften, or Little Christmas Eve, and is when most Norwegians put up their Christmas Tree. Lucky children get to open on present on Lillejulaften.
Christmas Trees in Norway
Norway ratified its first constitution in 1814, after 400 years of Danish Rule. It became fully independent in 1905, when it left a union with Sweden. Because the Norwegian independence coincided with the rising popularity of the Christmas tree (via Germany and then Great Britain) the new Norwegian flag became a popular holiday ornament, remaining so to this day.
Christmas in Norway and World War II
Norway was occupied by the Nazis for five years during World War II. During this time the Norway flag and constitutional ribbons were outlawed. However, Norwegians found ways to declare their opposition to German rule. Christmas cards printed during the Nazi occupation featured Nisse, a Christmas gnome popular since the mid 19th Century, with the Norwegian flags and captions that read God Norsk Jul – Merry Norwegian Christmas. Despite the Nazis’ attempt at destroying the cards and forbidding printers to distribute them, many of these World War II Christmas cards still exist today, a testament to a nation’s determination to reclaim its freedom.