Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Nisse and Gløgg: Memories of My First Norwegian Christmas

This entry will be like watching “Home Alone” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in July: it just won’t feel right. But winter in Norway is such a unique experience that it deserves some space here. And since we learned how to talk about the seasons in my norskkurs today—with much of the dialogue involving such winter pastimes as skiing and the like—I’m kind of in the mood. Cue Bing Crosby.

Although I’m still a Norwegian novice on virtually every level, this isn’t the first time I’ve been here. Last December, I flew into a scene that you might find in a novelty snow globe. Norway in winter is shocking to a foreigner on many levels. First, it’s cold. Really cold. The mercury rarely rose above ten degrees Fahrenheit or so when I was there. And on some occasions it was down around -15 or colder: too cold to even snow for the most part. But more startling is the darkness. Sunrise—if you can call it that—is between 10 and 11 a.m. and sunset is between 1 and 2 p.m. Even during these daylight hours the sun is barely above the horizon: an effect akin to dusk in areas of lower latitude. When you are not used to such conditions—and are suffering jetlag to boot—it’s easy to feel tired all the time. Although I usually sleep around 7 hours a night at home, I would often go to bed at midnight and wake up around noon here without much effort. A typical day might involve waking up around midday and seeing your breath in bed (Tonje just relied on a space heater to heat her apartment), looking out the window to a sky that looks like 5 a.m. in pre-war Yugoslavia (it’s gray and dark), eating lunch for breakfast and then trekking out in the snow in literally every piece of clothing you own to do a bit of Christmas shopping and see the town in all its winter glory. When you get back from these errands around 3 p.m.—when the sun has long since left the sky—you’re ready for dinner and an evening on the couch. Now, that wasn’t what I did every day of course, but it wasn’t an uncommon one either. Surprisingly, you don’t really miss much following this pattern. The country seems to move a bit slower in the winter and its people with it.

Despite having to make these adjustments, Norway is actually quite charming in the cold months. Parts of it resemble many American families’ ideas of a “Christmas village” that you might see in the pictures of a children’s book or painted on tacky holiday flatware. There is something in the air—besides ice particles and your breath—that is entrancing. From the thatched-roofed huts run by women in traditional dress who sell warm drinks and pancakes, to the strands of lights adorning the old buildings, to the church bells and street music, Norway during juletid (Yuletide) is pretty magical, for lack of a better word.

Many of the Norwegian Christmas customs resemble ones that people from other Western cultures might be used to: the typical Christmas movies, Christmas tree, gifts, etc. But Norway—and Scandinavia in general—has a lot of its own ones. Instead of Santa Claus, the dominant character of the folklore is the nisse. These little elf-like creatures are traditionally depicted as little men wearing long, floppy Santa hats, and legend has it that they emerge from barns at night to protect the humans who live on the same property as them. But they are often mischievous and frequently creepy—in one legend, a certain nisse killed a cow and savagely beat a maid because the farmer put a pat of butter underneath his porridge rather than on top of it.

In addition to aggravated assault and murder, porridge has other significance in typical Norwegian Christmas tradition. On Juleaften (Christmas Eve), members of the family eagerly gather around the dinner table, each with a bowl of porridge. The preparer of the porridge has placed a single almond in one “lucky” family member’s bowl, and the one who finds the almond is gifted an unusual treat: a small pig—about three inches long or so—made entirely of marzipan. Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to find the almond, Tonje’s family decided to give me the marzipan pig since I was the newcomer. I was honored, and eagerly bit into the pig’s snout. Since marzipan is little more than ground almonds and sugar, I was immediately full and probably didn’t need to eat food for another day: a marzipan pig is really the gift that keeps on giving.

Needing something to wash down the candied swine, I grabbed for what has to be my favorite staple of Norwegian Christmas culture: gløgg. A drink tasting kind of similar to apple cider, gløgg is usually served warm and made with red wine, sugar and an assortment of spices including: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves. Some will dump chopped nuts and raisins in it as well. And for an extra kick you can pour some of that delicious aquavit in as well. I am a big fan of gløgg, and although I drank it often in Norway, I actually had my first taste during a skiing trip to Sweden.

About a week before Christmas, Tonje and I borrowed her dad’s car and drove the two hours—we timed the drive with the sunrise and the sunset—from Steinkjer to her dad’s cabin in the ski-resort town of Åre, Sweden: one of the largest in northern Europe. Although I repeatedly told Tonje that I hadn’t skied in some 10 to 15 years, she had confidence in my ability to handle the slopes. Although there were novice runs right outside of the cabin, the plan was to head over to the big boys for some real skiing. Outfitted in my ski suit, goggles and her dad’s 1980s, bright-white astronaut ski boots I looked like I was headed off to film a scene from Dumb and Dumber. As we ascended the mountain in the ski lift, I could see nothing but Olympic runs and double black diamond slopes beneath me. And no one was struggling: everyone in Scandinavia can ski well. This was going to be a disaster.

And disaster it was. Using nothing but crossing trails, I pizza-braked my way down the mountain in what must have been the slowest-ever descent on record. Out of breath and beaten, I told Tonje to go have fun and I went off to find a bar to drown my sorrows. Eventually finding one, I pounded on the door in desperation until a ski bum flew in and told me that he owned the place and that it wasn’t going to open for another 45 minutes. Disheartened, I began to make my way back to the ski lift area when I heard a call from the bar: “Hey! If you just want a drink, come on in!” He must have seen my boots.

I sat in the bar for a little while and talked with the Swede about his country, skiing and America. He even put Rascal Flatts on the stereo—I think most foreigners associate country music with the US. Warmed by the fire in the bar—and a solid Swedish beer—I was ready to take on the world when Tonje returned. We ventured back over to the “kiddy” runs next to our cabin and I was instantly Bode Miller. Even though several three-year-old girls “may” have skied past me and laughed, I was at least finally able to experience the exhilaration of staying on my feet from beginning to end of a ski slope. All 50 meters of it.

I’ll always remember Sweden for the skiing, and for the evenings in the cabin learning the Norwegian numbers by playing Monopoly. And I’ll also remember it for the fact that alcohol was at least 50 percent cheaper there. But it was just part of what was the most unique Christmas experience I’ve ever had. Although you can’t beat the endless sunlight, stunning nature and relatively nice weather of Norway, and other Scandinavian countries, from May through August, the wintertime is certainly special in its own right. Here, you’ll always have a white Christmas, and you never need an excuse to sit inside by the fire, laze the day away and drink something warm. Just be sure to put the butter ON TOP of the porridge.


  1. Hi John - I just came across your blog on the expat site and look forward to reading more! But how dare you remind me of the dark winter months of solitude and slothfulness when we are just about to turn the corner on daylight (20 June!)?! I always feel a bit depressed on the 21st of June, knowing that we are heading towards the eternal night. But I do have to agree that Norwegians are GREAT at doing Christmas. Everything about it they get right in a dreamy, cozy way. So on 21 June I will look forward to that!

  2. did you try juleøl? I spent my first christmas in Norway last year and i have to say coming from flat flat middle of england has barely seen proper snow in all of my life expect my brief stint in triodheim did not prepare me for the epic coldness (-28C) and snow up to my tiny 5'2" waist :P but i did like the Norwegian traditions especially all the odd tv programs on that are blatently mesnt for children but everyone watches without fail, i wasn't quite so enamoured with the food porridge, potatoes and pinnekjøtt none of my favourites i have to say! but at least now it is summer and i can enjoy ther long days and masses of rain (down here in Bergen).

  3. Jenaconti-Hah, beklager for påminnelsen! At least the solstice means we're halfway to another Christmas. I'm feeling some gløgg already.

    Selina-I liked the unique TV spots during Christmas here as well. The one with the red vs. blue nisse and the Czech movie that is really popular here for some reason, "Three Nuts for Cinderella"

  4. So basically, glogg the Norwegian version of Four Loko?

  5. Glogg is definitely the Norwegian Four Loko. And when you throw in some Norwegian moonshine that one of the farmers made then you've got something truly legendary.