December is finally here, so let’s talk about cosy Nordic Christmas traditions. Having been living in the UK for 14 years, it has always been important to hold onto some traditions from back home and find joy in the little moments.
I guess I miss my home especially now this period – it is when Norway is at its darkest, but that also means it is at its most magical and cosy. With the days so short you sometimes might not even see any daylight at all, the houses are full of Christmas lights and candles which creates a hyggelig (cosy) atmosphere hard to beat. Back when I was young there would usually be snow on the ground, and sitting inside looking out at a white winter wonderland was always a special feeling. For us Scandinavians, Christmas is a time to stay home, practice hygge and slow down. I hope my list can inspire you to do the same.
If you are curious to learn about the Nordic way of celebrating Christmas or want to adopt some new cosy traditions this festive season while maybe wanting to reconnect with your Norwegian heritage, keep reading.
How to celebrate Christmas the cosy Nordic way:
Christmas in the Nordic region is based on Christian traditions with elements of old pagan traditions and a few newer additions. There are many traditions that depend on the country, region, and family, but here you will find the traditions that I am used to in southwestern Norway.
Light an advent candle every Sunday
In Scandinavia, we have a tradition of lighting one candle in the evening each of the four Sundays of advent. The 4 candles symbolise joy, hope, longing & peace. This is a lovely way to mark the countdown to the big day, and lighting candles help to create a special and cosy atmosphere in the home.
Many have a special advent candle holder or wreath they use each year, and it is usually decorated with fresh greenery or other decor items to get in the Christmas spirit.
In Norway, we have a poem by Inger Hagerup we say while we light each candle, the first Sunday’s verse is:
“Så tenner vi et lys i kveld, vi tenner det for glede.
Det står og skinner for seg selv, og oss som er til stede.
Så tenner vi et lys i kveld, vi tenner det for glede.”
“We light a candle tonight, we light it for joy.
It stands there and shines for itself, and for those present.
We light a candle tonight, we light it for joy.”
In addition to the advent candle, we also have an advent calendar which to me is very hyggelig – it makes this time of year extra special to have a little treat each morning.
DIY as much as you can
In the build-up to Christmas, we like to get together and have juleverksted (Christmas workshops) where we make our own decor, cookies and Christmas presents. It is a great way to get into the festive spirits and be more eco-friendly. This is a time to be creative and use what you have – it can be a nisse made out of an empty toilet roll and some cotton as a beard, a dried orange wreath or a paper garland for the tree.
Bake syv sorter
Traditionally in Norway, it was common to bake seven different kinds of Christmas cookies or cakes which is something many people still do today. (Although to be fair, nowadays many will buy this ready-made if they do not have time to bake that many.) The most popular sweet treat at Christmas is pepperkaker, a crispy gingerbread cookie. You can find these in all different festive shapes like hearts, stars or people, and many enjoy baking these at home so their house smells lovely. Other popular syv sorter are krumkaker, berlinerkranser, lefser, sirupsstenger, delfiakake to name a few.
Another one of these seven is kransekake – a traditional show-stopping confection made for special occasions. The word translates to ‘wreath cake’, and it is an impressively tall tower made out of eighteen delicate cookie rings which are decorated with glazing. Many families have this as a centrepiece of the dessert table on Christmas Eve, when it is finally tomes to break of the first ring and start enjoying this delicious treat.
I have actually never tried to make one myself, that is always my grandmother’s task. This year even though I am not going home to Norway I won’t try to make one because my fiancé is allergic to nuts (and eating a whole one of these by myself will be a bit too much…) but here is a recipe you can check out if you fancy having a go:
Eat lussekatter on the 13th of December
Santa Lucia is celebrated in Scandinavia on the 13th of December. Historically what we call Lussinatten was considered the longest night of the year. From that night until Christmas it was thought that spirits, gnomes and trolls roamed the earth. Today we remember the day with a ceremony where a girl is elected to portray Lucia. Wearing a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head, she walks at the head of a procession, with each kid holding a candle. The candles symbolize the fire that refused to take St. Lucy’s life when she was sentenced to be burned, and they hand out lussekatter while they sing a song:
“Svart senker natten seg i stall og stue.
Solen har gått sin vei, skyggene truer.
Inn i vårt mørke hus stiger med tente lys;
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia”
“Black night descends in the stable and living room.
The sun has gone it’s way, the shadows are threatening.
Into our dark house rising with lit candles;
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.”
Lussekatter is delicious saffron buns typically shaped into the letter ‘s’ to look like a curled-up cat, sometimes with raisins for decoration to resemble the cat’s eyes. I am planning on baking some and will share the recipe with you once I have done it.
In addition to baking Christmas cookies, a traditional thing to make is a pepperkakehus (gingerbread house) which gets decorated with icing and candy. The house is first used as a decoration and then demolished and eaten at the end of the holidays. If you want to try to make one, IKEA has a great gingerbread house kit which makes it much easier to do than making everything from scratch. It can be a cosy activity to decorate this by yourself, with your partner or together with your kids.
On December 23rd it is common to stay in and celebrate Lille Julaften, or Little Christmas Eve as we would say in English. This is a time when family or friends decorates their home and the tree while listening to Christmas music (this one is my favourite and takes me right back to my childhood), eating Christmas cookies and enjoying each other’s company.
I, however, decorate our home for Christmas and put the tree up on the 1st of Advent (which usually falls on the last Sunday of November).
Decorate your home with ‘Nisser’
Although there are plenty of different ways to decorate the home during Christmas, a very cosy guy who pops up during this period is the nisse. A nisse is a mythological creature from Scandinavian folklore tales which is typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. They can be described as short creatures with a long white beard and wearing a red cap similar to a garden gnome. According to tradition, the nisse lives in the barn and secretly acts as the family’s guardian. However, they are known to be short-tempered, and if insulted they will play tricks on you or steal things. In Norway, you can often see a few nisser when you visit someone’s home during Christmas.
Fun fact: Santa Claus is called Julenissen in Norwegian, Jultomten in Swedish, Julemanden in Danish and Joulutonttu in Finnish.
Watch ‘Tre nøtter til Askepott’ on the 24th
Another time when most of Norway is at standstill during the holidays is when we all watch the East German-Czechoslovak film ‘Tre nøtter til Askepott’ / ‘Three Wishes for Cinderella’ (Tři oříšky pro-Popelku) which is always shown on tv at 11:00 each year. The film is an old classic from 1973, and in Norway we watch it dubbed in Norwegian by Knut Risan. The film is a variation of the Cinderella fairy tale, based on the Brothers Grimm’s 1812 version.
Celebrate Julaften on the 24th
Christmas Eve is the main event during the Scandinavian Christmas, so we celebrate Christmas on the 24th. This is the evening we get together with family at home to have the main big dinner. The Christmas presents are placed under the tree and get opened after dinner.
Christmas is the time to enjoy warm, cosy evenings at home with some good festive food. There are many different variations of Norwegian Christmas food which can depend on where in the country you live or what your family is used to. The most popular Christmas Eve dinner is the ribbe (roasted pork belly), pinnekjøtt (salted, dried, and sometimes smoked lamb ribs) and lutefisk (cod cured in lye) also common dishes accompanied by potatoes and vegetables.
When it comes to drinks, many Norwegians have juleøl (Christmas beer) with the food – a darker and spicier beer that fits perfectly with the food. Norwegians also have their own take on mulled wine: gløgg which is usually made of hot red wine and/or aquavit, sugar, and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves. The drink is served with almonds and raisins inside. A stronger drink you might come across this day is akvavit, which is enjoyed slowly during festive gatherings such as Christmas dinner. Another popular non-alcoholic drink amongst Norwegians is julebrus – a very sweet, red soda loved by young and old.
A big highlight of the Christmas Eve get-together in Norway is our classic dessert ‘riskrem’ which is a delicious and creamy rice pudding. It is served cold with a red berry sauce on top, but what is most particular about this dessert is that it turns into an event in itself by being a game. A part of our tradition is that there is one peeled almond hidden inside the dessert – and whoever gets the almond wins a price which typically is a marzipan pig. This is the recipe for riskrem I used for mine which is simple.
- 4 dl cold risengrynsgrøt (which you can make like this)
- 3 dl whipping cream
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla sugar
Start by whipping the cream with sugar and vanilla sugar. Then fold the whipped cream into the cold risengrynsgrøt until you get an even mixture. Make sure you use light movements so that you do not knock out the air from the cream. Serve with a red berry sauce, which is made by heating up 300 g raspberries, ½ dl water and 1 dl sugar before sifting and putting in the fridge to cool down.
Slow down during Romjulen
You know the period between Christmas and New Years’ char doesn’t really have a name in English – well in Norway we have a word for that period and it is romjulen. This period is perfect for relaxing at home, playing board games, eating the rest of the Christmas food and all the treats as well as smashing that gingerbread house I spoke about earlier. This time is my favourite, the stress of Christmas is over and you can simply just enjoy the slow moments.
Do you celebrate any of these cosy Nordic Christmas traditions yourself or have any other great ones to share? I would love to hear about your Christmas.
Lastly, I hope you have a lovely, slow and cosy Christmas time without stress and worry. And as we say in Norway: