Few Norwegians put up special “Christmas curtains” in their kitchen windows this year, or put on costumes during these after-Christmas days called “romjul” to then go knocking on doors and asking for treats. Most don’t feel compelled to bake seven types of Christmas cookies either, nor do many put their Christmas trees in the center of the room and sing songs around them, as 0ld holiday traditions are replaced by new ones.
While old traditions live on in story books and memories, those living in Norway can confirm that many old and seemingly odd Christmas traditions have disappeared over the past 20-30 years. That includes the julebukkene who once knocked on doors but no longer do so in most cities and towns: “Today it’s steadily less often that anyone goes door-to-door after Christmas,” Ørnulf Hodne, a folklore researcher and author who has written the book Jul i Norge (Christmas in Norway), told newspaper Dagsavisen.
Even the timing of Christmas celebrations in Norway has changed dramatically in recent years. “When I was a child, we decorated our Christmas tree on lille julaften (December 23) and kept it up until the 13th or 20th day of Christmas (well into January),” Geir Thomas Risåsen of the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo told Dagsavisen. Most all Christmas parties and family gatherings were held after December 24th and 25th. “Now many have their trees up all during Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) and take them down during romjul,” Risåsen said. With more and more single-person households in Norway, and more small apartments, many don’t even put up Christmas trees any longer.
Traditions evolve, and disappear
“Christmas is the most traditional high season we have, but the traditions are changing all the time,” Risåsen said. The popular museum where he works in Oslo has had a special exhibit this December about Christmas traditions from Viking times through to the present, and many are all but unknown today.
“What has continued for a thousand years is that jula is the great mid-winter celebration, with lots of work on it in advance followed by time off, cozy evenings (the Norwegian concept of hygge) and socializing,” Risåsen told Dagsavisen.
He stressed that the timing of it all has changed the most, with celebrations starting and ending much earlier. “There was once a very strict framework around when Christmas started and ended,” Risåsen said. “Advent was the time for all the preparations, while Christmas itself didn’t start before it was rung in on Christmas Eve. Now we have julebord (Christmas parties), julemat (traditional food like lutefisk, ribbe and pinnekjøtt) and julemarsipan (sweets) from early in November.”
The danger, Risaåsen said, “is that folks get tired of Christmas before it actually arrives.”
Nor are Norwegians as likely to sing traditional Christmas songs together at home during family celebrations, noted the author Hodne who has studied Christmas traditions for many years. Norwegian media carried stories earlier in December about how many children no longer learn all the words of many of the lengthy traditional Christmas songs like Deilig er den himmel blå and Jeg er så glad hver julekveld.
Christmas concerts, however, have exploded in popularity and become part of new annual traditions as well as big business. Many concerts are held in local churches, where even the words of the classic Deilig er jorden are often handed out just in case audience members don’t remember them for the allsang in the last verse.
Another newer tradition is the lighting of long-burning candles at graveyards on Christmas Eve. “This was originally a Catholic tradition, which came to Norway in the 1930s,” Hodne said, “but it wasn’t entirely well-received. In the 1950s, churches in Oslo decided to close their churchyards to prevent people from coming with their candles and lanterns. Today lighting candles on graves is very common.”
Many of the traditions like baking, homemade holiday decorations, and preparation of foods from special herrings to pressed pork rolls have fallen in families where both parents are working and there’s simply not enough time. Most choose to prepare one or two special treats, though, and Hodne noted that gift-giving has remained important. “The tradition of exchanging gifts has seen no decline, actually quite the contrary,” he said.