Norwegian Christmas Traditions
There are the twelve days of Christmas, the eight days of Hanukkah, and the seven days of Kwanzaa, but can you imagine twenty days of Christmas? Some wait all year for a single day of celebration with family and friends, but not too long ago some of North Dakota’s earliest setters were stretching Christmas to its limit. The traditional Norwegian Christmas is not one, but twenty days of celebration!
Many of the basic Norwegian Christmas customs don’t differ from the average North Dakotans’ Christmas. They decorated Christmas trees, and opened gifts on Christmas Eve, but there were many Norwegian traditions that may be unfamiliar to the modern North Dakotan.
The biggest difference though, was the number of days celebrated. By Norwegian tradition, they celebrated for twenty days from December 25th to January 13th. That’s not counting the days celebrated leading up to Christmas, like the 23rd of December, or “Washing Day,” a day set aside for preparation for the Christmas season.
Christmas Eve Day was similar to “Washing Day” and was used to finish any last minute chores. But all chores ended by sunset, and festivities and some unique traditions were celebrated on Christmas Eve.
A large meal was served the night before Christmas, and it was the milk maid’s duty to supply her family with Kolvgamme, a seasonal delicacy prepared with fresh milk. If fresh milk was not available, the Kalvgomme could not be prepared and the milk maid or an effigy of her was set on the roof of the stable for punishment!
While the milk maid was sitting on the stable, Norwegians believed that on Christmas Eve the animals would be talking in the stables. According to Norwegian superstition, on the night before Christmas the animals would talk about the delicious food they had been given, for even the animals were included in the celebration of Christmas.
Christmas Day was quiet, and set aside for religious observance and family time. A large meal was served, with lutefisk as the main dish. The day after Christmas, or Second Christmas as it was called, was when the real holiday partying began. Nineteen days of celebration followed the 25th of December. Friends and family held open houses and visited one another frequently.
During this time, the young people would dress as Jul Bukk, or Christmas Fools, hiding their identity and going house to house in search of treats. Christmas celebrations lasted until the thirteenth day of January, when the last parties were held and the Christmas tree was taken down.
After immigrating to America, Scandinavian families continued for some time to celebrate a traditional Norwegian Christmas, but soon Old Country customs blended into American Christmas traditions, leaving most Norwegian immigrants with the common one day celebration.
Most modern Norwegians must now wait for Christmas nineteen days longer than their ancestors, but although several days are missing, the same Christmas spirit has managed to fit into one day and some things haven’t change: the decorated tree, the time with family, and of course, the traditional Christmas Lutefisk.
By Ann Erling
WPA Ethnic History and Folk Lore Files