This is a post that I could have (and should have) written years ago. Christmas is my absolute favourite holiday, and throughout all my travels and stints of living abroad, I have shared Norwegian Christmas traditions with my friends. I’m that person who will literally ask you to tell me about your Christmas and how you celebrate, so that I, in turn, can go into extreme detail about how my family and I celebrate, and what fun Norwegian Christmas traditions we uphold (and which ones we don’t).
In short, you don’t mess with my Christmas. I grew up with a big family, and celebrating Christmas has become a synonym for love, chaos and memories. I am lucky enough to have experienced Christmas traditions in the UK, the US and Australia, and am incredibly grateful for those experiences. But nothing beats a proper Norwegian Christmas.
So, since I absolutely love sharing what Christmas is like in Norway, and asking other people about their local and national Christmas traditions, I thought it only appropriate that I finally answer the question, “how is Christmas celebrated in Norway?”
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What you need to know about Christmas in Norway
First things first. The main thing that makes Christmas in Norway special is that our main celebration is on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day as in most other countries. This is primarily a Scandinavian thing as far as I know (do tell me in the comments if you celebrate on Christmas Eve as well, and tell me where you’re from!). When I have celebrated Christmas abroad it has been quite strange for me to not participate in any Christmas traditions on Christmas Eve, and spend the day waiting for the next day.
Another thing that’s worth mentioning about Christmas in Norway is that we don’t open presents in the morning. My first Christmas abroad was in Wales, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when we were given presents to open at 7 am. I hadn’t even had my coffee and found it quite hard to share the excitement within 5 minutes of waking up.
Can you imagine Christmas in Norway for kids when they are expected to get up early, walk around in an excited state all day, and not be able to open presents until after dinner? It’s absolute torture, but as my dad always told me; it builds character.
The waiting period in Norway is important, and we have even dubbed the 23rd of December ‘Little Christmas Eve’. This is a very special day when many families will decorate the Christmas tree and make their final preparations before Christmas ‘officially’ starts. The whole of December is spent counting down the days using Advent Calendars, which have quite a special place in the hearts of Norwegians celebrating Christmas. Our Advent Calendars have 24 days in them and can be quite different from what you might be used to in any English speaking countries. But more about them below (in the ‘Norwegian Christmas Traditions you should know about’ section.
If you are visiting Norway in December, you might be hoping to see the Northern Lights. Depending on where you are, here’s a guide to the best times to visit in order to experience them. Alternatively, you can head this way to read my guide to the best times to visit Norway.
When celebrating Christmas in Norway, there’s one thing you need; a proper knitted sweater. Here are some of my favourite Scandinavian sweaters.
Norwegian Christmas Traditions you should know about
I’m really excited to share this list of Norwegian Christmas traditions with you and have found myself chuckling at quite a few of these. So many things that seem so normal to me have become the laughing stock of my group of friends when I have shared them abroad (in a good way). There are some truly hilarious (and weird) Christmas traditions in Norway, and I have tried to include them all in this list.
However, I have tried to stick to the ones that actually stand out and are quite unique for Christmas in Norway, and so I have excluded traditions such as Christmas Markets and Christmas decorations. Of course, we have our own twists to these as well, but they aren’t anywhere near as entertaining as the below. You’ll find some great Christmas Markets all over Europe, and most countries have their own traditions when it comes to decorating for Christmas, right?
These Christmas traditions are some peculiar customs that only those who have grown up in Norway will completely understand. Read more funny Norwegian customs here.
If you are planning a trip to Norway, my custom made itineraries will help you in the planning process!
#1 Advent Calendars – Adventskalender
As mentioned, we care about the time leading up to Christmas. Every Sunday of Advent (you know, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas), we light candles – one for each Sunday. This is to mark that another week has passed and that we are waiting for
Jesus presents. In addition to this, we have the best Advent calendars in the world (in my unbiased opinion).
Of course, we have Advent calendars where you get a piece of chocolate every day. But we also have Advent calendars where you get a new present every day for 24 days. This is probably the reason why a whole generation of millennial Norwegians walks the earth telling people that they come from the richest country in the world. We literally grew up getting a new pencil, eraser or piece of clothing for our Barbie dolls every single morning for almost the whole duration of December. Sorry about that.
Another amazing version of the Norwegian Advent Calendars (and probably the best) is the televised one. Yep, as in on TV. Most of our top TV channels will produce their own Advent Calendar, in the form of a Christmas-themed TV show with 24 episodes. Every night you’d sit down in front of the TV to catch the next episode, and regardless of your preference in TV shows, you’ll find the right one for you. There are children’s calendars where all you get is that warm Christmas spirit, reality-styled ones where a bunch of Santa’s vote each other off the show (it’s hilarious, trust me), and even a horror show where a family has to spend Christmas in an old hotel, disputing who inherits the right patriarch.
#2 Cinderella on TV – ‘Tre Nøtter til Askepott’
Amongst all the great Norwegian holiday traditions, this has to be my favourite. And it may also prove to be the hardest to explain. Basically, there is a Czech movie from 1973 that has stolen the heart of the people of Norway (seriously, all of us). It was dubbed into Norwegian by a male actor, and his voice is the only (!) voice you hear throughout the movie. The only exception is that in the background you can hear a bit of the original Czech voices of the actual actors. The movie is based off a Bohemian version of the Cinderella fairy tale.
For some reason, this movie has become incredibly popular in Norway, and it has been shown on our national broadcasting channel every Christmas Eve since 1996. That’s 22 years of Norwegians watching a poorly dubbed, Czech version of Cinderella, every single Christmas. Personally, it’s the highlight of my Christmas traditions, and every year on the 24th of December you’ll find me in my pyjamas in front of the TV at 11 am.
#3 Halloween meets caroling – Julebukk
One of my fondest memories of the Christmas season as a child was heading out to ‘gå Julebukk’. I may have forgotten to mention it, but ‘Jul’ is Norwegian for Christmas. ‘Bukk’ means ‘buck’ (as in the male goat), and I have no idea why we have put these two together to create a verb. But we have, and so Julebukk is a verb used to describe an important Christmas tradition in Norway.
In short, kids will dress up as Christmas-themed characters in the days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. By Christmas-themed characters, I mean angels, shepherds, Mary and Josef. They will then walk from door to door in their neighbourhood and sing Christmas carols, getting sweets and candy in return. I remember some neighbours would even give us ice cream, which I find rather odd now that I realise how cold it actually is to walk around in a costume in December.
#4 Aquavit – Akevitt
Google translate told me that this strong Norwegian alcohol is a kind of gin, which I strongly disagree with. Aquevitt is a spirit with roots in Scandinavia, and it is distilled from potatoes. It is served throughout the Christmas season, especially during and after dinner. It is incredibly strong, and naturally, an important part of drinking culture in Norway. It is served in a shot glass, yet is sipped slowly, and many believe it helps the food sink after a big meal.
#5 Christmas “Elfs” living in barns – Nisse på Låven
So, I have put elf in quotation marks above, as there truly is no proper translation for the Norwegian Nisse. Nisse is used for these creatures, but also for Santa Claus (Julenisse), garden gnomes (Hagenisse) and for Dobby the House Elf (Husnisse). Do you see why the translation is a little tricky?
Basically, this particular Nisse is a small manlike creature living on an active farm, usually in the barn. He will hide in the hay, and you will rarely see him. According to the legends, it is the Fjøsnisse (fjøs = barn) that takes care of the animals on the farm, ensuring that they do not get ill in the winter. As a token of appreciation for this, it is expected that the farmer leaves a bowl of Julegrød (Christmas porridge) on the steps of his house for the elf to enjoy for Christmas. It is very important that there is a blob of butter in the middle of the porridge, otherwise, the Nisse could get angry and the animals could get sick for Christmas. I kid you not.
Fun fact: in kindergarten they would take us to a local farm to meet their Nisse, who hid in the hay and jumped around so we could see him. It was absolutely terrifying and I was the only child who ran out of the barn.
#6 Santa himself – Julenissen
The Norwegian Santa Claus is called Julenissen, and he is pretty much similar to most other Santas around the world.
With the exception that we actually get to meet him. And that he doesn’t come down the chimney. On Christmas Eve, he knocks on the door and enters the house with a sack full of presents. Since there are only a few countries in the world celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve, he has plenty of time to sit down to relax (and be offered a shot of Aquavit). Sometimes, the children of the house will sing him a song before he starts pulling presents out of his bag. When he has emptied his bag, he leaves. Through the door.
Still looking for Christmas presents? Don’t miss my guide to unique gifts for travel lovers.
#7 Sheaves of Wheat for the Birds – Julenek
My dad always told me that during Christmas we are obliged to feel sorry for everyone. Even the birds. So some of the most common Norwegian Christmas decorations you’ll see in December are sheaves of wheat (or oats) that are hung out in the trees for birds to feast on. The sight of these around the naked trees is definitely something that brings the Christmas spirit.
#8 Norwegian Christmas Food
When celebrating a traditional Norwegian Christmas, you’ll quickly find that the season is all about family, and food. Christmas dinner in Norway is actually quite the heated topic, with over half the nation swearing to a dish called ‘Ribbe’ on Christmas Eve, and the rest having grown up with ‘Pinnekjøtt’. In my family, we eat the latter, and it is the highlight of the month for many people.
Norwegian Christmas food is an important part of the celebrations, and one of Norway’s Christmas traditions includes arguing with your friends over whether Ribbe or Pinnekjøtt is the best choice of dinner for a proper Norwegian Christmas.
Ribbe, is pretty much what it sounds like; ribs of pork. The ribs are roasted to perfection, and ideally, the top layer of it is so crunchy you can hardly chew it. Ribbe is served with potatoes, sausage, sourkraut, sauce and lingonberries.
Pinnekjøtt is a lot harder to explain, but I can tell you that this Norwegian traditional meat is from sheep or goat. The word ‘pinnekjøtt’ literally translates to ‘Stick Meat’, and it is believed that the name derives from the sticks that are used in the making of the meat. The meat is cured and salted over time and has quite a strong and salty taste. Pinnekjøtt is served with potatoes, mashed kohlrabi (I had to Google the English word for that), and sauce.
My absolute favourite part about the food for Christmas is the dessert. Many families (mine included) will make a really yummy rice pudding out of the porridge eaten earlier (read about it below), and it is basically cold rice porridge mixed with cream and sugar. We then proceed to pour strawberry sauce over it, and it is absolute heaven.
#9 Hiding an almond in the porridge – Mandel i Grøten
As mentioned, rice porridge is often eaten for lunch on Christmas Eve or on Little Christmas Eve. The porridge itself is quite simple, and there is no special recipe for it at all. Except for one thing. When the porridge is all done and ready to be served, an almond is hidden in it.
Whoever gets the almond, wins the game, and this is probably the strangest of all Norwegian Christmas games (not that there are that many). Usually, the winner gets a pig made out of marzipan, and the question can be heard throughout the village as people meet in the days to come; “who got the marzipan pig in your house?”
#10 Marzipan pigs
As I was writing the section above I realised how odd this actually is, and felt like it needed its own mention on the list. For Christmas in Norway, there are a lot of items made out of marzipan, such as Christmas decorations and pigs. I have no idea why the marzipan pig has become such a favoured part of Norway’s Christmas tradition, but here we are. And now you know.
#11 The Christmas party – Julebord
I know this isn’t strictly a Norwegian tradition per se, but as you may have gathered from our love for Aquavit, the Christmas Party tradition is an important one in Norway. The Norwegian Julebord (literally translated to Christmas Table) is heavily focused on food, in addition to the international tradition of getting drunk with your colleagues. So first, everyone will stuff their faces with Ribbe and Pinnekjøtt, before drinking Aquavit until they forget how full they are.
Many of us will also take it to the next level, by arranging Christmas Parties with our friends, in addition to the mandatory one with work. Twice the fun, and twice the Christmas spirit.
#12 Sending Christmas Trees Abroad
This is one of my favourite fun facts about Christmas in Norway, and I love sharing it with people who didn’t know. Every year, there is a huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, London. This tree is actually donated as a gift from the city of Oslo, and they have sent a tree over from Norway every year since 1947! This is as a thank you for the support Norway was given by Britain during World War II. The tree is decorated in a traditional, Norwegian style, and you can read more about it (and find out when they light it every year) by heading this way.
Your questions about Christmas in Norway – answered!
Since I do get a question or two about what it’s like to celebrate Christmas in Norway, I thought I’d answer most of them here. Starting with the most important one, of course.
How do you say Merry Christmas in Norwegian?
Merry Christmas in Norway is ‘God Jul’. Jul is, as we’ve covered above, Christmas, and ‘God’ isn’t the man upstairs, but ‘Good’. So you’re actually saying Good Christmas.
If you are wondering how to pronounce God Jul, here is my best attempt at spelling it out phonetically (which Intrepid Guide can tell you that I’m not great at, after our Norwegian phrases and how to pronounce them collaboration).
When is Christmas Eve?
Christmas Eve is on the 24th of December, same as in every other country. Many Norwegian will actually call Christmas Day “their Christmas Eve” when talking about how they celebrate Christmas on Christmas day in other countries, but this is technically incorrect, as we also call the 25th of December Christmas Day. In addition to the 23rd, which we call Little Christmas Eve, the following days are dubbed the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Day of Christmas, and so on. In short, Norwegian uses the same terminology when it comes to Christmas, with the exception of the added Little Christmas Eve.
Why do Norway, Denmark and Sweden celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December?
That’s a great question, and actually, one I had to Google. There are many Norwegian traditions I never would have guessed how got started, and this was no exception.
Basically, it is widely known that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. Or at least this is what was decided around year 300. Traditionally, in Scandinavia, a new day starts at sundown, and not at midnight, which is the general rule today. So, the day of Jesus’ birth has been celebrated since sundown on the 24th, which in Norway in December is quite early, depending on how far north you live.
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So, how do Norwegians celebrate Christmas?
Well, here’s a pretty neat rundown of my Christmas Eve if I get my way (meaning I convince my sisters to both bring the kids home to the fjords for Christmas and make sure nobody leaves until after New Year).
Visiting the fjords of Norway in winter? Here’s the guide you need!
I usually wake up early on Christmas Eve, as I am woken up by my nephew and nieces. We all head to the living room, where Santa has visited over night and left us stockings filled with sweets and a cartoon (as in a magazine). We start devouring these while waiting for everyone to wake up, and wait excitedly for the Czech Cinderella to start at 11.
At some point we eat breakfast, and by the time Cinderella starts, pretty much the whole family is awake. After Cinderella is finished, it’s time for lunch, which means rice porridge with an almond in it. Since I’m allergic to marzipan, the winner in my family doesn’t actually get an almond, but a Santa made out of chocolate. I know, I ruin it for everyone.
After lunch, my mum and I get ready for church, whilst my father starts cooking, which is a long process. My sisters, brother, nieces and nephew relax, read, eat their sweets and simply enjoy the spirit of Christmas. And drink beer. My mum and I are the only ones who go to church on Christmas Eve, which is at 4 pm every year. The church of Norway is Lutheran, in case anyone wondered.
At 5 pm, when church is over, the bells toll and we say that they are ‘ringing Christmas in’. At 5 pm, it is officially Christmas Eve, and when we get home, the whole house smells of Pinnekjøtt.
We enjoy dinner and a few shots of Aquavit, and the kids quickly start nagging about opening their presents. We make them wait a little, before we cave and all gather around the tree. At some point during the opening of the presents, Julenissen arrives, and we sing him a song and open the presents he bought.
The day usually ends at around 1 am, with everyone too exhausted to keep going. It is the absolute best time of year, and I can’t wait for it to come around again soon!