December is finally here, so let’s talk about cozy Nordic Christmas traditions. For me, this will be the first year I celebrate Christmas abroad and it will be important to hold onto some traditions from back home and find joy in the little moments. I know there are some of these traditions I will miss this year (which is fine), but I can still re-create some of these even though I am in Italy and can’t celebrate with family.
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 cozy. 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 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 cozy traditions this festive season while maybe wanting to reconnect with your Norwegian heritage, keep reading.
How to celebrate Christmas the cozy Nordic way:
Christmas in the Nordic region is based on Christian traditions with elements of old pagan traditions but also a few newer additions along the way. There are a lot of traditions which depends on the country, region and the family, but here you will find the traditions that I am used to southwestern Norway.
1 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 helps to create a special and cozy 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 go get in a 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 (and if you follow me on Instagram you might have seen that I made one for my dog which I am opening each day on my stories).
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.
A typical decor in Scandinavia are these paper hearts which people hang on the tree and fill with sweets or in the window. They are so sweet and you can make them yourself – this mini heart kit can help you.
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 these 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. If you want inspiration for what to make, check out the book ScandiKitchen Christmas: Recipes and traditions from Scandinavia.
Another one of these seven is kransekake – a traditional showstopping confection made for special occasions. The word translates to ‘wreath cake’, and it is an impressive 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 grandmothers 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 is 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 its way, the shadows are threatening.
Into our dark house rising with lit candles;
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
Lussekatter are 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.
Make a pepperkakehus (and smash it when Christmas is over)
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 cozy activity to decorate this by yourself, with your partner or together with your kids.
What do you think of the one we made using the IKEA kit? Now the home smells so lovely of gingerbread, and although I am looking forward to eat it I am also a bit sad to break it after all that effort… Good we get to admire it for a while first before it is time to smash it.
Stay in on Lille Julaften & watch ‘Grevinnen & Hovmesteren’
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, eating Christmas cookies and enjoy each others company. I love this tradition and never ever make plans that evening – it is like a unwritten law in my family that we all have to join in to prepare for the big day and taste the cookies to make sure they are ok (which of course they always are.) The highlight of the evening in Norway is however a little strange some might say: most of the country stands still at 21:00 when the main tv channel airs ‘Grevinnen & Hovmesteren’ (Dinner for One). This is an old classic sketch in black and white bound to make everyone laugh even though we have all seen it a million times before.
Decorate your home with nisser
Although there are plenty of different ways to decorate the home during Christmas, a very cozy 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 wearing a red cap, a bit 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 someones home during Christmas.
Fun fact: Santa Claus is called Julenissen in Norwegian, Jultomten in Swedish, Julemanden in Danish and Joulutonttu in Finnish.
Have a Christmas stocking
This is something my family does so it is not a main tradition in the whole of Scandinavia (some do this on the 25th instead I believe), but as a kid when waking up on the morning of the 24th there would always be a Christmas stocking hanging by our bed with candy, oranges and a Christmas themed magazine inside. This would mainly be to keep us entertained while our parents prepared the Christmas dinner, but it is a tradition my parents have kept doing even as we grew up and something I one day will enjoy doing for my own kids.
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.
Fun fact: the Czech film was digitised in 2014, and the project was financed by Norway through the EEA funds. This just says how important this film is for the Norwegian people :) For many, it will not be Christmas without watching this movie.
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’s opened after the dinner.
Dance around the Christmas tree
After dinner on Christmas Eve, it is common to join hands and dance around the tree together while singing classic Nordic Christmas songs. While we dance around the tree, suddenly the door-bell might ring and julenissen will be outside the door and come inside to hand out gifts. This is usually the father or the uncle in the family dressed up… but hush – don’t say that to anyone ;)
Eat traditional Norwegian Christmas food
Christmas is the time to enjoy warm, cozy 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), but pinnekjøtt (salted, dried, and sometimes smoked lamb ribs) and lutefisk (cod cured in lye) are also common dishes accompanied by potatoes and vegetables. Read more about these typical Norwegian holiday foods here.
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 the Christmas dinner. Another popular non-non-alchoholic drink amongst Norwegians is julebrus – a very sweet, red soda loved by young and old.
Find the almond inside the riskrem
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 almond hidden inside the dessert – and whoever gets the almond wins a price which typically is a marzipan pig. In my family no-one is allowed to say they found the almond until everyone is finished eating, so it is always fun to guess who has it (or to try and hide the almond if you did get it which can be quite tricky).
This is the recipe for riskrem I used for mine which is simple. My grandmother use gelatine in it to make it more compact, but I didn’t have that and in 2020 you use what you have ;)
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 the 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 Chritmas is over and you can simply just enjoy the slow moments.
<<< Do you celebrate any of these 14 cozy 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 cozy Christmas time without stress and worry. And as we say in Norway: