Norway is something of a wonderland during the winter, with snow-capped spruces creating a picture-postcard scene. Language Insight investigates the country’s Christmas traditions in the latest of its blog posts on Christmas Around the World.

The build-up

Saint Lucia Day on December 13th often marks the start of the festive season in Norway. The festival celebrates the martyred Saint Lucia, who was visited by an angel in her native Sicily and vowed to devote her life to Christianity.

On the day, young girls dress in white robes and wear a crown of evergreen leaves on their heads, and walk through their town or village carrying a tall candle. The boys also get involved, by dressing in pointed hats, and the festival gives thanks for the sun’s return.

Of course, no Norwegian home would be complete without a beautifully-decorated native spruce or pine. This is the atypical image that comes to mind when we think of a Christmas tree, and in Norway they are sparsely decorated to let the natural beauty shine through.

Clear white lights are used to represent the candles that would have once adorned the evergreens and children make paper baskets to hang from the branches and fill with sweets. You can see a traditional Norwegian Christmas tree in London every year, as the one in Trafalgar Square is sent as a gift from Oslo to show gratitude for the support of the UK in World War II.

Who is the Norwegian Santa?

In Norway, it’s not Santa Claus but Julenissen who brings presents at Christmas. The character originates from the Scandinavian legend of the Nisse – a small gnome-like creature who would watch over farms and care for the animals.

Nisse did not start to be thought of as festive bringers of gifts until the early 1800s. On Christmas Eve, children leave out a bowl of risengrynsgrøt (rice porridge with butter, cinnamon and sugar or cream) for the Julenissen, which is something people have done for centuries. While the character wears a red cap and often has a beard, unlike Santa the Julenisse will come through the front door of the home to leave his presents.

Once, people believed that if they did not leave porridge outside for the Nisse, he would play a trick on them. However, it can be difficult to save enough of the hot cereal as it is so delicious and eating it on Christmas Eve is a custom in itself. Anyone who finds an almond in their serving even gets a prize, like a piece of marzipan.

The feast

All that porridge on Christmas Eve can be filling, but most Norwegians are still able to tuck into a hearty feast, either that evening following church or the next day. Ribs are traditionally served in Norway, with mutton and pork both popular choices.

Because there is not much meat on ribs, people are given a hearty portion, which they enjoy with mashed kohlrabi (also known as German turnip), sweet and sour cabbage with caraway seeds, potatoes and an assortment of other vegetables. Alternatively, they may eat codfish, which is a particular speciality in Norway.

For dessert, families tuck into creamy rice pudding, fruit mousses, caramel pudding or wild berry whipped cream. All of this is washed down with some tasty gløgg, which is a spicy festive drink. If you have any energy after all that food, it’s well worth rushing outside to play in the snow – as one thing you can be sure of in Norway is a white Christmas!

If you’re spending the festive season in Norway, why not share some of your own Christmas customs below?