NORWEGIAN SPECIAL OCCASIONS
The Norwegians were the last of the Teutonic tribes to set aside their beliefs in Odin and Thor and the glorious afterlife in Valhalla, the warrior’s final reward. This was followed by almost 500 years of Catholicism which in turn was suppressed in favor of Evangelical Lutheranism. Although the Norwegians are almost 96 percent Lutherans and devoutly celebrate Christmas, Easter, and confirmation at the age of fifteen, they are not avid churchgoers, nor have they completely relinquished their respect for the heavenly bodies (they celebrate Midsummer’s Eve in honor of solsnu, the turn of the sun). The Christmas troll Julenisse has a definite place in Christmas celebrations, and Easter is as much celebrated for its religious connotation as for the fact that it marks the beginning of the annual mountain trekking.
There is a growing difference between urban and rural dwellers in the way everything from weddings to funerals is celebrated. Because most inhabited areas are generally isolated from each other in the countryside, lengthy and often difficult traveling conditions make it more practical for guests or visitors to stay at least overnight. This necessitates extensive cooking preparations and even the sharing of neighbors’ accommodations. In contrast, urban dwellers are less gregarious, emotionally colder and tend to put forth less effort than the more traditionally minded country people.
This situation is probably most evident in funerals. In the country, the death of a villager will be mourned by the entire area with all flags at half mast and everyone coming out to attend the services, gathering afterwards to share sandwiches and coffee. In the city cremation is popular and this together with the custom of hiring not only a preacher but also professional hymn singers and even mourners makes for a brief, rather dispassionate ceremony After a city funeral only the immediate family gather quietly for gravmat (grave food) and gravol (grave beer).
Similarly, many villages are not only retaining, but in many cases reviving, age-old traditions for weddings. In the village of Voss, Saturday is the day for weddings with a traditional wedding cake made of towering layers of almond rings decorated with tiny Norwegian flags, sugary flowers, miniature crackers all topped with a tiny bride and groom. In Hardanger, a bridal outfit would be incomplete without a heirloom gold or silver crown (if necessary rented from the village goldsmith). Everywhere in rural areas, weddings are events of many days’ duration, often going through the night, with courses of coffee and sandwiches or sometimes hearty soups and nibbles of cheeses and thinly sliced sausages to periodically revive the merrymakers. City weddings are briefer, increasingly becoming merely a one-day affair, but most still retaining the traditional wedding cake.
Birthdays are special in Norway the most important being the fifteenth. This is Confirmation Day and preparation is taken seriously with all the candidates preparing themselves both in knowledge of the Church as well as in new clothes. The confirmation service is announced with special imitations; the candidates appear at the service in long white gowns covering their new clothes as they nervously answer questions on their teaching before a hushed audience. The tenseness of the services is broken with lavish gifts, flower-decked tables, and hours of singing, eating (an enlarged frokost), and drinking.
While confirmation is an undeniable highlight on the birthday register, so is the fortieth, fiftieth, and sixtieth. In fact, these special birthdays are celebrated with beautiful gifts, flowers, and special cakes. At the age of seventy the occasion is considered so important that photos of septuagenarians appear regularly in local papers, and women who reach a hundred are sent a special birthday cake by a Norwegian women’s magazine.
From noon on Christmas Eve, Norwegian shops close, and exactly at 5:00 p.m. church bells throughout the country herald the holiday. But weeks before, the hustle of holiday baking, slaughtering of animals and curing of meats and the preparation of lutefisk as well as the sending of typical Norwegian Christmas cards – a jolly picture of Julenisse gobbling his plate of rommegrot – leave little doubt of the coming occasion. In western areas of Norway, the Viking tradition of serving dried salted lamb at this time is still enjoyed, while in most of the eastern areas traditional roast pork together with lutefisk and a delectable display of fruits, nuts, and bakery highlight the Christmas menu.
While there may be a difference in menu, other traditions are uniform throughout the country. Everywhere animals are given a special treat on Christmas eve in the belief that they shared in the holy event in the stable on the special eve; Norwegian cows get a special treat of salted herring. After the Christmas Eve dinner, carols are sung around the Christmas tree which is aglow with white candles or white lights. Then the exchanging of gifts ends the evening. Christmas Day is a quiet family day. The rounds of parties begin the following day.
Julebord is the special name given to the groaning table of Christmas delicacies whether at home or in a restaurant. Traditionally the display includes the finest specialties of the country: whole poached cod, whole smoked salmon, glazed roasted duck, and roasted pork stuffed with prunes and apples. By January, Oslo has only eight hours of daylight, but the Julebord and the white lights of Christmas as well as the parties and shoal make all oblivious to the outside gloom.
Lent and Easter are observed more casually. Easter Sunday services are followed by a hearty but brief dinner, for traditionally this is the day the mountain climbing begins.
Baptisms and birthdays, Christmas and Easter all compete on the festive calendar with ancient holidays closely related with the changing seasons, seasonal activities, and the enjoyment of fresh seasonal foods. The threads of paganism and even superstition that persist into the culture of the modern-day Norwegian, and indeed that of most Scandinavians, seem to he no more contradictory than their delight in parties and their craving for solitude.