Marzipan pigs, almonds, family and light

An unexpected benefit to having parents from Scandinavia and Australia is that not only do you get an untraceable accent but two christmases. I can still recall the glee of opening presents a day before everyone else I knew, and the conviction that I’d better not question it in case my parents changed their minds.

The tradition has always been to have a big lunch with family and friends, and then in the evening, when the children’s patience had reached fever pitch, someone would burst in wearing a santa suit and the unwrapping would begin. Over the years the unwrapping would creep earlier and earlier, and the santa suit was left in the cupboard, though the dinner and gathering of those nearest and dearest always remained. These are the traditions I associate with christmas, and what I had expected to an extent when we were invited to the Norwegian family Jul last year. A few weeks prior to Jul I got an email detailing what would happen, a list of traditional meals and events that we would be following. We were intrigued and I was  slightly nervous that we would upset the carefully orchestrated flow of the holidays. As it turned out I needn’t have worried, though perhaps more effort at stretching the capacity of my stomach may have helped.

Julafton morning light

Julafton morning light

So it was that when the 24th dawned and we had all enjoyed a hefty breakfast, one of the important family rituals was prepared. I set up my laptop in the study and made a call across the world, and was soon chatting to my family, who were drying off from a dip in the pool. We marveled at the snow and 30+ weather outside our respective windows, gossiped and laughed and tried to bridge the gap of distance as much as technology can allow.

After the call was finished my partner dashed off to try out his skis for the first time, which my cousin had kindly waxed the night before. While he zipped back and forth on the snow I relaxed at home taking photos and helping with some work. There were a few visitors who stepped in to wish the family God Jul and hand out biscuits and best wishes, and before too long the skiers returned, cheeks flushed from the cold and ready for a little something to eat.

Jul decoration

Jul decoration

Lunch on Julafton in this house is risengrynsgrøt, or rice porridge, served with butter, sugar and cinnamon and crucially one almond. The almond is mixed into the rice and whoever happens to find it in their serving gets a chocolate covered marzipan pig. My cousin was the current reigning champion, with the last 5 almonds under his belt, and so seemed fairly confident of victory. But what about beginner’s luck? Thus ensued a meal of careful munching, poker faces and surreptitious poking through the thick, milky rice. After the first serving no one admitted to finding the almond and so second servings were offered, and despite my stomach beginning to groan I got a few spoonfuls. With tensions mounting and suspicious glances filling the room, my spoon hit something solid. I am terrible at poker faces, so when I spat it out a few minutes later, I think I had lost the element of surprise. There was cheering though, and cries of ‘You come to my house, and you take my pig!’ from my cousin and among it all I received the pig. Victory was sweet, even if I did feel as though I could never eat again.

Traditional wafer cakes

Traditional wafer cakes

All the excitement and eating required a bit of relaxing so for the next few hours we sat around, read a bit and helped with preparations for dinner. As the light faded from the sky we headed out the door for another tradition, with family I hadn’t met and would never meet.
The first time I had visited had been a few days after Jul the previous year, and we had been taken to the graves of my grandfather and great grandparents. Their gravestones had been slightly reclaimed by the snow that had been cleared not long before and the candles were still there. It was this tradition that we would be continuing.
The first stop was my aunt’s mother’s house where my uncle and his wife were staying. After a brief stop to say hello and introduce ourselves we were on our way to the church. Inside a mass was underway, the notes of Silent Night drifting out to us as we made our way past the crowds of candlelit gravestones. All around us candles flickered and families stood, clearing snow or lost in thought. There was a continuity there that I haven’t seen in Australia, where generations are so often split up by oceans and forgetting.
Soon we found our family and after clearing the snow off the stones a candle was lit and laid by the grave of my great grandparents. I was then given a candle and as I lit it, my aunt explained that I was the first of my grandfather’s line to light his candle. It was with great care that I set the candle down and scraped snow out of the curved lines of his name, and wished I had met him more than once.

My grandfather

My grandfather

Back at home we changed into our finer clothes, and sat around to enjoy schnaps and a Jul concert on tv. The cheers and wishes for God Jul continued, and followed us as we settled around the dinner table and watched as trays of food, sauces, creams and delicacies were piled around us. The main dish was pinnekjøtt, or salted lamb ribs, which is the traditional Jul dish of the area of Norway where my aunt’s husband comes from. It was served with mashed swede and potatoes and washed down with yet more schnaps, wine and julbrus. Full of food, drink and good spirits there were speeches to accompany the meal, about welcome, family, traditions and gratitude, and cheers all round.

When we reached the point where we absolutely couldn’t fit anymore food in, we tidied up and relaxed around the fire. A box of music appeared by the piano and my aunt treated us to Silent Night and a few old Norwegian carols and I wondered if anything would ever feel more Jul-ey than this.

A skier in the tree

A skier in the tree

The Jultree soon called us and we settled around for the last of the big events. There was no santa suit or ho ho ho-ing, but anticipation as my aunt’s husband announced each gift and we all watched the unwrapping. Our gift to them, a candelabra, seemed to be appreciated and stayed lit for much of the remainder of our stay. In return we got handknitted mittens in a local design which turned out to be the warmest mittens we have owned so far. I was also given some pieces of family heritage, two wooden spoons hand carved by my great grandfather. I felt, and feel, privileged to be entrusted with them.

After the unwrapping was complete and the wrappings had been gathered, dessert was served around the tree. It was handpicked cloudberries in homemade wafer cones with cream, and was delicious.

Replete with food, gifts, drink and happiness, we sat around until late, chatting and reading until the struggle to keep our eyes open became too much. With more calls of God Jul and best wishes, we climbed the stairs and slept the sleep of the contented.

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Under the Jul tree

Since moving to Scandinavia we have celebrated Jul twice. Last year’s was unique in that it was the first away from our families, and the Jul just past in that it was our first ever white christmas. Yet if you look at the weather report for Göteborg there is only a smidgen on snow on Julafton and Jul, so how did we manage it? Well, we cheated.

At around this time last year we went on a quick post-Jul trip to Norway, staying a couple of nights in Oslo and seeing the sights. On one day we decided to visit the hometown of my maternal grandfather, and while we were there a fortuitous series of incidents led us to an evening at the home of my mother’s cousin. This led in turn to a weekend in a hytta around easter and as the year drew to a close, an invitation to spend Jul at their home.

So it was that on the 22nd of December we heaved suitcases filled with clothes, food and gifts and a set of skiis to the bus station, for the first leg of our journey to Lillehammer.

We have now taken the bus from Göteborg to Oslo four times, and so far the repetition has not spoilt the beauty of the landscape. The forests and cliffs just before the border between Sweden and Norway is still stunning and rugged, and the sweeping road around the Oslo fjord hasn’t failed to distract me every time. With the latest trip we were also treated to signs of snow almost from the moment we crossed the border. As we neared Oslo it was lying in piles by roads and clinging lightly to trees. The street of the city were slushy and people strode around muffled against the cold. We broke up the journey with a night in Oslo, and so took it easy for the first day and night.

A skating train

A skating train

We strolled around taking photos and looking for food, checking out the ice-rink that we remembered from a year ago and the lights strewn in the trees and between buildings.

Lights on the ice

Lights on the ice

The following morning we started the final leg of the trip. Snow covered the tracks, and as we boarded and the train wound it’s way north, the snow deepened and thickened, creating a world of beautiful monochrome.

At the final stop we disembarked and were met by my aunt (not exactly true, but easier to say that mum’s cousin) who greeted us with many velkommens and hugs. We had arrived.

By the time we had been welcomed by my uncle, cousin and their dog and were settled in at their home, it was mid-afternoon and the setting sun was leaving an eerie blue light on the snow piled outside. This is known as the ‘blue hour’, and given the sun rises later and sets earlier than usual at this time of year, I got to catch many of them. We decided to have a look at the lights on the main street in town, and were offered the use of one of the family’s sparks (literally: kick). It’s basically a kick-along sled with a seat, and after a very quick lesson we were soon sliding our way into town, my work mostly consisting of holding on to the seat and going, ‘weee!’ a lot. Along the way we saw others sparking, including a lady with a christmas tree and very good balance.

The mainstreet, on which cars and sparks were not allowed, was lit with festive lights and all the shops were open, some playing music and others handing out free glögg and cakes.

Mainstreet in Lillehammer

Mainstreet in Lillehammer

We checked out the stores with traditional jumpers and craftware and explored the half-familiar streets, then as my hands began to get numb headed home. Along the way we met a curious cat, who seemed alternately fascinated and bored by the runners of the spark, and chased us for a little while.

At home we defrosted and a little while later were rounded up for one of the very important Jul traditions: decorating the tree. My uncle had found it while we were in town and it was set up and bare when we arrived, waiting to be decked out in the boxes of decorations that suddenly appeared.

So, armed with lights, baubles, figurines, tinsel, cognac laced glögg and the ambition to make the finest Jul tree ever, my cousin, my partner and myself set to. As if we were some sort of highly trained decorating team, the tree was soon full of light and colour, topped off with a string of Norwegian flags (though a single dalahäst gave it a touch of Swedishness).

A hint of Norway

A hint of Norway

After congratulating ourselves and being treated to a very lively dancing Santa performance we settled down to the first of the traditional Jul meals.

Lillejulafton consists of a vast array of delicacies, mostly meats and eaten with different sorts of bread. There was specially pressed pork from a local butcher, pork rolls, homemade spiced wild meat sausage, sliced lamb, sil, jam, mustard, flat bread made out of potato, bread rolls and the loaf that my partner had baked. There was also the rakfisk, a ‘lite’ version of the Swedish surströmming which I neutralised with many trimmings and actually enjoyed. This was all washed down with Julebrus, a Norwegian soft drink from a local brewery and wine.

As the clock neared 19:00 my cousin began to look at his watch more often, and we were soon called to the tv room to take part in something very important, something that people all across Norway were rushing to their tvs to watch and enjoy: Grevinnen og Hovmesteren. This is an English language comedy sketch from the 60s about a butler and an elderly lady and is shown every 23rd of December. Apparently it was missed one year and there were complaints, as there were as well when it was late another year. As we watched all the favourite lines were called out and we laughed every time James tripped over the tiger. Exactly why this is such an important part of the Norwegian Jul tradition is unknown, but it may have something to do with the line, ‘Same procedure as every year,’ the main catchphrase from the sketch. In a country where everyone sits down to watch a sketch in another language year after year as part of a traditional holiday that stretches back before written history, perhaps this is an acknowledgement and a gentle joke at their own expense.

As is often the case with meals in which you pick at the food and take helpings as dishes are passed around, we were all soon extremely full. After tidying up we settled around the fire and under the tree to chat until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. Soon followed sleep, to prepare us for the most important day of Jul in Scandinavia: Julafton.

A Jul voyage

It has been over a week since my last post, and though it concerned waiting for the oncoming festivities, there was so much more in the intervening time that I didn’t or couldn’t expect. One thing that this year has taught me is not to expect things. Don’t expect to be dreaming of living in Europe in a year, don’t expect to find your career waiting for you, don’t expect to be isolated in a new country and don’t expect inspiration to be all you need to write well.

Our Jul tree angel

I had expected to feel homesick when Jul arrived, missing the family and comfort that I’ve had every christmas of my life. Instead I felt warm, loved and well fed, as my partner and I skyped our parents, opened presents and ate a lot of food. A dose of old fashioned shmaltz in the form of It’s a Wonderful Life was like hot chocolate on a cold day, including the bit about alternate reality Mary’s cruel fate (a spinster librarian? Egad!) Tacos with homemade guacamole may not have been a traditional Jul dish, but Jul is what we make it.

And I made pepparkakor!

On the 25th we rested, and then embarked on the cooking of a christmas roast, with all the trimmings. Roast turkey, potatoes, pumpkin, cauliflower cheese, fresh baked bread and gravy, washed down with glögg and wine. It was an achievement that we managed to walk afterwards, not to mention do the dishes. And win at the BBC History Extra podcast Christmas quiz by one point and a turkey. I feel as though I ought to commit this fact to writing, as it and the score sheet may be purged from existence by a certain individual who enjoys competitiveness.
By this point we had not left the house for two days and so we decided to set out and check that the rest of the world was still there. Thankfully it was, and it included a small bar with bountiful drinks and cheerful Swedes, and comfortable couches to sink into and chat in an increasingly tipsy manner.

The next morning we awoke relatively early to catch a bus that would take us off to our short holiday. We’d decided some time before that we ought to use at least a bit of our joint holiday period to travel, preferably not too far but far enough to be away from Göteborg. We settled on Oslo, a short bus ride away and where we could use some of my partners hotel credits (I recommend ‘free’ hotel visits, gives you a lovely relaxing feeling). The bus ride took us north through small and large towns, and then dense forests and past rivers and over bridges, through a very uncheckpoint-like checkpoint and up and into the suburbs that circle the twisting Oslo fjord. My first impression of Oslo was a chill slightly stronger than we’d left and a city feeling that doesn’t exist in Göteborg. Our hotel was next to the central station, so a quick walk brought us up to our rooms, comfortable and interestingly designed and with double windows that were perfect for the refrigeration of leftovers from the previous day’s feast that we’d brought to balance out the cost of eating out in one of the most expensive cities in the world. After a snack we headed out to explore with what light there was left (it was around 2/3 by this point, so not much). Possibly because it was the 26th and most places were closed, or because that was how they roll on Thursday afternoons, the city was almost deserted. We wandered down the main street, and then followed a sign to the Akershus fortress which seemed deserted also, though a friendly soldier assured us it was open to explore.

Oslo from Akershus fortress

The fortress was built in 1290 and has been in use ever since, as it grew, sprouted new buildings and oversaw the city below it, and was never overrun by an enemy (it’s surrender to Nazi Germany in WW2 technically doesn’t count as a defeat). As with most other human constructions in Norway that I’ve seen, it’s sturdy rather than towering, and very tough. We wandered around taking photos as the sun went down, bright lights lighting up the walls and paths and occasional, blank faced soldiers guarding (what they were guarding was unclear, but they seemed very definite about it).

From the fortress we headed back to the centre of town, and onwards to the tourist office, where I hoped to plan our visit the following day. This journey took us down the main street, and past a crowded ice-rink. There were people of all kinds sliding around, either looking as though they were out on a stroll, showing off to friends or barely balancing. The children were especially impressive, some of them zipping around at great speeds, others falling over only to spring up again.

Ice rink Oslo

It looked like a lot of fun was being had. Not having skates we had a go at walking on the ice without any incidents, and then continued on our journey. Having found the tourist office we went in search of food. At this point I realised that the stories about Oslo being one of the world’s most expensive cities is true, and I discovered something else. It has some of the longest waiting times for meals. The first place we tried took about 45 minutes for a cup of tea and a beer to arrive, then another half an hour for someone to say that someone would take our order soon. We decided to pre-empt their eventual attempt and ask for the bill. Which we got 20 minutes later. After which we really needed food, though unfortunately a bar that we chose as cosy and comfortable turned out not to serve food. We settled on a pizza chain, which was filling and a relief from the prospect of having more leftovers for dinner.

The next day, after a visit to the hotel gym and a delicious breakfast, we went to the tourist office and found out that is was near impossible to get a trip to a fjord in the short time that we had. The woman at the desk suggested Lillehammer as a nice place to explore and perhaps go skiing from, which suited me as I knew of family connections in the area. Armed with knowledge and plans we then went to the Historisk Museum, which was an interesting mix of detail, sewed backdrops and stunning church portals.

Detail from a church portal, showing Sigurd fighting Fafnir

According to my mum, whose bias I am not going to mention, the relative smallness of the Oslo History Museum is due to the idea of having a museum devoted to particular things, rather than everything jammed into one building. It did have a wide selection, and the Sami exhibition was very interested, if a bit rushed for us.

The Norns, possibly by a eccentric granny

Then off to the Viking Ship museum.
Though we only saw a little of Oslo in the time we were there, I would say that the Viking Ship Museum is a must see. I’d seen the Vasa when I went to Stockholm, but the authenticity and beautiful lines of the Oseberg ship as you walk in the front door are more stunning to me than the bulk and scale of the Vasa.

The Oseberg ship from behind

The Oseberg ship is the first thing you see, and is basically what you would picture as a traditional Viking ship. The front (fore?) curls up and around in a spiral, ending in a serpents head, with the other end curling in a tail. It was a pleasure boat rather than a sailer of the high seas so fairly shallow, but the smooth lines and how incredibly intact it was were breathtaking. It was also found with the remains of 2 women, thought to be 50 and 80 years old, whose identity is a mystery. It’s around 22 metres long, 2 metres shorter than the also mostly intact Gokstad which was a much more sea worthy vessel, and may have gone on distant journeys before it was eventually buried. It didn’t have the decorative carvings of the Oseberg ship, but it was long, sturdy and also amazing to see and imagine when it was in full sail, 32 shields hanging on the sides and the sea curling in it’s wake.

The Oseberg ship

The third ship, the Tune ship, was in worse condition, planks of wood from the hull giving us an idea of what it must have been like, but no signs of it’s occupant unlike the other two.
Also in the museum were some of the artifacts discovered with the ships, bedsteads, cloth, a couldron, wooden sleighs and carved animal heads whose purpose is unknown. Old preservation techniques mean many of the items are at risk of falling apart, but for now on the surface they seem as beautifully crafted as they were hundreds of years ago.
Once again seeing these remnants of history brought back to me the humanity of the past, and how much we don’t know and can’t know. In this case it was especially profound for me as the people that made carvings like those, watching the ships sailing across the seas, harvested the wheat that once filled the trough and survived in the old lands of Norway were my people.

An inscription found with the Oseberg ship, translating loosely as 'Man knows little'

In the next post I’ll describe the second day, in which I get to meet some of my people, and the colours, music and fireworks of New Years Eve when we returned.