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The different parts of Norway alle have their own unique Christmas traditions. Here are some of the tastiest and most distinctive Norwegian holiday rituals.

Published: 22 December 2017

Norwegians celebrate Christmas in the most diverse ways. Some immerse themselves in the sacred aspects of the season, others enjoy a quiet time with with family and friends, while others still embrace the party. Most would agree, however, that a few days off work come in handy at the end of the year.   

Still, there are some specific tastes, flavours and traditions that need to be in place for the Christmas spirit to truly take hold of Norway’s homes. The traditions vary wildly from the North to the South and from the East to West – here are some of the major ones.

Sheep versus pig

The most eagerly anticipated meal of the year? To many, that would be the dinner on Christmas Eve.   

In Norway, two traditional dishes are contenders for the most popular Christmas dinners – ribbe (pork rib) and pinnekjøtt (lamb or mutton rib). While the former has been the overall prime choice for years, the popularity of pinnekjøtt grows for each passing year. Most Norwegians get a taste of both dishes during Christmas.

Ribbe
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Ribbe.
Photo: Røed 20:27, 2 January 2007 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Ribbe.
Photo: Røed 20:27, 2 January 2007 (UTC) (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The pork rib is above all characterized by its rind, which takes quite some time and effort to prepare as crispy as it deserves, and it is usually accompanied by meatballs, sausages, sauerkraut and other filling ingredients.  

Pinnekjøtt (literally meaning “stick meat”) is salted and dried rib from mutton, named after the meal’s traditional preparation method of being boiled on top of birch twigs. The meat plays the main part, but potatoes, mashed root vegetables and broth are essential culinary sidekicks.

Many shades of fish

Given Norway’s ancient traditions as a fishing nation, Christmas along the coast is unsurprisingly celebrated with riches from the sea. 

In the South, cooked cod has been a favorite for Christmas Eve, preferably served with Sandefjord butter sauce, carrots and potatoes. Even though the aforementioned rib dishes to some extent has replaced the white fish as Christmas dinner, many Southerners will enjoy it as one of many meals during Boxing Week.   

The longest-standing Norwegian Christmas tradition, however, is lutefisk – going all the way back to the 15th and 16th century. It’s made from stockfish treated with lye (“lut”). Every December, more than 750 tonnes of this distinctive delicacy is being devoured by Norwegians, and it is also a popular dish in the “Nordic” parts of USA, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Lutefisk
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Lutefisk.
Photo: Jonathunder (eget arbeid) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Lutefisk.
Photo: Jonathunder (eget arbeid) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like lutefisk, rakfisk can be an acquired taste, but the fermented freshwater fish has many fans. It’s often in thin potato rolls with sour cream and onions. In Bergen, persetorsk – sugared, salted and pressed cod – is a seasonal favorite in many homes.    

For dessert, riced cream is the Norwegian classic on Christmas Eve, while cloudberry cream is common in the North. Other important features in the culinary Norwegian tradition this time of year include clementines, nuts, herring and pickled pork with mustard.

Liquid traditions

Holly
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Holly.
Photo: Marte Kopperud - Visitnorway.com

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Holly.
Photo: Marte Kopperud - Visitnorway.com

Where there is traditional food, chances are there’ll be traditional drink as well. Many Norwegians favor two complementary beverages in particular: Beer and aquavit.

Christmas beer is darker, fuller and higher in alcohol content than the beer consumed the rest of the year. In the old days, brewing one’s own beer was required by law – for poor folks as well as affluent citizens – and gathering to drink the beer was regarded as a sacred act.

A companion to the heavy beer is aquavit, a spicy nordic potato liquor providing a welcome balance to the fatty and filling Christmas foods. In Norway, aquavit is aged in oak casks, while the type “linjeakevitt” matures on a long sea voyage where the Equator has to be crossed twice before the spirit is bottled.

det krydrede nordiske potetbrennevinet som gir en velkommen motvekt til tung og mektig julemat. I Norge lagres akevitt på trefat, mens typen linjeakevitt gjennomgår en modningsprosess i løpet av en lang sjøreise der ekvator – linjen – krysses to ganger.

The guy in the barn wants some

Norsk folkemuseum
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Norsk folkemuseum.
Photo: CH/visitnorway.com

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Norsk folkemuseum.
Photo: CH/visitnorway.com

Even though the chubby, generous and kind Santa Claus has become a central part of modern Norwegian Christmas celebration, another, more mischievous and slightly sinister character was important when Norway was still a farming community – fjøsnissen (the barn elf). 

You’d be well advised to stay friendly with this short, bearded guy. If treated well, he would help make sure that the farm prospered. If unhappy with the swing of things, however, he could exercise the most brutal forms of revenge – such as striking the dairy cattle dead.  

This is why farmers used to bring rice porridge and home-brewed beer out in the barn every Christmas – a tradition that continues on Norwegian farms to this day.

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