Not so long ago, I decided to escape the cold clutches of the corporate Christmas culture I'd come to resent at home and spend the holiday with friends in Norway. I wasn't in search of anything per se, I really just wanted a change of scenery, some snow, a visit with friends and to experience a different holiday culture with my then, 12 year old nephew.
We started our adventure in The Netherlands and Belgium and absolutely fell in love with European-style Christmases. Walking down narrow cobblestone streets with a slight rainy mist, the smell of chocolate and pastries in the air, the clip-clop sound of horse-drawn carriages, church bells ringing near and far, the cinnamon scented warmth coming from the shops as we passed while enjoying a fresh, warm, sweet Belgium waffle on the way to the huge city squares with towering Christmas trees and Christmas Markets. It was the quintessential European fairy tale.
Strolling around town we felt like little figurines in a porcelain Christmas village. There were no big superstores for one-stop shopping but rather individual specialty shops for bread, eggs, cheese, meats, candy, toys and boutiques. The locals were friendly with smiles and greetings when the passed by. The houses all had their curtains open to the warm, cozy scenes inside their candle-lit and Christmas decorated homes with cats curled up in the window sills through fogged up window panes. Cozy, quaint and quiet, less the occasional church bells or live music from a packed pub and people singing along with the band as they raised their glasses and swayed. It really was movie-like.
While we were sufficiently intoxicated with all these idyllic displays of spirit by the time we joined our friends in Oslo, I hadn't noticed any change in my somewhat sour feelings toward Christmas. We got more exposure to new cultural traditions decorating the family tree with a strings of paper Norwegian flags and candlestick lights. I was also introduced to proper Norwegian gløgg; a warm, spiced wine and aquavit concoction containing almond slivers and raisins (recipe below) that has since become a regular tradition in my home at Christmas.
The next morning we headed to the family home of our friends in a smaller town called Halden. It was magical! Despite the good amount of snow that had fallen around this huge, slightly drafty, old 19th century house, it was tremendously inviting and cozy. It was Christmas Eve and the classic Rockwell-style family gathering. While my nephew joined the other kids running and playing games around the enormous house, I joined the women in the quaint old kitchen to help prepare the traditional meal served on this evening, including risengrynsgrøt, a traditional rice pudding which a scalded almond is hidden in. The prize for the person who gets the almond is large marzipan pig. Fun! The Christmas Eve meal was an occasion on it's own - a very formal table setting with candelabras, cloth napkins, crystal glasses, china and family silverware. Everyone dresses very formal, including the children; men in black and white suits, women in dresses. I wasn't aware of this of this practice and was completely unprepared! Fortunately our friends had attire to loan my nephew and I (note to self - always come to Europe prepared for at least one formal occasion!). It's really amazing the difference these seemingly little details make in how special something feels. After dinner we opened gifts and helped the kids with assembling and putting batteries in their newly opened gifts. Other than the formalities and different traditions, not too much different than home. Until...
The following night, my friend took me for a drive around the little town to see another Norwegian tradition; candles left at the grave sites of ancestors on Christmas Day. You cannot imagine how spectacularly beautiful a sight it is to venture around in the dark seeing solid, glowing candlelit orbs around century-old little churches! We stopped at one so I could attempt to capture the scene with a photo. It was there, in the darkness, at a graveyard in subzero Nordic temperature, that I reconnected with my Christmas spirit and a rush of warmth ran through me. Up to this moment, I had begrudgingly going through the motions of what I'm "supposed to do" every year whether I felt like it or not and especially since the loss of my step-dad 4 years earlier, I dreaded this season year after year. But something about tremendous show of respect for loved ones lost in such solidarity, really touched me. The photo I got wasn't the greatest quality, but it did manage to capture that pivotal moment.
Ever since that trip, I truly look forward to the Christmas season. I've incorporated numerous Scandinavian traditions, recipes and decorations into ours because it never fails to take me back to where my spirit was rekindled. The only souvenir I bought in Norway, was a traditional paper star for my window and it's the first decoration to go up every year. Now when I hang a wreath on my door, it's because I want to. Not because I feel I have to.
For me, this is the greatest gift of travel - the unexpected epiphany's that come from the most unlikely places. Like finding light, love, joy and Christmas spirit in a graveyard in the dark of a cold winter night.
I wish you all the warmth and love of the season. As they say in Norway (and Denmark and Sweden), god jul!
1 bottle of red wine
1 teaspoon cardamom
5 whole cloves
1 large cinnamon stick
1 2-inch piece of ginger, chopped
1 1/2 cups white sugar
½ 750-ml bottle of Aquavit (or vodka or Cognac)
2/3 cup raisins
2/3 cup sliced almonds
Heat the red wine slowly in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Put the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and ginger in a spice bag and add to the pan. Stir in the sugar until it dissolves.
Remove the pan from heat and let cool, approximately 2 hours. Add the aquavit to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Heat until just before mixture reaches a boil. Add raisins and almonds. Transfer mixture to a large bowl and remove the spice bag. Ladle into large mugs and use a spoon to scoop the raisins and almonds. Cheers!