It’s a Norwegian tradition to celebrate Christmas with the family on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day. In my own home, for most of my growing up years, we would have a snack late Christmas Eve afternoon and then choose one of the presents under the tree for each of us to open. Then we all bundled up (it was always cold in December in Minnesota) and packed into the car to drive to one of our relatives on my mom’s side to celebrate the holiday with the wider family.
Until they moved to Arizona for the winter, to provide relief for my grandpa’s arthritis, it was Grandpa and Grandma D who gathered us all together. And we were a crowd. Grandpa and Grandma D had five living children and each of them had at least five children. Even in the early years, before Mom’s youngest brother married and began adding to the brood of grandchildren, we filled the room.
At Grandpa and Grandma’s house, we would each receive a present from the grandparents and one from whoever drew our names in the arrangement our parents worked out so that none of them had to buy presents for all the cousins. Only Grandpa and Grandma bought presents for all of us. Then, after eating a real meal and hearing the cousins whose families attended the small church located in the country recite their pieces, usually a verse from the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus, we bundled up and headed back home where we would open the rest of the presents. Some of them were labeled “from Santa,” but none of us asked how Santa could have delivered the presents before he made his midnight ride with reindeer.
The next morning our stockings would have little things in them. Truly stocking stuffers. Oranges, candy, nuts, and perhaps a small toy. We were happy Santa hadn’t missed our house, even though we had no fireplace.
I’ve married into a family with English Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve isn’t much of an event in that tradition. Maybe it’s because the Twelve Days of Christmas of Victorian England only began on Christmas Day. Those twelve days have shrunk to two—Christmas Day and Boxing Day—but they are no less full of ritual. Christmas crackers (not edible) and Christmas pudding (not pudding) were new to me. They are now old hat, though sometimes tricky to find, for the holiday.
Now I have to wait one more day than I’m used to in order to see the grandchildren rip open their presents on Christmas morning. And for the ten days ahead of Christmas, I ask them where they found the elf on the shelf each morning. That little guy sure finds some creative places to wait to spy on the children to be sure Santa knows they’re being good.
The elf on a shelf may be a new addition to the tradition of leading up to Christmas, but the Norwegians have had their own version for hundreds of years, the nisse who lived out in the barn to protect the animals and ensure good fortune to the farmers.
Like the elf on a shelf, the presence of the nisse also encouraged good behavior, not just of children but of their elders as well, and not just for Christmas. The nisse were present all year long.
The nisse were offended by swearing, pissing in the barn, or mistreating the animals, offenses most often attributed to adults than to children.
The nisse expected to be taken care of, too. They were short-tempered and could become very angry and destructive or even leave the farm altogether if they felt offended. One of the best ways to make sure they didn’t get upset was to leave food out for them, especially porridge on Christmas Eve.
To conclude, I hope your nisse, whether you knew of them before or not, have been truly satisfied with your treatment of them this year, and I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, whenever and however you celebrate it, and a happier new year than 2020 delivered to us.