Me: Okay, so what can I do!?
Ane: Why don’t you just hold this chair steady.
I look down at the chair where Ane is pointing. A small boy, about 10-years-old, stands beside the chair on which is attached an almond mill. It’s at the perfect height so that he can efficiently pile the nuts into the mill, turn the crank at a steady and impressive pace, and churn out the ground almonds. The chair keeps shifting slightly, which makes his already daunting task even more challenging.
Me: Uh, yup, I can do that.
I lean over a bit and grip the back of the chair with my left hand, holding it steady. In my right hand, I hold my glass of bubbly. I take a sip and look around:
Ane’s kitchen is a hive of activity, and she is the Queen Bee – a powerhouse of culinary skill and Norwegian directness. There are eight of us in here and the entire space hums with the energy of a finely-tuned Norwegian Christmas machine. Everyone moves about efficiently, tackling their given task like a seasoned expert. Well, everyone except me. But I’m doing a great job of holding a chair.
So, what exactly am I doing steadying furniture, in Ane’s kitchen, on a Saturday evening in December?
I am at a “Juleverksted”! (A Christmas workshop)
This is my first time at a workshop of this nature, but I have quickly come to understand that it is an essential and ubiquitous part of the Norwegian lead-up to Christmas.
Not only have I never been to a “Juleverksted” before, I have also never written an article about Christmas in Norway. This seems strange given that it is, without doubt, the biggest and most anticipated holiday of the year – full to the brim with tradition. (I am guessing there are at least as many “Juletradisjoner” as there are Norwegians in Norway).
Or perhaps I haven’t done it because so much has already been written about Christmas in Scandinavia (if I read one more article about “hygge”, I might wrap myself in a blanket and set myself on fire with a tea-light candle), and I wonder what else needs to be said.
Or perhaps (much more likely) because as Christmas approaches, I have to direct my energy towards the almost-endless consumption of delicious food and tasty drinks. I just don’t have the time or inclination to lift my fingers to my keyboard – they are too busy shoving tasty yummies into my mouth.
Norwegians just really understand how to do Christmas. All through November, you can feel the momentum starting to build: the days quickly become shorter and colder, there might be the first dusting of snow, but not quite enough for the beloved X-country skiing, and so there is nothing to distract from the ultimate goal of what December holds.
When the first advent finally arrives (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), all that pent-up anticipation explodes into an extravaganza of Christmas lights, workshops, advent calendars (more extravagant than you’ve ever seen), and local “Julegateåpnings” (when the local community gather to light the Christmas tree in the square, sing carols, have sleigh rides, and eat and drink). Finally, Norwegians can do what they do best – get ready for Christmas.
And so, back to the “Juleverksted” …
Left hand still firmly placed on the child’s chair, and my other hand holding my now-nearly-empty drink, I look around at the eight of us gathered in the steaming hot kitchen:
My husband and my Ane’s husband – B and Ø – stand side by side and stare intently at a candy thermometer in the pot on the stove. The butter and sugar have reached the perfect temperature, the lemon juice, white chocolate and fat have been expertly added. Without a word needed, they quickly nod to one another and start to pour what will become delicious lemon caramels, onto a baking tray.
Ane also stands by the stove and stirs a pot of homemade gløgg – a traditional warm, mulled drink. This one has been made with her and Ø’s own homemade cider (obviously from a previous fall “ciderversksted”) and mixed with sugar and spices. Before we drink it, a healthy dose of Calvados will be swirled in. I’m not sure that the Calvados is traditional in Norsk gløgg, but we don’t question it when it tastes this good.
At the kitchen table, another friend, M, (mother of the two semi-professional almond-grinders) is now mixing the first batch of ground almonds with icing sugar.
In another area, K (M’s husband) stands by a big bowl of “pepperkakedeig” (gingerbread dough). Like he’s done it a hundred times before (which he likely has), he takes scoops of the dough, places it on the wooden counter top, and rolls it out to a thin and delicate perfection. Then the dough is cut and put in the oven, just as the first batch comes out.
And I stand. Holding the chair.
The almonds are now mostly ground, and my hand is getting sweaty, so I sidle over to the Cremant bottle and refill my glass. The beauty of any Norwegian gathering, no matter how hard you have to labour, there is always delicious food and drink. To that end, I start to unwrap the various cheeses we brought, and my husband begins to slice up some fenalår. Of course, there are also the most amazing looking homemade tarts and quiches (whipped up quickly this morning by Ane and M, with likely no recipe required).
Me: So, you guys. Is the non-Norwegian going to be trusted with some actual work next time? Or do Canadians just get to hold chairs?
How many years will I have to live here before I get to stir the caramel pot? I’ll probably be ready when I can finally speak Norwegian without a Canadian accent – or can avoid saying “vagina” when I mean to say “chain” (skjede vs kjede). In other words, never.
Ane: Well, the ground almonds and icing sugar all have to go through the mill again. Do you want to start that?
Me: (groan) Whaaaat!? It all has to go through AGAIN?
A: We usually do it three times.
Me: (stunned silence – I take a sip of my drink – and try not to groan again. I can’t say “no” to the Queen Bee! And I have to be invited back!)
I take a handful of the almond mixture and start to grind. In the time I have done one handful, M and Ane have finished the rest. The efficiency is alarming, and humbling. It reminds me of the first time we went to the family cabin and I offered to help my mother-in-law peel potatoes. She gave me the peeler and I had literally finished one potato, when she had finished the rest (about 12) with just a small knife.
It suddenly occurs to me that Norwegians (the ones I know) are the least lazy people I have ever met in my life. I think that North Americans are, on a whole, just lazier. I think we buy more and make less. We sit more and walk less. We talk more and do less. I don’t think I am a particularly lazy gal (although I certainly have my moments … I hear you laughing, Cokesie) but I often feel like I move at a slower pace here – a pace that is used to buying marzipan, not grinding the almonds to make it … if you know what I mean.
But before I offend many of my North American friends and readers, let me just say this: I know many of you likely spent last weekend baking Christmas treats and building gingerbread houses with your children. I know it does happen, quite often in fact. But keep in mind that I was not born in Canada. We moved from South Africa when I was a kid and so my parents didn’t have these kinds of Christmas traditions. We used to go back to South Africa every year for Christmas. So December was summer time! Christmas was about baking on the beach, not baking in the kitchen. So, this is all very new to me.
The “Juleverksted” I am at this year, is taking care of some of the required Christmas baking. There are other similar ones that are often held for making sausages (there are several varieties typically served with Christmas dinners) and other “Julemat” (Christmas food) and for making “Julepynter” (Christmas decorations).
In and around all of these December workshops, there is the famous Norwegian “Julebord” (literally translating to “Christmas table”) which are the Christmas dinners/parties that are held throughout the month. Many companies have a “Julebord” for their employees, and often groups of friends go out for their own “Julebord” as well. Most restaurants offers a “Julemeny” (Christmas menu) throughout the month of December. These menus most often consist of the three main Norwegian Christmas meals: Pinnekjøtt, Ribbe, and Lutefisk.
You may have begun to notice a trend here. Everything around Christmas is preceded by the word “Jul”. It seems that almost every food and drink is reimagined (or just re-labelled) around the Christmas season. So, regular beer (øl) becomes Juleøl (usually a darker beer) and regular pop (brus) becomes “Julebrus”, and marsipan becomes “Julemarsipan” (not to be confused with “Påskemarsipan” at Easter), and even the bacon gets Jule-ified by calling itself “Lutefiskbacon” but it’s still just the same ol’ bacon we know and love.
As I type these last sentences, there is a knock at our front door. Our friend, Ø, has arrived with a share of the lemon caramels and marzipan for us from last night. And that is another thing about the Jul season and Norwegians – the industriousness and enthusiasm for the season is only matched by the kindness and the friendship. No one goes home from these parties empty-handed. Also, no one goes home quite sober, but that’s another story for another time.
This evening, the forest around our house is blanketed in snow – and the Christmas lights glisten warmly against the whiteness. Inside, Christmas decorations adorn almost every surface, and candles flicker. The fire in the wood-stove crackles quietly and warms the house. The stereo plays NRK’s “Julekanalen” – an all day delight of holiday music. The Juledog is asleep on the couch, tired from today’s long romp in the snowy forest.
It’s a perfect time of year to look back and reflect on things. It’s not been an easy transition moving to Norway, and some things continue to be a struggle. But, as challenging as some aspects are, I am so happy in our cozy house in this little “landsby” that is now home. This is a village full of the warmest, most-welcoming, funny and fun, and fantastic people you could ever hope to know – and I am so grateful that my husband and I can now call many of them friends. I wouldn’t dare tell them, for fear of being the over-emotional North American, but I really love them all.
I take a pause from typing to unwrap a newly-delivered caramel. They are delicious.
They taste of lemon, and sweetness, and hard-work, and friendship and Jul.
One day, I might even be allowed to stir the pot.