So Saturday morning, I boarded a ferry (another giant cruise ship ferry like the one I took from Stockholm to Helsinki) headed for Oslo. Oslo is really not much of a place to learn about Norwegian fisheries – the pelagic fisheries are mostly based in other cities in the south (particularly Ålesund), and cod fishing is still mainly considered the domain of the small rural fishing communities in the north. But before heading the rest of the way north to Tromsø, the capitol of northern Norway and hopefully a good place to learn about Norwegian cod fishing, I stopped in Oslo for a few days to see the city.
As it turns out, this weekend was the beginning of advent (not something I usually keep track of), and because of this, everything in Oslo has been Christmas-crazy (or Jule, as they call it here). The entirety of downtown Oslo is decorated with lights and various kinds of Christmas wreaths and trees, special markets and even a temporary ice-skating rink have been set up, and it seems every attraction in town is doing something special for the season.
People shopping on Karl Johans gate, the main pedestrian street in the city center, complete with lots of Christmas sales and decorations. This time of year, it’s dark by 3:30pm, so the lights make it considerably cheerier to be out during the long nights.
Normally I’m not a big fan of the long commercialized lead-up to Christmas in the US, but even though Norway has plenty of commercialization itself, I have to admit that I like seeing people acting cheery, with streets full of lights and music and people.
Of these many Christmas attractions, however, I’m convinced that I found the best by far: the Julemarked (Christmas market) at the Norwegian Folk Museum. The museum is an open-air museum with a collection of traditional buildings from all over Norway – highlights include an ornately carved and painted stave church from 1200, log house-style storage buildings lofted off the ground, and a collection of traditional crafts: pottery, silversmithy, and weaving – organized into small collections around the grounds. For the Christmas season, the entire museum was decorated in the style of the buildings’ times (not just setting up Christmas trees, which apparently were only popularized in the 19th century after being introduced into schoolhouses and parsonages, but also covering the floor with juniper branches and burning special candles), special activities and demonstrations (carriage rides, sing-along Christmas carols, a concert by a boy’s choir, a service in the 12th century stave church…) were set up around the museum, and the paths were filled by over a hundred stalls of artisans selling everything from Sami-style cured reindeer meat to hand-made textiles to marzipan pigs.
For the curious, apparently it is a Christmas tradition here to eat marzipan pigs. The ones for sale were mouthful-sized, but there was also a giant marzipan pig on display. Traditionally, advent was a lean time because the family had to work hard and forego extras in order to prepare enough food to celebrate on Christmas. But now the whole season is marked by celebration…and indulgence.
Sadly, this also marked the first time this year that I managed to let both of my camera batteries die, and so even though this was one of the most exciting and photogenic places I had seen in a while, so I don’t have many pictures I have to share.
Unfortunately, my camera died before the demonstration I found most exciting of all: a group of young children demonstrating Norwegian folk dancing. They were dressed in traditional costumes: the boys in pointy red hats (like elf hats) and black suspender-trousers, the girls in floral patterned headkerchiefs and black suspender-skirts with green and red stripes, both boys and girls with faire isle patterned sweaters and freckles painted on their faces…and, oh my, dressed up children folk dancing is about the most adorable thing imaginable. It was really fun for me to recognize a lot of the dances (Norwegian and Danish folk dance are very similar), including a surprisingly well-executed schottis with lots of fancy twists. Norwegian folk dance also includes a number of male-only dances that are designed to pantomime demonstrations of machismo, and four of the boys did a hilarious dance that involved synchronized staring each other down, slapping each other in the face, and showing off their biceps. As part of the demonstration, they also invited Santa (Nisse)* on stage to dance with some of the girls, who were obviously thrilled to be dancing with Santa.
As with any living history museum, it didn’t entirely recreate authentic Christmas traditions from the past (the service in the 12th century church, for instance, was led by a woman), but the modern tradition of going to the Julemarked at the Folk Museum is definitely popular in Oslo (it was full of people from open to close) and it was exciting to see the ways in which Norwegians celebrate their folk traditions. I was able to sample some of the traditional Norwegian Christmas foods – a Christmas bread (sweet, with spices and raisins) and lefse – a flat potato-based bread – made in the traditional style over hot ashes in one of the old wooden buildings. I did not, however, get to taste the traditional Christmas cod served with lefse: it’s called lutefisk, which translates as lye fish and is made by soaking dried cod (stockfish) and mixing it with ashes (lye) until the proteins break down and it gains a jelly-like consistency. (I must admit, that my curiosity about this Norwegian cod specialty is tempered by severe doubt that I would actually enjoy it – if I do try it, I’ll let you know.)
On Sunday, I set off on a less Christmas-y adventure to see Oslo’s famous sculpture park containing hundreds of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland.
Originally in 1907, the City of Kristiania (Oslo, renamed in honor of himself by King Christian IV for a period of a few centuries) just commissioned Vigeland to create a fountain for the city, but the fountain became just the starting point for an entire 80-acre park lined with sculptures of human figures. I was really struck by the realism and human emotion in the statues, and enjoyed wandering around the park for a few hours. It’s a really nice part of the city because in addition to attracting tourists, it also was full of people running, walking their dogs, even a group of preschool children. It’s nice for people in Oslo to be able to spend an afternoon out going for a nice walk past such fabulous sculptures.
It was mostly fairly calm and quiet in the park, but the addition of a street musician with his accordion (common on the streets of Oslo at least while I was there) added a little more life to the park on a quiet Monday.
On the way back from Vigeland’s park, I still had some more time to spend, so I got off the tram near the harbor to wander around and eventually found my way to the Akershus Fortress, which has defended Oslo for 700 years. Even though the fortress itself is no longer serving much of a defensive purpose, it’s now used as a base for the Norwegian military (mostly, it seems, as a location for training schools).
And of course the castle, like everything else in Oslo, was decorated for Christmas.
It may be dark here a lot of the winter, but between the pre-Christmas excitement and the colors in the sky when it is light out, it still feels very welcoming to be in Norway in the winter. I like it here.
*Santa Claus was not part of the Norwegian Christmas tradition until fairly recently, and so they have adopted the term nisse for Santa even though nisse really has no proper translation into English. They look like some variation on elves or trolls, and a major symbol of the Christmas season, filling stores in Norway (and in Denmark). I still don’t have a proper translation, but I’ve decided to call them gnomes based on this discovery in a bookstore in downtown Oslo.
The English version, of which I am rather fond, is called simply Gnomes.