How Norwegians’ Love for Traditions is Driving Me Crazy

«Vi er en ribbe-familie» is one of the strange sentences one can hear just before Christmas time in Norway (We are a “ribbe”-family). It is the end of a conversation when asking a family what they eat for Christmas (easy, it’s usually either ribbe or pinnekjøtt or sometimes lutefisk). Suddenly Norwegians are more sure of what they will eat for Christmas, in which house, and with whom for the next 10 years than who they will vote for in the next elections. This is because they eat the same thing every single year, the meny having been decided by some rule 100 years ago in that specific family).

“So what kind of family do you belong to in France?” they sometimes ask. “We eat different things every year. Depends on our mood. But usually a lot of seafood” is my reply. Every time I tell Norwegians that French people eat “live oysters and goose liver with sweet white wine” for Christmas dinner, I can see how surprised they are. “You mean, oysters from the sea, without even a little bacon in them?”. Yes. Exactly.

Even Summer holidays are planned in Norwegians’ minds. If you are Norwegian you might think “That’s not true! I go a different place every summer holidays”. Let me guess. Every year you spend one part of your summer in a hytte (your own or someone else’s) in Norway, and the other part in Syden. But as you are an adventurous kind of family you go to a different part of Syden every year: Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, Thailand, Portugal. Maybe to the USA on a roadtrip that year you had a bigger budget.

Why do Norwegians love to follow patterns of behaviour also called traditions? All human beings and communities do that, but as a foreigner it feels like Norwegians are particularly faithful to whatever was decided to wear, drink, eat for each festivity a long time ago, with no aim to change any small part of “the plan”.

Norwegians like and known patterns & conflict-free traditions

Yes, Norwegians’ absolute love their traditions. They can be national traditions, such as sending their children to the “barnetog” on the 17th of May, or family traditions like knowing already in December in which cabin you will spend Easter holiday (the mountain hytte obviously, not the one by the sea). Or in which spot in which forest we will go look for chanterelles next Fall. In France doing the same thing every year is…boring. Yes, very boring. It shows the lack of creativity and curiosity of your family. In Norway it seems like following a pattern of behaviour which has been usually decided by someone else brings a sense of feeling safe. And when things are safe as well as predictable and conflict-free, they are often very close to being “koselige”. There is no conflict because nobody would dare change things, even if they wanted to. Could a son in that ribbe-family say “Could we be “smalahove-familie” just this year?” Of course not.

In case you were wondering what a smalahove is: a sheep’s head usually eaten on the West Coast of Norway.

For us foreigners so many traditions and their strict application can be overwhelming, sometimes even oppressive, as we feel we cannot express other ways of doing things. I am not talking about our own traditions. I would not dare make a whole Norwegian family eat 48 live oysters and then move on to a rooster cooked in wine. But why do Norwegians need security so much? Are they insecure to begin with?

A confirmation that Norwegian culture and identity does exist

Yes they might have been insecure, at least a few generations ago. I have never seen such a big need for a confirmation of “typical things from our culture/country” as here in Norway. I believe that Norwegians really like traditions is that it reinforces the idea that Norway is a nation with its own culture, traditions and identity. It has only been over a century that Norway is truly an independent country, and there might be a need of reinforcing every year at a very regular interval what makes Norwegians Norwegian. Even if that goes through something as strange as watching an Austrian movie with no real dubbing and a man talking over all actors’ voices including women. Not sure how that makes anyone feel more safe, but go figure.

For us foreigners there are several challenges facing these Norwegian traditions. We need to learn them, understand them and try to reproduce them in order to avoid conflict. Here is a check list of things to remember

  • Do not question Norwegian traditions. Ask for the tradition “So where will you be for Easter/17th of May/this Summer/for Christmas?» and then whatever the answer, say «Nei men, så koselig!».
  • If you do question the tradition “But why are you a ribbe-family?”, you must be prepared for a long explanation of where the family comes from geographically, their social-economic history etc.. Or you need to be prepared for a much shorter answer which will give you no further clarification “Sånn er det”. When hearing this sentence, let it go. (This is how things are).
  • Do not try to change the tradition. Unless you have landed in a very liberal family, or one which has integrated foreigners before, this will not go well. Don’t try to exchange your own national pastry for the 7 traditional Christmas cakes. You might think you are helping by decorating the Christmas tree on the 15th of November. You aren’t. You might have landed in one of those Norwegian families decorating the tree on the 23rd of December and now thanks to you the “family kos” has disappeared. Other ways to offend Norwegians during Christmas time can be found here.

Check-list of Norwegian Christmasy things 

To help my fellow foreigners lost in the Christmas traditions I have started a check-list f everything that is “julete” (Christmassy-yes that word exists). Foreigners need to learn a big amount of information, including that completely regular food adopts a new name for Christmas, such as juleegg (Christmas eggs (??), as well as other things that appear only at Christmas time.

Category 1: Objects. Juleduker (X-mas table cloth), juletredekorasjoner (X-mas decorations), juledopapir (X-mas toilet paper), julegardiner (X-mas curtains), juleservise (X-mas plates and cutlery), juleglass (X-mas glasses), julesengetøy (X-mas bedsheets), julekalender (X-mas calendar), julelysestaker (X-mas candle holder), julekondomer (X-mas condoms – they blink red and green in the dark).

Category 2: Entertainment. Donald Duck film “From all of us to all of you”, Rock n’ roll Wolf, Three hazelnuts for Cinderella, Christmas calendar show on NRK, Dinner for one film, slow tv show of a pigg belly roasting in the oven for hours, the vegan alternative with a soy version of pig belly roasting for hours in an oven, Christmas songs which give lots of Christmas royalties to Mariah Careh and Kurt Nielsen.

Category 3: Food. Julekaffe (Christmas coffee with lots of cinnamon), pepperkaker (a kind of Scandinavian gingerbread), julebrus (Christmas soda), juleøl (X-mas beer), juleegg (Christmas egg), ribbe (pig belly), julegløgg (Christmas gløgg- warm wine with spices, but without the alcohol because it’s too expensive in Norway), lutefisk, medisterkaker (Christmas meatballs), kålrabbistappe (rutabaga puree), julerull (Christmas roll with some pork inside), julesild (Christmas herring), julesushi (Christmas sushi-as I imagine it could exist, with maybe raw pork belly on the rice. Miam!!).

How long has Friday Taco been a Norwegian tradition?

What is very confusing however is that although Norwegians pretend traditions have been there forever, some obviously haven’t. For example this “tradition” of eating Taco on Fridays. A tradition, really? from when? Did your grand parents eat Taco when they came home from fishing in 1920 on Stord island? Probably not. They probably had never heard of Taco. Maybe if you talk to your grand parents or even your parents they can tell you when they heard the word Taco for the first time. Now Norwegians even came up with their own Taco, see here even for the recipe of “Norwegian Taco”.

But now suddenly it is a tradition, maybe since the 1970s. How did it become that? I have no idea. But what is important is that many Norwegians do it at the same time, and that even those who don’t do it acknowledge that it is a tradition. Note that although this tradition is “new”, you cannot as a foreigner challenge it either.

In the end, after 9 winters in the country I think that being so busy for Christmas is also important for everyone to keep their sanity. It is dark and cold, and we need inner light, good meals with people we love to share these meals and traditions with. Just make sure you don’t eat too much Christmas Grandis (Grandiosa pizza, a frozen pizza very popular in Norway, is also known to be eaten by an increasing amount of people during for Christmas).

God jul!!

This blogpost was published in VG on the 24th of December 2018 under the title Det tradisjonsrike folket.

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

16 thoughts on “How Norwegians’ Love for Traditions is Driving Me Crazy

  1. I’ve been thinking the other day “why have I never seen a post about julemat yet.”
    Well, now I have. And this is definitely how I feel about julemat. Not to mention what happens if you actually don’t like whatever tradition commands. How do I explain that I don’t like risgrøt or fårikål?

    On a fun note: somebody just assumed I har taken out all my nisser already a couple of weeks before Christmas. In a way, I had. I don’t have any nisser. 😉

  2. Your posts make me feel sane when i start questioning my self if i am the only one freaking out about these things. The only thing you might be wrong about is trying to even compare anything that has to do with France and Norway. France shaped the world as we know it today, insanely influential country in any respect. Sadly to say, Norwegians haven’t really done anything, ever, and are suffering from big time inferiority complex in every possible aspect. Not to mention they lived under two very influential countries as well, DK and SWE. They are doing everything they can to compensate for that.

    1. Nah, you forget that Scandinavians shaped France centuries ago and that the very traditions we still handle (except for taco) decend from that time. Even jul (nöel, Yule) is Scandinavian;)

      1. …and after that they decided to “ta det med ro» and stoppes doing anything at all, ja!

  3. Comme d´habitude un grand BRAVO !!! Un grand plaisir à lire ! Joyeux Noël et de bonnes fêtes de fin d´année.

  4. I think that “taco Friday” is a much later tradition than the 1970s. I don’t remember that starting until the late 1990s or early 2000s. And the tradition of going South is also a fairly new tradition -maybe since the 1970s. Glad to know that new traditions can still be created.

    1. Agreed, I remember the Santa Maria (or was it Old El Paso?) dinner packets for tacos coming to stores in the 90’s, pretty sure that’s when it started. In my family, Saturday was when we kids decided what to eat, and before tacos became a thing, it was always pizza. I never heard of taco Friday until I became an adult.

  5. Tre nøtter til Askepott is actually Czech-East German coproduction, it is not Austrian (as the people rightfully pinpointed in comments on the article from 2014) – there was no such thing as Eastern Austria.

  6. I loved this post! It is good to be scrutinized by someone who can see us from outside. I have lived far too little abroad to realise what is typically Norwegian, so I am sometimes surprised, but not by this so much. Or perhaps a bit about the French not having typical Christmas food? But even so, I do recognise this obsession with Christmas traditions. I sometimes find it opressing too. For instance the fact that I do not find going to church on Christmas Eve at all necessary to get me into the festive mood is something that others (some, not everybody) find very odd. Keep writing. I look forward to more enlightening posts in 2019.

  7. I’ve been wondering why my partner’s family find it so weird when we travel abroad instead of joining the family dinner for Christmas! Now I got it…

  8. I am from the U.S. and I lived in Norway for about 6 months. I. started wondering, “What is it about Grandiosa pizzas? What is it about Tacos every Friday night? and Solo, etc…?” The degree of conformity, while cozy, yes, and charming, had me a bit squirming for, uh, a bit of spontaneity…… a bit of outrageousness……. I had to keep myself in check :). Nevertheless, I love Norway and all things Norwegian, being norsk.amerikansk……. Thank you for your thoughts, your blog is fun…

    1. Actually yes we norwegians love the traditions, things have to be like what they used to be, even if we don’t use them but just the tought of it being gone is disturbing.

      My family is a Ribbe family, we have always as long as I can remember eaten Ribbe for christmas dinner, same with the new year dinner wich btw did change … at once point wich I don’t remember tough but I know at one point we begun to eat turkey for our New year dinner and it kinds stuck like that.

      My uncle on the other hand (he is dead now but while he lived) used to eat Cod for dinner christmas… we always invited him to us but he only came late christmas evening and had coffie and cake.

      We norwegians don’t like changes, we actually talked about this at a local cafè the other day how my hometown in the last 30-40 years have changed very little, apart from it being fewer people living here but there have not been many new buildings or new type of buildings coming, there have come a few new houses yes but they don’t stand out… the streets are pretty much the same as for 40 years ago, the purpose of some of the buildings have changed but the outside pretty much look the same (apart from new signs).
      And in Politics you see the same, those who fight for things to stay the same, some parties claim they are to reverse any new politics from current parties and so on … and vice versa…

      Norwegians really do not like changes… even in relationships (not just love but friendships too), I absolutly hate it when friends of mine move to other cities for living or work… not that I visit them that much, I just hate the change… maybe I one day wanted to visit after all 🙂

      1. Thank you, that is so interesting. I love Norway and Norwegians. And I am Norwegian-American. My ancestors left Oslo and Bergen 120 years ago and came to America, so there must be something deep inside Norwegians that longs for change, for travel, for new adventures, for seeing what is over the next mountain wall…. . Well, my ancestors left my ancestral home, and we came, saw, and conquered (in a matter of speaking) America. And now, my heart longs to go back, to live back in my beautiful Norway again, for the simplicity and nature and family and love and non-complexity and integrity that was given away so long ago to be in a land of future, of only newness, of smashing all traditions and the past (America.). I am envisioning myself in Norway now, and I will maybe visit you in your town, and I will be a stranger, but deep down, not really, one of you. Klemmer, xoxoxo. Lauren O’Connell

  9. When “Syden” is defined as “any coastal country south of germany and north of the equator” (even thailand? wow), it’s pretty easy to end up there if you want to go somewhere affordable.

    I’d like to go “there” some day, but not to the most touristy areas.

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