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Thursday, 29 October 2009

Christmas, already?

It is merely the end of October, and Christmas lights are up, shops have started selling Christmas decorations, Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year! But I don't complain. Today I had my first true Christmassy sensation. Where? Fortnum and Mason. Ah, good old Fortnum and Mason. As you step onto the red carpeting, and find yourself in a wonderland of chocolates, cakes, jams, all sorts of delicatessens, you cannot help but feel that Christmas has come. The Christmas tree ornaments, table settings, stockings make me long for the time that I can decorate my own home, just the way I want. Having said that, I am quite the Christmas dictator when it comes to decorations. My poor parents are urged to "leave me alone" whilst I, in a Greta Garbo'esque manner insist that I must decorate the tree, all my myself. You see, I am convinced that I do it best. I admit, that it may seem slightly arrogant, brattish, yet, what can I say? I don't think I do much well, but decorate a tree? By Jo, I am the best.

Every country, every culture, every family has their own way of celebrating this festive occasion. There are those who cannot handle the stress of spending two to three days with their family, eating so much that their trouser buttons burst. For those who enjoy Christmas, the buying of the tree, the decorating, the baking of cookies, the cooking of meals on top of meals, it is a bloody wonderful time of year. For me, the best part is buying people presents. As a little girl I used to save all the money I was given throughout the year in my little piggy bank. Towards mid-November my father would take my to the bank where they would bash the poor piggy open, and remove my millions of coins. I was, very good at saving. A clever little girl I was, because I would pocket any change I could. When I was sent to the supermarket, with money, I would keep the change. When I would take the shopping cart back, I would keep the ten kroner that you have to put in the slot in the carriage to use it ( this is how we use shopping carts in Oslo, you slot in ten kroner, then when you put the carriage back in it's proper place, you get your ten kroner back. We are very civilized you see). There are so many ways I would save money, sneakily saving, my mother would always say I'd make an incredible banker. So, when the piggy was opened, I would have a fair amount of money to buy presents with. Then I would have a shopping day with my mother to buy presents for my father and sisters in law, and shopping day with my father buying presents for my brothers. With each of my parents I would have lunch at my favourite place, devouring a delicious pizza (both times). I love packaging the presents beautifully, adding perhaps a chocolate on top of the present as an extra treat. A lot of thought goes into what to buy people for Christmas. I always try and think of something special, and something practical. I look forward to the day I can afford buying bigger and better gifts. I know I know, it is the thought that counts, but I admit, I wish I could give my father a car, or my mother a new kitchen and long holiday in Manhattan. Ha! Wouldn't that be swell! The more the merrier has always been my motto. Now that my brothers have children, the bottom of the Christmas tree gets so full it makes us all feel like we are in the best of a Disney film, and the children's eyes pop out of their head when they see all the packages, it is wonderful.

In fact when it comes to Christmas I insist that everything must be big. Starting with the tree. My parents and I go together to pick it out together every year. I always insist on the biggest, fullest, grandest tree. My father prefers a more modest tree, as does my mother, and I must always convince them that the tree I want is not too big, and that if it is, we can snip the top a little. No problem! I haven't picked a bad tree as of yet.

My father always makes a "nacimiento", a crib. He clears off his large wooden desk in the living room, and covers it in paper, taping each piece together ever so carefully. He then puts down fine stones, sort of light gravel. Then moss and different little cacti and plants which he buys when we get the tree. Amongst this he places some pine tree branches which give off the sweetest and freshest of scents. Then out come the figures. Now these figures have been passed down by his uncle. His uncle, my great uncle, was a poet. He would every year make the largest, most intricate crib in his garage. He would even make a sky with stars. All the neighbours and friends, and even strangers would come to see this beautiful nacimiento. It was quite famous actually. Very famous. I am proud to say that the tradition has been continued in no other place but Norway, where my parents now reside. The figures we have now are ancient, and some of the sheep have loose legs, some of the figures have trouble standing, but they look absolutely marvellous, and inspire many "oooohs!" and "ahhhhhs!" from family and friends, as they admire our nacimiento which includes a gorilla, always standing proudly amongst the cacti.

In Norway, there is the tradition of dancing around the Christmas tree singing Christmas songs. I thought this was what everyone did. It wasn't until I came to England that I realized that not everybody does this. It is a shame. Holding hands with loved ones, and singing together is a beautiful part of Christmas. Why is this tradition not more widely acknowledged? We also have "nisser". These are little elves, who help Julenissen (Santa Claus). The most common "nisse" is the "Fjøsnisse" who is short and bearded and lived in a barn. They have red hats, and are quite naughty playing tricks on people, in fact you better give them lots of porridge or else the tricks don't stop! The "Julenisse" (Santa Claus) tends to visit homes, so he is less shy than Santa Claus, and doesn't come down the chimney but tends to come before or after dinner bearing gifts. In my household we didn't see Santa. He would come down the chimney. Once, my parents put a mini-crib in the chimney. I was appalled. How on earth was Santa going to deal with this? I worried all night. We put his cookies by the veranda door, and I left him a note explaining that my parents had lost their mind, and please may he forgive us. In the morning, I jolted out of bed (as one does on Christmas day) and ran downstairs. Sure enough the crib was completely destroyed. Shoe prints everywhere! I looked at my parents with the best "I told you so" face I could muster. Ha! Santa had written me a long letter back, detailing my behaviour of the year. My father would write these letters, and of course I came to believe that Santa Claus was watching at all times. Once I remember feeling as though he could see me in class at school, and so I would smile angelically at random moments in case he was tuning in to see me. My parents were clever ones, and threatened that Santa was watching when I would have tantrums, "he is watching you Jenny!" my mother would warn. I will remember this tactic for my own children. I would get presents on the 24th, our Christmas, and then on the 25th in the morning I would run down the stairs in the morning to see what Santa had left me. It was heaven. I never wanted to stop believing in Santa. Why? i got so many presents! When my mother let slip and asked me to find the coloured pencils she had given me, to which I responded, "Santa brought them to me". I knew something was up, but for many years I insisted I still believed. In fact I still do, but he has stopped visiting me. Must be the recession.

The Norwegian Fjøsnisse, despite looking very similar to Santa (his high profile relative) with his white beard, doesn't toil away in a polar workshop, but works on his farm, ensuring that the animals have enough food and heat, in short acting as the barns caretaker. He is grumpy, and porridge cheers him up. The stories of the Fjøsnisse pre-date Christianity, yet knowledge of his exact ways is rather vague. It is advisable to be generous and kind to the Nisse, leaving him lots of porridge, they are known to dabble in magic, even a miracle or two.

You may find city Santa's, boat Santa's, blue Santa's, all of which are very happy to be left porridge. Pop it out in a big bowl on your doorstep, you'll make a Nisse very happy.

Norway also has advent calenders as a tradition. Advent calenders, such as the tradition of Christmas trees, derives from German tradition. This 19th century(or earlier) custom of an Advent calender derives from the German Lutherans and is known as a "julekalender". It counts down the 24 days to Christmas. Many families make them, out of felt for example with little pockets for each day, in which a tiny present is placed. I admit I grew up with an American style calender, cardboard, and with a chocolate behind each window.

We make basket hearts, that look like this:

We make "pepperkake hus", ginger bread houses....Ginger bread hearts that we hang in the windows. We decorate oranges with cloves, and one of my favourite things is on the 24th, before or after church everyone puts a light on the graves of those that no longer can be with them. At night, for the post dinner and present walk, families return to the cemeteries to find a peaceful and beautiful sea of candles flickering in the darkness, conjuring back warm and intimate memories.

On that note, I am off to bed, buzzing with warm feelings, and excited about what is to come.



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