The docking areas are deserted and there’s nobody on the wooden piers, the spot where in summer beer-drinkers and ice-cream-eaters would crowd. The cold wind feels sharp on the cheeks – thankfully, the only exposed part of my body – but other than the humming of the air as it snakes through the brightly-coloured buildings, there is no other sound echoing around Fiskebrygga.
Kristiansand’s old fishing landing, now a popular area for tourists and locals thanks to restaurants, cafes and its charming yellow and red buildings, looks like a movie set waiting for its extras to arrive: picturesque, neat and, with the exclusion of a few shoppers hurrying to the warmth of the indoor fish market, very devoid of people. It’s the day before Christmas Eve, though, and most locals are busy planning for their biggest dinner of the month, for the country celebrates on December 24 (as for the tourists, very few venture to the so-called Norwegian Riviera at this time of the year).
Few things match Christmas in Norway for cosiness. In fact, for all the hype heaped on the Danes, spending any time in December with their northerly neighbours would dial up the hygge meter to eleven. Norway in winter acquires a nearly magical aura – one made up of cracking open fires, spiced drinks and woolly sweaters, even before a single snowflake starts to fall. It’s Christmas as it should be and it never fails to amaze me.
For all of Norwegians’ love of nature, Christmas is a very indoorsy experience. It’s a time for families, often far-flung across the country, to come together around the kitchen table to make cookies – seven kinds of them, no less. It’s a time to decorate the house with lights, candles and a rigorously real, locally-sourced tree (as if traditional wooden Norwegian homes could get any cosier. But they do). It’s a time to watch all the classic TV-shows, even if by now you know all the words by heart. Whether there is snow, sleet or gale outside – and Norwegians wouldn’t mind them, after all “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing” – people from Lindesnes in the south to Alta in the north gather around the hearth – literally – to celebrate.
I only experienced my first Norwegian Christmas in my twenties, but its collection of imagery was always part of my upbringing. One of my first memories of Advent was a book – Swedish, I think – about Christmas in the north: I got it when I was just three or four. From candles in the windows to Saint Lucia and gingerbread houses – all quite exotic – Scandinavian was THE way this time of the year should look for me. End of story – and cue my poor mum, having to find ginger and cinnamon in my not-so-globalised city of yesteryear just for me to be able to follow the cookie recipes in the book. (If only IKEA had been around in Italy back then…)
Stepping into a picture-perfect setting of gold and red, cinnamon wafts filling the air, was a dream come true – and still is. The feeling of wonder never gets old: I may be a sucker for Christmas but, for me, nothing beats the joy of a freshly-baked tray of peppernøtter taken out of the oven and into the warm glow of a candle-lit kitchen.
Cooking, unsurprisingly, is one of the biggest draws of a Scandi Christmas. I may come from the land of Panettone and Pandoro, but I could easily spend the whole of December in Norway and never get to eat the same biscuit, cake or dessert twice. From the seven different kind of cookies leading us through the month (including the lovely pepperkaker and serinakaker) to the spectacular kransekake (a towering wreath cake, made of rings of almond paste, icing sugar and egg whites), Norwegians go all out for sweets – and I happily go along. Every family has jealously kept recipes for each of them, and an impressive array of tools and special trays is at hand for the most technical bakes.
Good food doesn’t stop on the dessert table, however. Wherever you are in the country, be it sea or mountain, you can be treated to some classics – some of which could be considered, er, an acquired taste. Our Norwegian feast would feature both ribbe (roast pork rib) and pinnekjøtt (racks of lamb) – some very distinct geographical lines are drawn here, which we blatantly disregard by eating both – and all is normal here (the least said about smalahove, a whole sheep head dried and then steamed, the better). Things get a bit more adventurous with fish and here’s where our family proudly brings rakfisk to the table, a dish of salted and fermented trout that may smell horrific but tastes delicious, especially when wrapped in a potato lefse with butter. What our family does not bring to the table is lutefisk, dried cod soaked in a solution of water and lye until it’s caustic. (Still, some find it lovely once all the causticity is taken away. Each to their own.)
The magic of a Norwegian Christmas, however, is not just about the food. It’s about the homeliness of a celebration that is still seen as a chance to get together and re-live traditions that are lost in the hectic rush of modernity; it’s about the warmth of a cosy home when the weather is cold and the snow is falling outside; and yes, it’s about hygge, if one wants to sum up the whole atmosphere in a single, over-used word (woolly socks and all that).
Walking in a landscape covered by a thick white blanket of snow, baking spiced biscuits, decorating a Christmas tree with lights and flags while sitting on a warm wooden floor as the fire roars in the stove. This is what Christmas means for me – it’s what it always meant and what I am lucky to live year on year.
Four-year-old me, gingerbread cookies triumphantly made, would have approved.