FARGO — With a growing interest in family heritage around the world, returning to traditions for the holidays can help people learn their place in history.
For much of the Midwest — especially in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin — Scandinavian culture is ingrained with many of the residents. But what traditions from the "old country" have persisted through the generations?
The holidays are a way to lift spirits and bring joy to a cold and dark place where the sun only shines for a few hours per day. Even if Scandinavian blood doesn't run through your veins, many Western Christmas traditions and habits originated far away in Scandinavian lands.
"The thing about Norwegian Christmas, it's not as commercialized as American Christmases are," according to Verlyn Anderson, cultural director of the Fargo Sons of Norway.
As a full-blooded Norwegian-American and a former professor of Scandinavian history at Concordia College in Moorhead, the Rothsay, Minn., native knows his fair share of Norwegian culture — he's even lived and taught in Norway.
"(Norwegians) don't decorate their homes until the very last week before Christmas," Verlyn says.
"They start preparing for it really far in advance, though," Verlyn's wife, Evonne, adds. "A lot of their traditions involve food. They have to bake seven different types of cookies to prepare for all the family that comes."
To prepare for the big celebration, Norwegians begin well in advance during Advent. However, things quickly change as soon as Dec. 24 rolls around.
In his culture article for the Fargo Sons of Norway, "Kringen Posten," Verlyn shares one of the more interesting things about the land of the midnight sun.
"Although Norwegians seem as busy with their holiday preparations as we are in the States," he writes, "once Christmas arrives, they stop everything. Including all grocery stores."
In Norway, the week between Christmas and New Year's — called Romjul, which comes from old Norse and means "half-holy" — is a week of half-celebrations without the seriousness of Christmas or excitement of New Year's Day. These gatherings are reserved for visiting family and friends and eating up any Christmas leftovers.
Season's eatings is the name of the game around this time of year, and boy do Scandinavians know how to eat — but because these countries are so close together, many of their foods and customs overlap.
In Norway, a salted or smoked rack of lamb (pinnekjod), lutefisk, Christmas sausage (julepolse) and spiced meatballs (medisterkaker) are the stars of the Christmas meal, while pastries like krumkake, fattingmann, rosettes and lefse help bring a little sweetness to the day.
Sweden, Norway's neighbor to the east, celebrates Christmas with a full smorgasbord. Swedes enjoy a Christmas ham, pork sausage, pickled herring potato sausage (potatiskorv) and more, finishing off with some fruktkaka and a candy-studded toffee known as polkagriskola, as well as many other goodies.
In Sweden, a special celebration takes place more than a week before Christmas. On Dec. 13, Swedes and others all over the world honor the legend of Saint Lucia.
Many families today celebrate Sankta Lucia Day in their homes. In the very early hours of the morning, children will serve coffee and lussekatter (Lucia buns) to everyone in the house while singing traditional Swedish Lucia songs. The oldest daughter dresses in a long white gown with a red ribbon tied at her waist. She puts on a crown of fresh greens and lights candles on her head, then sings these songs.
Local churches, businesses and schools also have Lucia celebrations. Many cities will have a Lucia contest for the girls who have reached a certain age, with the winner leading the procession of starboys — who carry stars, while also dressed in white robes — into the celebration.
Although they are called different things in each country, their game is the same. Often imagined as a small, elderly man with a full beard dressed in traditional farmer clothing, a nisse (Danish and Norwegian) is a farm helper who tend to animals.
Markus Krueger, programming director for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, says nisser (the plural of nisse) are generally sweet little helpers, but if they don't get their way, high jinks can ensue.
"(Families) have to leave a bowl of porridge out for them on Christmas Eve," Krueger says. "If they don't, the nisser will be naughty and mischievous for the rest of the year. But if they do, the nisser bring Christmas presents."
Sound familiar? Krueger says nisser are along the lines of the modern-day Santa Claus.
The creature is known as a tomte in Sweden, literally translating to "homestead man." But the phrase nisse comes from the name Nils, which happens to the Scandinavian version of Nicholas.
"I don't think we really know it, but who we think of as Santa Claus has a lot to do with Scandinavian nisse," he says. "If you think of the old poem 'The Night Before Christmas,' Santa is described as an elf with a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. He's not up on the rooftop with a full-size sleigh with full-size reindeer. If you think about it, it sounds like the Scandinavian tradition of the elvish-gnomish-nisser people giving gifts on Christmas Eve."
While Christmas traditions have evolved over the years, in the Midwest, celebrations can be deeply rooted in family heritage.