Norwegian Christmas Traditions

Do you have special holiday traditions – activities, food, decorations – that you include in your celebrations every year? Do you ever add to them or change them over time?  

Norway has many traditions specific to Christmas, and Norwegian-American immigrants brought them and adapted them over time. Have you ever wondered where Norwegian Christmas traditions came from? Have you ever wondered where your family’s traditions came from? 

Check out this short video with Jennifer Kovarik, Vesterheim’s Collection Manager, and learn about the julebukk. This piece in the Vesterheim collection – 2007.003.001 – Museum Purchase. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and check back for more Collection Spotlights like this here!

We’ve include more Norwegian Christmas traditions and information here compiled by writing from Dr. Marion Nelson, previous Vesterheim Director. Each year on the first weekend of December, Vesterheim invited everyone to Norwegian Christmas celebration where many of these traditions are presented.



Norwegian Christmas, called jul, celebrates the birth of Christ. But long before the introduction of Christianity, Norway had a festival in the darkness of the middle of winter. This festival was held in anticipation of the return of sunlight. Many of Norway’s Christmas customs come from these older times. 


Straw has been linked with Christmas for a long time. Since before Christianity, people spread straw, the dried stems of plants like wheat and oats, on the floor during major holidays. Everyone in the family slept on it, giving their beds to the spirits of the dead, who they thought came back during these times. After the holidays, they turned the straw into shapes like animals, crosses, or people. They believed these shapes brought good luck or made their families, animals, and crops more fertile. In some places, they put the straw on fields to carry the fertility of the past growing season into the next. People also made large mobiles called uro (unrest) from Christmas straw. These decorations were linked to the mysterious powers of the universe. 

Grain was also important at Christmas. People kept the first bundle of grain cut in fall, called julenek, and put it on a pole near the house or barn at Christmas. It might have been an offering at first, but later it was for feeding birds. Finding grain on the floor when the Christmas straw was cleared away meant a good harvest was coming. 

People made lots of special Christmas foods from grain. In some places, they baked a large cake and shared it with guests. In other places, they made individual cakes for family members. The last crumbs from these cakes were scattered on the fields to return fertility to the earth. People also cooked grain into porridge, which they made extra special by using cream instead of water or milk. People still eat fløtegrøt (sweet cream porridge) and rømmegrøt (sour cream porridge) on Christmas Eve in Norway. 

Other Foods 

Roast pig was part of the mid-winter celebrations before Christianity. Pork is still a favorite meat for Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Lutefisk, dried cod soaked in lye water, might have been introduced when Norway was a Catholic country and people abstained from meat on church holidays. Fish pudding made in a fish-shaped mold may have had a similar origin. 

Julenisse, Lussi, and Julebukk

In the same way people left the beds for the spirits of ancestors, they kept the tables set for these spirits to feast. The spirits who came into the house were usually nice, but if they were not treated well, they might get upset. Julenisse, a Christmas elf, might have been an ancestor once. His name comes from St. Nicholas, but his character is Norwegian. People believed he lived in the barn and could play tricks, like tying knots in cows’ tails, if he was not given porridge before Christmas. 

Not all the returning spirits were friendly. Spirits of those who died unnatural deaths could cause trouble, sweeping through the air in great numbers and bringing destruction to the farm or carrying off humans and animals. One of these spirits, called lussi, made sure all the seasonal rituals were carried out properly. 

To keep bad spirits away, people dressed in furry robes and carried carved wooden goat heads on sticks through the area. They would make noise and ask for refreshments at the farms they visited. This tradition, called julebukk or Christmas fooling, continued in Norwegian-American communities in the United States after immigration. 


During Christmas, almost all work stopped except for the most important tasks. People made their houses look festive by painting geometric patterns in white lime or red earth along the top log of the inside wall or by hanging woven tapestries or coverlets around the room. In Valdres, Norway, they hung a colorful baptismal blanket and white towels over a window to symbolize the Christ child’s swaddling bands. 

Traditions Over Time 

Even though many of these customs are older than celebrating Christ’s birth, they became associated with Christmas. Sleeping on straw became a symbol for Christ’s bed in a manger and for the equality of all people. Candlelight, originally linked to the return of the sun, became a symbol of Christ’s light. A special candle called a trekongerlys represented the Three Wise Men who visited Jesus. People would burn this three-branched candle every night from Christmas Eve to January 6. 

Around the 1880s in Norway, new traditions joined or replaced some of the old ones. Christmas trees and giving presents became popular. Instead of straw, people used evergreen branches for decoration. People started putting candles on Christmas trees instead of having one big candle lit during the Christmas season. Christmas trees were decorated with homemade paper baskets called julekurver, which held treats like nuts and candy, and people celebrated by singing together around the tree during juletrefest. Parents would decorate the tree in secret and reveal it to the children after the Christmas meal. Then the door to the Christmas tree room was opened and presents were distributed. People even put Christmas trees on top of the masts of fishing boats and passenger ships as symbols of the holiday season. 

An uro, large mobile made from Christmas straw, hangs in Vesterheim’s Norwegian House exhibition.

Julenek, sheaves of Christmas wheat, are often available during Vesterheim Norwegian Christmas celebration.

To keep bad spirits away, people dressed in furry robes and carried carved wooden goat heads on sticks making a loud noise. This tradition was called julebukk or Christmas fooling.

Students in Vesterheim Folk Art School learn kroting (painting geometric patterns in white lime or red earth along the top wall of a room like Norwegians did during Christmas) with Norwegian instructor Johild Mæland.

Christmas trees in Norway are often decorated with homemade paper baskets called julekurver. Vesterheim decorates the museum for the full holiday season.

Vesterheim celebrates with a juletrefest, or singing around the Christmas tree, every year during the Norwegian Christmas celebration.