Norway was originally a pagan culture, and elements of that culture remain today. Early Norwegians worshipped a pantheon of deities you might have heard of, among them Odin (the chief god) and his son Thor (god of thunder). According to the myths, the gods resided in Asgard, a fortress in the center of the earth, while humans lived in Midgard, the middle section of the earth. High walls protected Midgard from the chaotic outer reaches of the world, which were inhabited by the fierce, troll-like Jotuns [source: Bringsvaerd].
The Viking King Olav II established the Church of Norway in 1024, and today, at least on paper, Norway is predominantly a Christian nation. Around 85 percent of its citizens belong to the state church, now the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway, but the religious community also includes other offshoots of Christianity [source: Visiting Arts]. However, many Norwegians don't self-identify as religious.
Holidays like Christmas -- called Jul, the Viking version of Yule -- that combine pre-Christian and Christian traditions are a big deal in Norway. (We suspect that the excuse Jul provides to party in the midst of winters that can last from November through April doesn't hurt its popularity.) The festivities begin on December 1 with Advent, a countdown to Christmas during which children receive a small gift each day -- a tradition echoed in some American families with chocolate-bearing advent calendars.
St. Lucia Day, December 13th, marks the middle of the countdown. Though named for the Roman Catholic saint of the blind (the word "Lucia" comes from the Latin lux, meaning "light"), the holiday is now more secular than religious, and its celebrations bring light to Norwegian communities on what was historically considered the shortest day of the year. On St. Lucia Day, a child from each elementary school or town is chosen to represent the saint. They wear lit crowns and lead processions through the community, singing songs and handing out saffron-flavored buns called lussekatter.
Christmas itself comes early for Norwegians: Children wake up to full stockings on December 24, and families gather to celebrate that evening. It's a busy day, and Norwegian parents take advantage of classic Christmas films like "Tre notter til Askepott" ("Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella," actually a Czech film that's been dubbed in Norwegian) to keep the kids entertained while they whip up Christmas dinner [source: Hollekim Haaland].
In the evening, families open gifts from one another and from Julenissen, the Norwegian version of Santa Claus. Legend has it that Julenissen ("the Yule elf") was a regular fellow who began delivering Christmas gifts and just never stopped. Like the American Santa Claus, he has legions of nimble helpers lending a hand during the pre-Christmas months; however, his lack of magical powers leaves him so exhausted that he sleeps for weeks after the big day [source: Royal Norwegian Embassy].
Norwegians are big on personal holidays, too. We'll talk about birthdays, bunad and more on the next page.