Gunnar Staalesen’s Christmas in Bergen

I asked author Gunnar Staalesen, the major figure in the Nordic Noir crime fiction genre, often called ‘the Norwegian Chandler’, and creator of the most famous fictional PI Varg Veum, to tell us about the way he and his family celebrate Jul / Christmas in his home town of Bergen, and also what Christmas celebration mean for his character Varg Veum.

Bryggen i Bergen

Here is what Gunnar Staalesen says:

‘We celebrate Christmas with our children and grandchildren in a traditional way. In Norway Christmas Eve is the ‘big day’ when it comes to celebrating. How many we are together that day depends on when our children can celebrate with us, and when they can be with the daughters-in-law’s families. Since the other families live in other districts than the Bergen area, the days we spend together differ from year to year. If we are not together on Christmas Eve, we find another day!

In Norway Christmas is most of all a family celebration and it follows more or less the same pattern from year to year. When I was a child, we were a small family because both my father and mother came from other parts of the country. It was father, mother, my sister and me. Now the family has grown bigger in Bergen, too, with two grown up children with their wives, three grandchildren, and my sister and her family.

Around Noon on Christmas Eve we try to collect most of our own part of the family for a traditional serving of rice porridge. In one of the bowls there is an almond, and the winner of this get a present: both a chocolate and a toothbrush! After this we part for an hour or two while Christmas dinner is prepared. We do not watch much television on Christmas Eve but we try to see the Disney Christmas Cards every year, with the good old musical numbers that both grandparents and their children remember with pleasure from their own childhood, even if we – the grandparents – never had them on television but had to visit a cinema to see the films.

Usually, it is grandmother who prepares the dinner, while grandfather takes the rest of the family to Church for a Christmas service. When we return, the dinner will be more or less ready. The traditional Christmas dinner in our part of the country (the West) is pinnekjøtt, which are dried or smoked ribs of sheep, served with a stew made by potatoes and turnips, a very special course that most people only eat at Christmas time. For dessert we have the Norwegian berries that I believe are called cloudberries in English, served with sour cream. When dinner has been eaten, we prepare for coffee and small cakes, but now the little children are getting impatient. Around the Christmas tree they can see the gifts waiting for them. But before serving coffee and starting the opening of gifts, we go around the Christmas tree and sing the old Christmas carols. Then the rest of the evening is reserved for gift openings, small cakes, coffee and perhaps some stronger liquor, all in a pleasant atmosphere. If we are lucky, the snow is falling outside our windows, but since we live in Bergen, mostly it is rain, even on Christmas Eve. But we always dream of White Christmas, and every tenth year we are lucky…

On the first day of Christmas we come together again in our family to eat a specialty of the Bergen Kitchen, called prinsefisk, the Fish of Prince. It was served the first time when two princes visited Bergen in 1856 and is composed – with personal variations – of cod, shrimps, asparagus and peas in béchamel sauce with capers, served with cooked potatoes. Later in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve we may have pork ribs, deer or even turkey in some families. From the Viking ages this was the time of the year when you were eating well to celebrate the turn of the year, when the days started to become longer and we were turning towards spring and summer again. Well worth a celebration!

In the city of Bergen there are Christmas streets with a lot of lights, these years even a Christmas Market, and a lot of buildings – like the fronts of the old Bryggen – are decorated with light bulbs, bells, branches of spruce and other symbols for Christmas or Turn-of-the-year celebration.

So what about Varg Veum and his Christmas celebrations?  As he is living alone, most of the Christmas Eves he is by himself, drinking his aquavit and eating his pinnekjøtt alone, I am afraid. Now that he has grandchildren In Oslo, I hope he is invited to visit his son Thomas and his family in the capital, but I am not quite sure if he accepts the invitation. He is always a lone wolf, even on Christmas Eve. Together with the British artist Mike Collins and the editor Arild Wærness, I made four graphic arts Christmas magazines about Varg Veum between 2013 and 2016 and a collection of them in 2017, short mysteries taking place in the time around Christmas. The first one of these was based on a short story I wrote about Varg Veum in the 80’s, when he works as a Santa Clause in a big shopping Centre in Bergen and solves a smaller mystery there.

Before I started the series about Varg Veum, I wrote three novels about two police officers in Bergen, called Dumbo and Maskefjes, and the second one of these was called The Man Who Hated Santa Clauses. That is the closest I come to describe Christmas in Bergen in my books. Most of the Varg Veum books take place in the dark autumn days of October or November, the frozen winter days in January or February, or other periods of the year when it is easier for Varg to concentrate on solving the mysteries then preparing the Christmas celebration that for him is almost non-existing.

Happy Christmas nevertheless, Varg!

See you later, this year, too…’

Gunnar Staalesen‘s latest Varg Veum novel Bitter Flowers, translated by Don Bartlett, is out on 20 January 2022, published by Orenda Books.

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