I recently pulled out my missionary journal from the way-way-back device (aka bookshelf) and reread my entries from the days surrounding the two Christmases I spent in Norway. It brought back some pleasant memories.
Both years I was in Norway I was transferred to a new city just days before Christmas. Each year I left behind those I knew and went to a new situation. The first year I went to a companion and church members I had never met. The second year I went to a companion that was already a good friend. The city had three other sets of missionaries. I knew all of them. I knew some of the members. But in both cases, people made Christmas very enjoyable for me, despite being far from home.
I arrived in Hamar a few days before Christmas my first year in Norway, replacing my MTC companion, who had been there the whole time we had been in Norway. (Hamar was my fourth city.) Church members immediately welcomed me. They were very hospitable to us during the holiday season.
One middle age couple whose children were all adults lived quite comfortably by Norwegian standards invited us to their Christmas Eve celebration. Gifts were opened that night per the national tradition. We had a marvelous feast and enjoyed the family's gift giving. We also opened gifts that our families had sent from home. Thanks to the efficiency of the postal system between the U.S. and Norway, my gifts had arrived weeks earlier.
We spent Christmas day with a couple of other families. One family allowed me to use their phone to call home. (It was a collect call, so it cost them nothing.) I can't remember why my companion had to call his family on the 26th, but this family made arrangements for us to visit them for that event.
When we showed up on the 26th, the lady of the house talked to us through the front door and asked us to go around back. When we got to the back of the house, she opened a window and invited us to climb into the house through the window.
Although the 26th is a national holiday along with the 25th, the man of the house had to make a trip to a town about an hour away that morning. The deadbolt locks on their doors were keyed on both sides. When the husband had locked the house and left that morning, he had inadvertently taken both sets of house keys with him.
I thought that it must have been quite a sight for the neighbors to see two young Mormon missionaries climbing through the back window of the house at the wife's bidding while the husband was away. Thankfully, the husband returned home while my companion was still on the phone. He said that he was surprised when he found the second set of keys in his coat pocket upon arrival at his destination.
My second Christmas in Norway was spent in Trondheim, one of Norway's significant cities. I arrived on the 23rd, a date many Norwegians refer to as Little Christmas Eve. Being immediately thrust into a leadership position meant that my companion and I spent all that day shuttling missionaries that were transferring to and from the city and getting the new missionaries settled.
On Christmas Eve we were invited to visit a couple of families, where we enjoyed food and gifting. At midnight we took our entire missionary zone to the midnight mass at the Nidaros Cathedral, where most Norwegian royal coronations have taken place for nearly a millennium. (Since 1908 only the royal benediction has occurred in the cathedral. The actual coronation takes place in Oslo, at the seat of government.) It was an interesting experience.
We spent Christmas day making more visits to church members and investigators, doing a bit of impromptu snow sliding with some kids on a slope near an apartment complex, and playing Monopoly. When we visited "The Captain," a very gracious brother who was a retired cruise ship captain, he allowed us to call home using his phone and he served us elegant treats. I only realized after popping one luxurious dipped chocolate into my mouth that it was filled with cherry liquor. My companion laughed when he saw the surprised look on my face.
I'm not sure what it's like nowadays, but Norway's Christmas celebrations back then differed from those in the U.S. in that decorations usually didn't appear until just before Christmas. Work, school, and church Christmas parties usually occurred in the weeks following the holidays, rather than prior to the holidays. People leave their decorations up until mid or late January (or sometimes even later).
In the U.S. we are inundated with Christmas as stores clear Halloween candy from the shelves. It seems like radio stations that once played 100 hours of Christmas music now play 100 days of Christmas music. Stores play 20 variations of the same 12 Christmas songs for weeks until we are all sick of it. But once December 25th passes, Christmas is over. Decorations go down. Christmas music stops. It's done.
Each year when I was in Norway, we eventually gathered at the church for a congregational Christmas party. Per Norwegian tradition, we joined hands in circles around the Christmas tree. A small circle (usually of young children) circled the tree tightly. That group was surrounded by a larger circle, and so forth until all attendees were in a circle. Every other circle rotated the opposite direction from the next circle as we sang Christmas carols.
I recall with fondness the two Christmases I spent as a missionary in Norway. I hope that my son that is serving a mission in a foreign country will encounter hospitality, generosity, and enjoyable local traditions this Christmas, much as was the case for me years ago.