The season’s word in Norway is stemning—or, more specifically, julestemning. It’s all over (both the word and its meaning): the streets, the advertisements, the hashtags. It means “atmosphere”—stemning does, and julestemning means “Christmas atmosphere,” or, maybe closer to our American usage, “Christmas spirit.”1 The latter doesn’t quite capture it, though: julestemning is somewhere in the quality of real space, the physical atmosphere at this special time of year in Norway, when the daylight hours are few (and fewer) and the quality of light is, in general, permeated by a soft (and softening) blue. It’s also permeated by a whole host of candles—Norwegians seem to be quite taken with candle-lighting as December rolls in like a fog. If ever you leave the house this time of year, you’ve got to check every corner in case you (or some nisse) lit a candle there. Or there. Or over there. Julestemning is, indeed, intentional: it’s a mixture of our collective will with the characteristics of the earth—a collaboration, of a sort, with the natural forces of the deepening season, the seeping (or gale-force blowing) in of winter. Julestemning is, in other words, the resulting atmosphere of our effort to bend the spaces we inhabit towards the koselig. And the way it feels, in my experience so far, is not so much like a battle against the dark and cold (though the latter has, sadly, been awfully mild so far this year). Rather, it feels like a sort of dance with the physical realities of winter. (Thought there’s bound to be a spat & a quarrel here and there.)
And Norwegians seem to turn, in a way, with the arrival of December. I’ve been roving now more or less non-stop for three months. I’ve spent a lot of nights alone in hotels all over the norðrvegr—the northern ways2. This isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, despite myself, I’ve really enjoyed this sort of extended solo meditation (and have, along the way, had plenty of fabulous conversations and time with the teachers and people I’ve encountered). And yet, since December has begun, I’ve enjoyed a much more social side of the Norwegians I’ve met, from my first (and second) julebord to home-baking pepperkaker with Christmas music late into the night (and note, it had already been dark since 3pm). In Rørvik, a small coastal fishing town in Nord-Trøndelag this week, more than one Norwegian approached me unbidden as I sat at the hotel bar reading Sigrid Unsedt. One man, walking past on his way back to the restaurant, even cozied up right behind me and asked over my shoulder what I was reading. This doesn’t happen in Norway. And Julebord, by the way, simply means “Christmas table” but it is a huge tradition in Norway, it turns out; really, a julebord is a very big party party—with very decked halls—with all the very traditional Norwegian holiday foods that I didn’t grow up with (pinnekjøtt, ribbe, etc. No lutefisk3). So good. Like, real good. To play on a line from Beowulf: þæt wæs god julestemning.
So it is. The air, the light, the natural abundance of pine, fir, and spruce, snow (if we believe hard enough [cue sad Charlie Brown music]), and a couple thousand years of enduring the relentless elements that beat and batter this upheaved coastal land leaning long into the deep north. They seem to come together, all these things, around the turn of the solstice. And that makes all the sense in the world. Animals that we are, in our best moments, we respond to this northern dome of the earth as it rolls away for a spell from the sun, and imbue our experience with something that expresses our physical relationship with the changes that this rolling effects. That expression is julestemning. Hopefully we’ll do it with skis on soon enough.
But the julestemning this year is being carved out of the northern winter in the midst of a larger stemning: an atmosphere permeated by fear, ignorance, and insecurity. I’m utterly exhausted by the ugliness, the bigotry, the racism, and the willful historical ignorance that is bubbling out of what seems to be a surprisingly significant sector of the United States (and Europe is not immune, of course). I’ve been convincing myself that what I’ve been able to see from afar is the result of an obsessive (and often dangerous) media machine, as well as a few monstrous plutocrats, and the small but loud group of far-right Tea Partiers and their ilk. But alongside the horrendous and cripplingly repetitive acts of violence—and let us be clear: acts perpetrated by all kinds of people (as I type this, a headline lit up my phone about the motives of the Planned Parenthood shooter)—that we have witnessed these past several years, I’m becoming more and more dispirited and dumbstruck with the breadth of these voices of hate, voices that openly suspect all Muslims, much less call for large scale acts of fascism (or cheer for those calls or post wantonly anti-intellectual and hateful memes in social media outlets). Or, as may have happened here in Norway, burn hotels and living places for incoming asylum-seekers and refugees.
These acts, too, generate stemning. This atmosphere, on the other hand, is a sickening air. It sickens and abuses human beings who have chosen to follow the Muslim faith (along with one and a half billion other people) or who have brown skin or Arab heritage. It is a toxic cloud made of the breath of some people who would claim love as their god. Like julestemning, this other, larger stemning, this atmosphere, is the result of our choices. It is a mixture of our collective will with the physical, social, and political realities that surround us. For my part, I’m deeply concerned. Scared, even. Our culture has, of late, shown itself to be capable of unconscionable things, unconscionable thoughts. And out in the open air. Things that many would ascribe to the culture of “the enemy.” Shameless, violent, and inhumane things. Even as some monsters (and this force of ISIS is clearly, purely monstrous) claim to act in the name of a religion, if we have minds to think and eyes to see, we must recognize how far these monsters are from the reality of Islam for the vast, uncountable majority of Muslims. And thus we must not only do what we can to offer help and safety to those who seek refuge, but we must also make as many choices as we can that create an atmosphere, a stemning, that acknowledges the humanity and the dignity those in need in these unfathomable times. We must, I say, dance with the reality of people in need of help; we mustn’t stomp on it.
Julestemning is contagious. You want to come into it. In fact, there’s another beautiful Norwegian phrase I’ve learned that’s appropriate here: å bli tatt inn i varmen—”to be brought into the warmth.” That’s the origin of julestemning. I think we ought to try to make it the origin of everything.
1ADDENDUM: I also want to note how wonderful the word jul is. It’s translated most commonly as “Christmas,” and that’s been its primary usage for a couple of centuries. But it’s important, I think, to remember that jul, the cognate, of course, of the English “yule,” is of heathen origin and so predates the Christianization of the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice in December. The OED etymology reads thusly: “The modern form descends from Old English geól, . . . Christmas day or Christmastide, and in phrase se ǽrra geóla December, se æftera geóla January; corresponding to Old Norse jól plural a heathen feast lasting twelve days, (later) Christmas. An Old Anglian giuli, recorded by Bede as the name of December and January, corresponds to Old Norse ýlir month beginning on the second day of the week falling within Nov. 10–17, and Gothic jiuleis in fruma jiuleis November” (bold type mine). In other words, jul derives from a tradition other and older than the three warring global religions that currently define our struggle, and contribute so frustratingly to the unwelcoming, unhospitable atmosphere in almost every place where one of those religions is dominantly practiced. Thus, julestemning, to my mind, is etymologically welcoming.
2Hence the name Norway; though I just heard a special on NRK the other day suggesting that the name could also have emerged from a reference to the narrow ways—the endless series of narrow inlets and fjords all along the coast.
3Norwegians today do eat lutefisk, though not as universally as we Midwesterners tend to assume. Moreover, those that do eat it (the ones I’ve spoken to) mix it with bacon and a sort of mash of peas. So there y’go.