Speaking to the Soul: Finding Stillness


av: Inger Hagerup (1905 – 1985)

Så tenner vi et lys i kveld, vi tenner det for glede

Det står og skinner for seg selv og oss som er tilstede

Så tenner vi et lys i kveld, vi tenner det for glede

Så tenner vi to lys i kveld, to lys for håp og glede

De står og skinner for seg selv og oss som er tilstede

Så tenner vi to lys i kveld, to lys for håp og glede

Så tenner vi tre lys i kveld, for lengsel, håp og glede

De står og skinner for seg selv og oss som er tilstede

Så tenner vi tre lys i kveld for lengsel, håp og glede

Vi tenner fire lys i kveld og lar dem brenne ned

For lengsel, glede, håp og fred, men mest allikevel for fred

på denne lille jord, hvor menneskene bor*


On 2 April 1904 my grandfather and his mother arrived in New York from Oslo, Norway. They had $5.00 and a train ticket to Portland, Oregon and were on their way to join my great-grandfather who had come over with his brother in March of 1903. My grandfather was 10 months old when his father left Oslo for the United States and was 19 months old when he arrived in New York with his mother.

All of this is information that I learned in the years after his death in January of 1979. The only part of his heritage that I had from his own lips was that Friday the 13th was lucky for him because he was Norwegian.

I had not had a lot of experience with death at that age and was devastated by his loss. In 1976, a friend of mine died of leukemia. She was 9, I was 7. I don’t remember much about her illness. I remember playing with her (and looking up to her– she was the oldest of four siblings and my oldest friend at the time). I do remember being taken to her grave and not understanding why she didn’t have a headstone. It was my first experience with some of the logistics of death, namely that it takes time to have a headstone made.

(Something I never realized until researching dates for this essay is that both my friend and my grandfather died in the month of January just 8 days apart– which might explain a lot about why I tend to feel down this time of year.)

In contrast to my foggy memories of my friend’s death, I remember exactly where I was when my parents told me my grandfather had died. I remember sitting down on the steps that led up from our basement and crying. I also remember being enraged at my parents for not letting me go to the funeral. This was my first experience with the complex feelings that come as a part and parcel of grieving.

As an adult, I now understand my parent’s reasoning. We lived in Wyoming. My grandparents lived in Oregon. It would have been expensive to take me and they thought at the time for a number of reasons that made logical sense, that it would be best if I didn’t attend the funeral. However, for all that I understand things now, at the time I was angry. I felt that my parents didn’t understand how important my grandpa was to me. I had this weird sense that he might not really be dead and it took me a long time to really ‘believe’ in his death.

As I grew up, I became fascinated with my grandparents’ story. My other grandmother was a 1st generation American. Her mother, my great-grandmother, had emigrated from Scotland in 1888 when she was 13 years old.

Throughout the years, we kept in contact with the Norwegian side of the family. My great-grandfather returned to Norway once in the 1960’s to visit his family. My great-grandmother was an only child of a single mother and never saw her family again after coming to the United States. In the 1980’s my grandmother brought my grandfather’s cousin, Rolf, and his wife, Ruth, to visit us in Wyoming. For several years afterwards Rolf and I wrote letters back and forth. He sent me a collection of Norwegian coins and he always put little stickers of the Norwegian flag on his letters.

In 2000, my mother and I decided to go on a family pilgrimage to Norway. We met my cousin Rolf, who was then in his 80’s, and his children (who were of age with my mom). We had a grand time touring Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim and meeting family and friends that mom knew from her time at Harvard. Rolf scared us to death driving us around Oslo in his car that had a tendency to just stop running at random stop signs.

I came home with a love of Norway and a desire to learn the language. I found a community school in Ballard and started taking classes and learning not only about the lanuage but about the culture as well (both Norwegian culture and Norwegian-American culture).

It was there that I learned about the tradition of lille juleaften. Celebrated on the 23rd of December, it is the day that Norwegians spend in preparation for Christmas. In the past it was the big day to clean the house, take a bath, and put on clean Christmas clothes. Now it is frequently the day when Norwegians decorate their Christmas trees and settle in for the Christmas season. It is also a celebration of Thorlákr Thorhallsson (Saint Thorlak, patron saint of Iceland), bishop of Skálholt in Iceland from 1178 until his death on December 23, 1193.

In 2005, I returned to Norway after 3 years of community classes and a summer intensive course at the University of Washington. I spent 3 weeks immersed in Norwegian life. I stayed with my relatives in Oslo for part of the time and they took me around with them to meet friends, attend events, and generally share in their life. I spent time in Bergen on my own and managed to stick to speaking Norwegian the entire time. My best memory from that visit was sitting with Rolf in his garden, having coffee while he quizzed me on Norwegian nouns. He was tickled that I knew some of the trickier plural noun formations. It was a delightful afternoon, and I felt as if he spirit of my own grandfather was there with us.

At this point in my life I am about as Norwegian as I am Episcopalian, they are both tribes that I am descended from and they both have influenced my life greatly. In the past 15 years, as I have learned more about Norway, I have also learned more about my faith and the ways I choose to express it.

From what I have learned, the idea behind lille Juleaften is as the deep breath before plunging headlong into the celebration of Christmas. According my Norwegian teacher, it was customary in Norway for lille Juleaften to signal the last day of frantic preparation before Christmas. All the food would be baked, the cleaning done, and everyone would take the 12 days of Christmas off from much of their daily routines. It was a time of rest and relaxation after the harvest and the rush to get everything secured for the winter.

So, though I came to it late in life, and through a very circuitous route, I invite you to celebrate lille Juleaften with me this year. Finish your chores, put on your Christmas finery, and take a moment’s rest before the feast to come.



*rough translation by me:

So light we a candle this night, we light it for joy

It stands and shines for itself and for those who are present

So light we candle this night, we light it for joy

So light we two candles this night, two candles for hope and joy

They stand and shine for themselves and for those who are present

So light we two candles this night, two candles for hope and joy

So light we three candles this night, three candles for longing, hope, and joy

They stand and shine for themselves and for those who are present

So light we three candles this night, three candles for longing, hope, and joy

We light four candles this night and let them burn down

For longing, joy, hope, and peace, but most of all for peace

for this little earth, where people live


A Norwegian teacher reciting the poem in both English and Norwegian: “Advent” (this video is in four parts)
Little children singing another variation on this Advent theme “Nå tenner vi det første lys”
And finally, just because it is so pretty (and because we are still in Advent), a Danish choir singing another song on the theme of lighting the four candles in Advent: “Det første Lys” (the first candle).



Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.

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