- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Whether he is tinkering with a church steeple, pointing to a farm or noting the presence of trolls under a trestle, Styrkar Braathen tends to describe most of the things in his country’s annual holiday display as “typically Norwegian.”

As in … “This is a typical Norwegian farm, with the cows, the barn, the tractor;” and “This is a typical Norwegian train station” or a “typical Norwegian fishing boat.”

Circling the distance around the mountain-village setting, he delights in showing off this year’s gigantic model train display, a few days before its Nov. 23 opening, as the most magical part of the eighth annual Norwegian Christmas at Union Station in the District.

Mr. Braathen and a crew of helpers were busy setting up the display, which occupies much of the station’s West Hall. The three trains, including a 10-car set pulled by a diesel engine, weren’t up and running yet. First, there were odds and ends to be dealt with: placement of snow and mountains, tunnels and little figurines of people and animals in the important business of creating a “typically Norwegian” scene.

While some of the elements of the Norwegian festival — chefs, musicians, exhibitions — vary from year to year, the trains and the presence of an enormous Christmas tree do not. They always return to provide sights that are not only instantly associated with Christmas, but also serve as a consistent draw for thousands of visitors every day throughout the holiday season.

Every year, the festival can be boiled down to a combination of music, art, food, children, traditions, the tree and the trains.

This year, the opening-day highlights included the start of the annual Toys for Tots drive, with representatives of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves accepting the first gift from Norwegian Ambassador Knut Vollebaek on behalf of his embassy.

A glamorous “celebrity guest,” Princess Martha Louise, daughter of Norway’s King Harald V and Queen Sonja, was present a bit later to flip the switch, which turned on the 8,000 lights atop the 30-foot balsam fir, Norwegian in spirit but grown in Minnesota.

Still to come are appearances by Norwegian jazz star Silje Nergaard at the Kennedy Center tonight and classical violinist Henning Kraggerud at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday.

Until Dec. 31, the Center Cafe at Union Station will be featuring a special menu concocted by Andreas Viestad, the Norwegian chef who gained fame with his PBS show “Kitchen of Light,” now in its second season. Mr. Viestad will be at the Center Cafe for a book signing Saturday.

Through Dec. 28, visitors will also have an opportunity to view a special display and photographic exhibition on the Sami, the indigenous native people of Norway — also known as Lapps — who traditionally have lived as reindeer herders.

• • •

Although the Union Station festivities began in 1996 during the tenure of Mr. Vollebaek’s predecessor, former Norwegian Ambassador Tom Vraalsen, the tradition of his country’s international Christmas largess dates to 1947, when Norway sent the first of its annual Christmas trees to the United Kingdom.

That gift (erected every year in London’s Trafalgar Square) and its Washington counterpart are intended as a goodwill gesture on the part of Norway in gratitude for help received from its allies during Word War II.

“Obviously, it is also a way to show people here a little bit about our country, its customs and traditions,” Mr. Vollebaek says. “It is a festive occasion about a holiday that is very much in the European tradition.

“Christmas,” he says, “is a major holiday in Norway. We celebrate the occasion on Christmas Eve, as do most Europeans. We have church services, visit neighbors and then have dinner.”

What Mr. Vollebaek remembers most as a boy growing up in Oslo is that it snowed — all the time. “There was a lot of snow, and it stayed with you,” he says, adding somewhat wistfully that there is a lot less today “because of climate changes.”

He also remembers the food: such typical Norwegian dishes as mutton and pork ribs; smoked fish; and, for dessert, creamed rice, almonds and marzipan.

“Typically Norwegian,” when it comes to Christmas specialties, also means lutefisk (dried cod steeped in lye), the famed pickled herring and herring burgers.

Mr. Viestad isn’t all that enamored of tradition for its own sake. “I think that traditional dishes are actually new in terms of what’s going in contemporary cuisine,” he says.

Writing in “Kitchen of Light,” he notes that Norwegian holiday-food customs are not as rigid as one might expect. “There are at least six recognized Norwegian Christmas supper variations,” he says. “The most popular and geographically neutral dish is ribbed roast of pork.”

Mr. Viestad’s approach is more contemporary but has deep roots. “What we call ‘new’ was used hundreds of years ago,” he says, “so there is tradition in the new ingredients.”

His Norwegian menu at the Center Cafe includes wilted spinach salad with smoked salmon, pan-seared cod, honey and mustard marinated salmon, brandy marinated pork loin, grilled baby lamb chops, and rice pudding.

• • •

Norway as a nation is both old — dating to Viking days — and new. It was united with Denmark from 1381 to 1814 and then with Sweden until it finally gained independence in 1905.

Occupying the western region of the Scandinavian peninsula and straddling the Arctic Circle, the kingdom of Norway is the northernmost European country and therefore gets very little daylight in winter — four hours or less at Christmastime.

Norway is a member of NATO but not of the European Union and is best known for Vikings, skiing, North Sea oil, fishing, old wooden churches called stave churches and Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” featured the king of the trolls, mythical beings rumored to be able to eat a human in one gulp and that are very much a part of the national lore. There are the Nisse, too, smaller, early versions of Santa Claus.

And bunads, the traditional costumes from Norway’s different regions, which, according to the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, are elaborately embroidered and accessorized with scarves and handmade gold and silver jewelry.

Visitors will able to see them worn by members of the Norwegian Ladies’ Club, who will be conducting the annual Norwegian-American Christmas Bazaar in the Main Hall at Union Station, a two-day holiday-shopping extravaganza (tomorrow and Saturday) featuring Norwegian crafts, costumes and specialty foods.

• • •

Visitors find it difficult to resist returning to the main exhibit in the West Hall, and not just for the trains. It’s the sense of an entirely different world that attracts. Norway, with mountains and tunnels, farms, fjords, wharves, fishermen, sailboats, a skating and hockey rink. And trolls, quite a number of them. And Nisse.

Every year there’s something different in the train display. This year, it’s a pair of Sami herding a group of reindeer.

“Almost everything here I made from scratch,” Mr. Braathen says, pointing to the trains, bridges, trestle and tracks and then the stave church, which is a scale model of the largest church in Norway.

There is no such thing as spare parts if the trains break down, he says. “They are one of a kind. You can fix things, but you can’t get new parts.”

The mountains, he admits, were once part of an American Wild West display. “But now they are Norwegian mountains. Everything else is shipped from Norway.”

Mr. Braathen, too, is flown in from Norway. The independent designer of models and layouts is not an employee of the Norwegian Embassy but is hired by the embassy every year to put together the model train installation.

He smiles, surveying his kingdom. “I look at myself as a kid,” he says as a 10-car train chugs by, about to head into a tunnel.

• • •

Meanwhile, Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, who works in the downtown office of American Baptist Home Missions, has brought his three boys, Noah, 6, Samuel, 2, and Jonah, 1, from their home in Hyattsville to see the trains.

“Can’t you make it go faster, Daddy?” Noah says.

“I don’t think we can do that,” his father replies as Noah suspiciously eyes the trolls, looming tall over the to-scale humans.

The display, Mr. Ramsey-Lucas says, “is a great thing for families, especially if you have boys, like I do.

“Trains are special,” he adds. “They always will be.”

White-haired Don Bassette and his wife, Deborah, have brought the whole Bassette clan from Hartford, Conn. Mr. Bassette looks at the trains going by with a boy’s enthusiasm and the look of a man who collects them.

“Growing up, trains were always a great thing in our house,” his son Don says. “Dad always set one up and got it going.”

This is the way it always is at the model train display at the Norwegian Christmas at Union Station. In an age of video games and the Internet, people come here to watch the trains go round and round. Children remain entranced just by the simple motion, the landscape, the little figures, and the big trolls.

It’s a world that’s typically Norwegian — and typically Christmas.

Norwegian Christmas at Union Station

Most events and exhibitions in the Norwegian Christmas celebration run past Christmas, and some extend into next month. Catch them when you can. Here’s a guide to what’s available:

• Photographer Fred Ivar Utsi Klemetsen’s photo essay on the life of the Sami, a reindeer-herding people. In addition to the photo exhibition, there will be displays of traditional Sami tools and a Sami lavvu, a traditional dwelling similar to an Indian tepee. Main Hall, Union Station. Through Dec. 28.

• Norwegian Visions: Vocalist Silje Nergaard and her group perform classic and cutting-edge jazz. Terrace Theater 6 p.m. tonight. Part of the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage series. Free. 202/416-8086.

• Norwegian-American Christmas Bazaar: A two-day holiday shopping opportunity featuring all things Norwegian, with original crafts from Norway, including dolls, trolls, calendars, dresses, specialty foods and other items. Organized by the Sons of Norway, the Norwegian Ladies’ Club and the Norwegian Church Committee. Main Hall, Union Station. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

• Concert: Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud and pianist Helge Kjekshus. National Gallery of Art. 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Free. 202/737-4215.

‘Frost’ artist chronicles the Sami

Reindeer and sleighs — what could be more appropriate for Christmas?

There are some remarkable photographs of reindeer in “Frost: Life & Culture of the Sami,” a photographic essay that is the central part of an exhibit on the indigenous people of Norway and Northern Scandinavia. But there is nothing sentimental or cute about the photo exhibition, which is part of the Norwegian Christmas celebration at Union Station. The exhibition, along with artifacts of Sami life, allows visitors to glimpse the traditional way of life of a vanishing people.

Some 45,000 Sami still live in Norway, but only a fraction — about 1,500 — still carry out traditional tasks of reindeer herding. Fred Ivar Utsi Klemetsen, a prize-winning Norwegian photographer, spent 13 years on his project, traveling for months at a time with the Sami herders across the northern plains of Norway. Mr. Klemetsen describes his trek as a labor of love, a search for his own identity, as well as an urgent mission to document as much of the Sami way of life as possible.

Mr. Klemetsen is the offspring of Sami parents. His mother is a member of a reindeer-herding group; his father a member of the Sami group that farms and fishes.

In traveling with a Sami group that included some to whom he is related by blood, Mr. Klemetsen learned old lessons all over again, including how to keep warm in winters with 50-below-zero temperatures.

Mr. Klemetsen thought he could keep warm with just a reindeer-skin covering atop his sleeping bag, but he was mistaken. He ended up shivering all night along the wall of his lavvu — a tepee-like structure — while the Sami huddled together in the center sharing their body heat.

Mr. Klemetsen says he felt an urgency to document the Sami because of their gradually dwindling numbers and the corresponding disappearance of their ancient ways and traditions.

Their language, he adds, was threatened, as well, as only Norwegian was permitted in the schools. “My parents could not speak to each other in their mother tongue,” Mr. Klemetsen explains, noting that language restrictions were dropped in the late 1960s.

Mr. Klemetsen continues to photograph the Sami in what he says is an “ongoing project.” The exhibit, which includes Sami tools, artifacts and a lavvu, also commemorates the collaboration among indigenous peoples from opposite side of the Arctic, which occurred in the 1880s, when a number of Sami reindeer herders and their families were brought to the United States to teach their herding skills to two native tribes in Alaska.

The Sami exhibit will be on display in the Main Hall at Union Station through Dec. 28.

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