The “Old” North Shore Is Alive at the Julebyen Festival

Nordic tradition (read: trolls and a ”herring race”) comes out in kid-friendly fashion in Knife River in early December
"Real-life" trolls as part of Knife River's Julebyen festival
“Real-life” trolls as part of Knife River’s Julebyen festival

Photo by Paul von Goertz

The culture of Minnesota’s North Shore has been changing rapidly, but one place you can still see the “old” shore is at the annual Julebyen festival in Knife River. Norwegian for “Christmas Village,” Julebyen is a free two-day event held annually the first full weekend in December in this historic fishing village about 20 minutes north of Duluth on Scenic Highway 61. This year’s event is December 4-5.

Looking to spy a Norwegian troll? At the Julebyen festival, you can board a unique “troll train” at the historic Knife River train depot, which also serves as the community Heritage Center, and ride the rail along the Lake Superior shore in search of “huldrefolk,” or hidden folk. Scandinavian bard Lise Lunge-Larsen crafts a troll story that’s told on the train, and what ensues is an encounter with true wild trolls (actually, well-disguised community members) through the train windows. But watch out—the trolls may even throw snowballs at the train! The real-life trolls create a playful mystique, and the encounter with the unknown stirs children’s curiosity. Kids get to gossip on the train ride back about the “extremely rare” trolls they just discovered in the woods.

Upon disembarking, you can explore the “troll village,” where human-sized trolls walk around the fair and play their mischievous tricks outdoors. There’s also a treasure hunt and “herring race” for children, in which they race across the snow while balancing a pretend herring in a frypan.

At the Julebyen market, local artisans sell everything from wild-caught Alaskan salmon to locally made pottery, Christmas wreaths, and maple syrup in outdoor huts. There are also ornaments and other wares made by community members sold as part of a fundraiser to finance all the other events put on throughout the year by the Knife River Recreation Center.

According to Helene Hedlund—chair of Julebyen—the camaraderie and spirit of volunteerism of Knife River residents are the keys to success. “The volunteers are incredible, working together, coming up with ideas on what products to make,” she says. “The folks that prepare the crafts for the indoor market work on them anywhere from four to six months in advance, holding regular meetings. These meetings are just as social as they are production events.”

Outdoor activities in the snowy surroundings are also part of Julebyen events. Lars Wilmot, from Clover Valley, praises Julebyen: “My favorite thing to do is sledding on the big hill with all my friends right outside the market. I also like to go riding on the fat bikes there for people to try out. I like playing in the snow, so Julebyen is perfect for me.”

Julebyen is also a chance for the local community members to socialize together. Kelsey Rogers, part of the Christensen Saunas vendor booth, relates how it works: “My mom and dad build saunas, and we thought, ‘We should bring our saunas down there.’ There’s a fun, nostalgic feeling at Julebyen. It really does feel like a little village. There are so many people we know there. When the snow comes down, it totally feels like a true Christmas village.”

Hedlund says this year’s Julebyen will feature more outdoors events than ever: “We do wood fires with hay bales set around them for people to sit on and eat s’mores and drink hot chocolate and coffee. The big tent where we used to hold a Friday-evening buffet and entertainment has been eliminated this year because of COVID, so we’re finding other, smaller ways that folks can get warm.”

Overall, the community spirit and light-hearted Scandinavian humor warm hearts at this traditional Nordic event. For a full list of events and the latest Julebyen announcements, visit julebyen.us.

And for more ideas of things to do in Knife River, including early-December events, places to lodge, and restaurants to check out, click here.

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