Advent Calendar 2017: Dec 23rd - ScandicAmerican Jul-Christmas. Part 1.
God Jul and Merry Christmas!!
Dec 23rd – Our ScandiAmericansk Christmas, Part 1:
Blending traditions from two different cultures always requires creative attention to detail. When blending two faith traditions or two quite different cultures you likely have to navigate how to hold more than one truth in the same space. Until we had kids, the Christmas I grew up with didn’t seem drastically different from the one I celebrated with my in-laws. But now we have to get all of the details straight, and stick to the story, so for your sake AND mine, I’m going to write it down for you. (If you want the most hilarious version of the many ways to Christmas, take a listen to David Sedaris’ 6 to 8 Black Men. A Christmas and Cross-Cultural classic!)
Most of you reading this are American, but not all, so here’s what we do in my part of the States. There are two main focal points 1) Christmas is on December 25th and 2) Santa comes down your chimney while you’re sleeping on Christmas Eve to leave presents in your stocking. He rides a sled pulled by reindeer and you never see him except for decoys in malls. It’s always a creative explanation when you don’t have a fireplace. If you are on the naughty list you get coal in your stocking.
An aside - One day I was reading our Golden Books from the 40’s and after seeing that there used to be home-delivery of coal, it made me wonder if the whole “coal in your stocking” thing was a dig on poor kids from the days when we actually used coal to heat our homes. If you had a cold home, maybe all everyone got from Santa was some very appreciated coal! Maybe someone with a longer memory or a passion for cultural history can illuminate that for me.
In my family, Christmas Eve was for getting last minute gifts and wrapping them, eating a simple meal to be ready for the Big Day, and Church. When we were young, we often participated in the Christmas Pageant on Christmas Eve. My mom made the Kings’ robes one year out of old San Antonio Fiesta dresses and they were stunning. As we aged out of Pageants we would go to the midnight candle-lit Christmas Eve service, filled with amazing music and beautiful light. We got to open one present from under the tree on Christmas Eve and were put to bed reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.
When we woke up the house had been filled with magic. There were new surprise presents, usually unwrapped, and our stockings were filled with oranges, M&Ms and a few small treats. I can still feel how it felt to reach into my beautiful velvet-lined needlepoint stocking just thinking about it. The M&Ms always tasted better out of that stocking. I don’t know when I stopped believing in Santa, but it never took away from the magic of the morning. Once my brother and I had wrangled our parents down to the living room, we could tear into everything. No one ever had time to get out of their pajamas, so the pictures are less than glamourous. It was the most joyous chaos of paper tearing, curled ribbons bouncing around like tumbleweeds and our cats playing in them, and seeing the happy faces of your family when they opened what you gave. I had a very fortunate childhood and always had amazing gifts waiting for me. I’m only 5 years into this, and the challenge of creating a magical Christmas is REAL! My parents knocked it out of the park.
After we emerged from the high of Christmas morning, we got dressed up and often went to my Aunt Lucy’s house to enjoy time with my many cousins, eat amazing food, and exchange a few more gifts. It wasn’t ever a formal meal I dreaded. It was always so wonderful. The meal consisted of some meat option, could be turkey, beef, lamb, or pork. There were many amazing vegetable dishes but nothing required. Sweet potato casserole is a favorite, we often had spinach, a salad. My aunt always made rolls and my brother always tried to get far more than his fair share. They were so good! Dessert was many choices of pie and if it had been a good baking year for my Uncle John, chocolate eclairs too. Some years we would have our grandmother with, she didn’t like to leave home for long and it took someone picking her up in Austin for her to join. I always loved the Christmas china and the bubble lights on her tree. I don’t imagine they make an energy efficient LED version of those. Sigh. In the evening, most people went to the movies. Or the next day. Sometimes we went to our place in Elgin for Christmas and we missed the meal with those cousins but instead had our country cousins over to our place. One year my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Vic took their kids to Breckenridge for Christmas and I got to tag along. I learned to ski by getting really lost and had a great time with my older cousins. Santa brought me a pizza-phone that year… remember those?! But that was the exception to our regular Christmas experience.
When I joined the Forstén family I was surrounded by a new language and started to learn a new way to have Christmas, or Jul as it’s called in Swedish. Scandinavian Christmas also centers around two key points: 1) Christmas is Christmas Eve on December 24th and 2) Santa comes to your house, often through the front door, carrying your bag of gifts, on Christmas eve. It’s the same bag you use every year and somehow he gets a hold of the gifts your friends and family had left at your house as well. He comes in for some sweet milk-rice porridge and a warm drink. Stays for a bit, hands out a few gifts, and then takes off, leaving the bag with you. Some years he is too busy and just ding-dong-ditches the bag on your doorstep. This happens at some point on Christmas Eve, often while you are taking a break between the first and second course of your Christmas meal. The cruel thing is that, because you’re in the middle of dinner, you have to wait to open the gifts. Or maybe other families eat earlier? I wouldn’t really know. I’ll come back to that.
The Christmas meal is much more specific, and ours is a Swedish Finnish Expat Texas meal, they vary between Norway, Sweden and Finland. The morning starts with warm rice porridge to tide you over until dinner. I believe everyone begins the meal with a cold fish course. What’s served probably varies. Ours has included: Gravlax (salt-cured Salmon) however gravid seek (white fish) and smoked fishes are common as well, Christmas mustard, several variations of pickled herring, boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and dill, salt pickles with crème-fraish and honey, crisp bread or thin rye bread, sometimes rom grade (caviar with whip cream) and pate as well. Meatballs are usually served for the kids as well. Some regional specialties include Rossolli, which is a “salad” with pickled cuumbers, pickled beets, pickled herring, fresh carrots, and mayonnaise. I love Rossolli and I don’t know why. You must include snapps and sing a few rounds of traditional drinking songs setting an appropriately merry tone. We sometimes have tequila instead especially in the States when it was harder to obtain aquavit. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but this is the basic table. And you eat all this and you’re less than half-way through.
You clean the table, take a break, sometimes Santa comes in the door, and then you sit down for more snapps and the warm meal. This includes a Christmas ham, which is less like a spiraled ham and more like an enormous pork butt roast. It’s been boiling all day in brine, then is roasted for hours with a honey-gingerbread crust. Oh that crust. There are a number of casseroles that change depending on how Finnish your meal is. Finns might have rutabaga casserole, while Swedes are more likely to have Jansson’s Frestelse which is basically potatoes au gratin with a lot more dairy and anchovies. (Not my casserole). Cora’s dad makes sure there is a can of French Peas. Lingon jam or Plumbs soaked in Madeira typically accompany the meat. And of course you drink more and at some point you fall off the chair and roll to the living room to open gifts, drink coffee and snack on some pastries and or chocolates.
As you can imagine, getting ALL of THIS together, plus have all the gifts ready, plus arrange for Santa to show up is A LOT of work. It’s not uncommon to go to the graveyard and light a candle for family members or try to catch a Christmas Church concert earlier in the day. It’s usually VERY late by the time we’ve opened gifts. And it’s a trick to keep the magic alive and not slip up. Many, but not all, in Scandinavia take a long time to open gifts. Each person takes his or her turn, carefully unwraps the gift, thanks the person who gave it. Admires it. Then you pick the next gift. It’s a highly civilized and involves more gratitude than what I grew up with. We are practicing Felix’s “unwrapping, thank you” face because you can’t just stash that pair of socks in search of the monster truck you’re really hoping for. You have to really appreciate the socks. Because you should and it’s a good lesson to learn. Still, I miss that explosion of paper and ribbon and fun.
And I’m usually half asleep or more by the time we finish. If we finish early the guitar comes out, and we sit by the fire for a few songs and then all collapse into bed. The next day we sleep in late, make soup and/or sandwiches with all of the leftovers, and do as little as possible. Enjoy our gifts, hang out.
Because the meal is so involved and BIG, a popular thing in Sweden is that families no longer serve this traditional meal with all the trimmings, but serve a less complicated but still nice meal and go out for Jul Bord some other time in Advent. “Jul Bord” or “Christmas Table” serves all the traditional foods plus other new innovations without the stress of the actual holiday happening at the same time. Then they are free to simplify or modernize or just go to the Canary Islands instead.
SO the question is, for our kids, how do we blend these traditions without losing too much of both in the blending process? Tomorrow, I’ll let you know what we decided!! And I'll have it written down, so I will remember!