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Donald Widjeskog Remembers Christmas from Long Ago

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We celebrate Christmas as a special place in our hearts. It is then that families gather together; family ties are close. We give gifts to each other, eat, drink and discuss what is new, and remember the good times. It's an exciting holiday for the children. One could say it's a children's holiday because they get most of the gifts that Santa brings. It is also the only holiday when the parents can threaten the children by telling them they must be good and listen. No other holiday has been written about and sung about as much as Christmas.

This takes me back to my childhood and how we celebrated Christmas. I remember some times more than others. One memory is of going into the woods to find the best Christmas tree. After it was cut down, it was up to us small boys to drag it home. We struggled on our skis with the large tree and when we finally got it home we saw it was over one meter so that there was space for it in the house. In later years I learned to measure the ceiling height in the house and take a folding rule with us to the woods.

As usual, there was the Christmas bath in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. My mother gathered together the girls and took them to the sauna that was in the barn. When she came back to the house with the girls, she put a fire in the fireplace. Then she told us three boys it was our turn to go with her to the sauna. My two younger brothers were obedient and put clothes on for the cold walk to the barn.

Insubordinate

I, on the other hand, defied her and said "No, I'm not going to the sauna." I said that I would blow out the fire in the fireplace if she forced me. "You will go to the sauna," said my mother as she went out the door with my brothers. To show my mother that I was serious, I began to blow out the fire that had nearly gone out. But when I blew it didn't go out, it began to get new life. When my mother came back from sauna with my brothers, the hearth crackled with a full flame. Then my mother said: "To the sauna with you." "No, I won't go," I said with a determined voice. "So you won't get any Christmas presents!" she said. That did it for me. There I trudged to the sauna in the bitter cold and dark winter evening.

Julgubben came early that evening soon after I returned from sauna. Mother had placed a large carton full of presents in the entry hall while we children waited eagerly until Julgubben came. It seemed an eternity before we heard a bell ring in the hall. Suddenly the door opened and Julgubben came in with his Christmas goat. Both were dressed in long-haired fur. The goat crept in, dragging a sleigh that had a carton with our Christmas presents. The goat had a bell around his neck and he made such a noise that Julgubben had difficulty controlling him. My younger brothers were so scared that they hid behind our mother. When the presents were passed around, my mother gave a bag to Julgubben and a box full of goodies.

As presents, I received a mouth organ, stockings and mittens. I wanted skis but didn't get them. After we had opened our presents we all sat at the table for our meal. Then dessert was served - rice pudding with prune cream and whipped cream. I continued to defy my mother. I said I would not eat. My mother said, "go without," and she gave my share to my younger brothers. I had a problem sleeping that night. All I could think about was rice pudding, prune cream and whipped cream. That was my favorite. Never again did I defy my mother.

The village had arranged with Haldin & Rose to bus us to the Christmas church service. Our neighbor, who was the bus driver, had the bus in a garage on the other side of the road. We children looked forward to this excursion. It was bitter cold when we gathered there early in the morning for the trip to the church. The driver had opened the garage door, hopped into the bus and began to start the motor. It was sluggish and after many attempts the battery ran down. It was necessary for the farmers to crank the motor. They took turns with the crank. For us children it was a great disappointment that the trip didn't happen. I was an adult when I later had a chance to attend the Christmas service in the beautiful Terjärv church. I remember that the night of the excursion to the church was bitterly cold with a full moon. In the still and silent night one could hear people's voices from far away. The snow creaked when we walked on it. Just as we were ready to go to bed that evening, there was a knock on the door.

Itinerant Peddler

In stepped "Skropälgubbe", an itinerant peddler. As long as I can remember, until I emigrated, this peddler had pushed his bicycle from farm to farm through the village and peddled his merchandise. I don't think anyone knew what his name was. The name we called him - "Skropälgubbe" - probably came from his neglectful appearance. He was red-faced and his skin shed flakes from his frost-bitten cheeks. On the luggage carrier on his bicycle he usually had a little suitcase that was stuffed with all his earthly belongings. On top of his suitcase was a carton that held the wares he sold. When he came into our house he humbly sat down on a stool near the door and took his wares out of the carton and set them on the floor. There was not much to choose from. It consisted of what mothers had a use for: buttons, needles, thread, etc. My mother always bought something from him.

Now he stood there by the door that cold winter evening with his head bent, cap in his hand and looking at the floor as he humbly asked if he could stay overnight. Although our farm house was large, we only used three rooms in the winter: the main room and two other rooms. It was difficult for my mother to keep the rooms warm. I slept on a wooden sofa in my own bedroom which was in the main room. All the others slept in the two other rooms. My mother looked at the peddler as he stood by the door. Good-hearted she was and she had compassion for him. She lifted the lid on the wooden sofa and dragged off my mattress. Then she spread out the straw mattress and made the bed for the peddler and me. When the fire had died down and mother had closed the damper, it was time to cover us with extra bedding.

Several times during the night I awakened when the peddler got out of the sofa. There in the moonlight I saw that he opened his luggage and took out a flask. When he sat on the floor I could see him drink from the flask. In the morning I awakened when my mother tended the fire in the fireplace. It was so cold in the house that the bucket of water on the floor by the sink had frozen over. There over the bucket, with his head frozen in the ice was the cat, who had died. Earlier he had got caught between the bucket and the handle when he went to drink and had strangled or drowned when he tried to get free. My mother took the cat and threw it out. Later she filled the coffee pot and porridge pan with water. During that time the peddler gathered together his few belongings. He said his thank you and went out the door.

All that the peddler drank during the night now floated in the sofa. The house smelled of urine as well as from the awful and nasty smelling pipe he smoked. When my mother came in from the barn, she took the straw mattress and threw it out into the snow and burned it.

On one of my home visits, after I had been in America for ten years, I stopped in the cafeteria in Terjärv for a cup of coffee. I hoped that I would bump into one of my cronies there when I got my coffee cup and "gris". I looked around but saw no known people. To my surprise there at the table sat the peddler, my old sleeping comrade from long ago, reading a newspaper.

I sat down at his table. He put down his paper and looked at me and said in Finnish: "you are Etel's son!" We sat there over an hour and talked while we drank coffee. His eyes were clean and clear when he looked at me. He was no longer meek and humble, and his cheeks no longer flaked. He was well-clad. He said he now had it good. He had a pension and had his own place in Pedersöre. As was his wont, he roamed around the Swedish area, now as a tourist. In his jacket pocket he had a bus schedule for each bus line between Jakobstad, Gamlakarleby and Seinäjoki.

Now my family and I have established our own Christmas tradition. The family has always cut our own tree on a Christmas tree farm. Now when we come home we gather together and listen to American and Scandinavian Christmas songs while we drink "Egg Nog!"

Donald Widjeskog

Norden 5 Feb. 2011

English translation by June Pelo


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