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Remembrances of Christmas Eves Past


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by Arlene Maja Sundquist Empie

The heady aroma of cardamom bread baking in the oven mingles with the scent of cedar boughs and the bouquet of dried fruit simmering on the stove. Tantalizing aromas compete for attention amidst preparations for our family’s holiday feast as my thoughts drift to Christmas Eves past.

Christmas Eve was celebrated at the home of my paternal grandparents in the 1940s, and it is there that I was introduced to Christmas traditions that are still carried on by third- and fourth-generation descendents of Ida Maria Anders-dotter Lillbroända Wikstrom and Johan Leonard Danielsson Sundquist. My grandparents were "finlandssvenskar" - Finland Swedes who emigrated to America in the 1890s from Ostrobothnia. They brought with them to America their Swedish language, their proud heritage, and family traditions.

The scent of cedar recalls our family, laden with packages, trudging up the long stairs to their home on Christmas Eve over a mass of cedar boughs placed backside up, two or three branches deep. "Be careful," my mother repeatedly admonished, as we tromped up the long stairway, strategically placing each foot among the cedar boughs, placed not just on the landing but on the steps as well. Someone might have said it was just asking for someone to trip and fall, but the tradition continued. It was customary to have cedar boughs at the entrance at Christmastime. It was magical. Each time the door opened, the fragrant aroma of cedar drifted into the house on the crisp air. While I tend to romanticize the moment, Aunt Alice explains somewhat in jest, "The cedar boughs were just a practical way to clean your shoes from dirty roads and paths before you entered the house!"

Grandma Sundquist’s long table was laid with white, store-bought, damask cloths and linens woven on her grand wood loom. Light from an abundance of flickering candles danced on china plates that were handpainted by her daughter Ida Elvira, a lasting legacy to her own life that was cut short. Bright red lingonberries glistened in a crystal dish. There was an array of traditional breads: Finnish limpa, rye knäckebröd, and crisp flatbröd. And my mother’s pickled herring. My great uncle delivered freshly caught herring, which she skinned, cut in chunks, and stuffed into jars to be pickled in brine with colorful whole spices and herbs.

The much-celebrated dish at Christmas Eve supper was lutfisk served with boiled white potatoes and white cream sauce gravy sprinkled with ground allspice. Grandma began her preparations months ahead: "Place dried cod in a crock and soak in a solution of cold water and potash of lye. Let it "work" for four or five days. Take out the fish and scrub with a brush to clean off the slime and dirt. Then soak for another week. Change the water each day. Cut and wrap chunks of lutfisk in a cotton flour-sack dishtowel. Boil 15 to 20 minutes in salted water in an uncovered kettle until the fish becomes tender but still firm."

The uncommon odor of lutfisk cooking on the wood stove permeated the entire house. I turned up my nose at lutfisk, as did most young people. Perhaps, holding our nose is a more apt description. For some, just looking at cooked lutfisk lying on a platter can be an equally disturbing experience. Its appearance is like a milky-white gelatinous blob that has the sluggish movement of an unearthly body. After that description, how can anyone believe that Christmas isn’t Christmas without lutfisk, as glasses are raised to toast this fabulous fish.

"Risgrynsgröt," a sweet, baked rice pudding with cinnamon sprinkled on top or accompanied by frukt soppa, topped off the Christmas feast. The excited chatter among the female members of the Sundquist family signaled the presentation of the risgrynsgröt. Grandma hid a single almond in the depths of this creamy dish. Whoever found the almond in their serving would be prosperous in the year ahead, but if a single person found the lucky almond, it would foretell his or her marriage in the next year. And sometimes, that did happen, but whoever would suspect that Grandma had helped that event along with a hidden almond?

Some things never change, like the wait that adults impose on children before opening gift packages. Christmas Eve supper seemed to take forever as we children fidgeted in our chairs, but we had to wait even longer as dishes were slowly washed and dried by hand. We delighted in the adults’ merriment and jesting, both in English and Swedish. Grandma Sundquist sat on the wood box beside the kitchen stove, the warm box containing split wood. Everyone aunts, uncles, cousins - gathered around as she began singing:

Nu är det jul igen, ja, nu är det jul igen, och julen vara väl till påska! Men det var inte sant, ja, det var inte sant, för däremellan kommer fastan.

We sang Christmas carols in Swedish:

Stilla natt, heliga natt,

and in English,

Silent night, holy night,

and a chorus or two of:

Gubben Noah, Gubben Noah,
var en hedersman.
När han gick ur arken,
plantera han på marken.
Mycket vin, ja, mycket vin,
ja, detta gjorde han.

With everyone crowded together and the kitchen bursting with song and laughter, I recall an overwhelming sense of belonging and warmth that went far beyond the warmth of a wood-burning kitchen stove.

Then suddenly, there came the loud knocks at the door! Everyone sang boisterously: "Jul bock knacka på vår dörr." We always suspected it was Grandpa who delivered the appropriate "knock, knock, knock." We would rush to the door; no one was there. But that was not the time to question who might have knocked. That was the signal that it was time to dash to the Christmas tree to open presents. The richly decorated fir tree reached to the ceiling, and the colorfully wrapped packages around the tree overflowed onto Oriental carpets and polished hardwood floors.

Following the evening’s festivities, it was customary that our family, tired children and all, went to midnight Christmas Eve service at the Salem Lutheran Church in Mt. Vernon, Washington. Grandfather was a charter member, and he and my father Daniel Sundquist served as board members. "No complaining," my aunts would exclaim. "We had to walk over two miles to town after Christmas Eve festivities to be on time for Christmas julotta at six o’clock in the morning, and then we walked back home." That may be, but another aunt recalls the squeak and crunch of the runners on the snow, as they raced the neighbors’ horses and sleighs to church.

Fortunately for us, traditions transform with technological advances. We drove to town that night in a warm car and returned to church the next morning, again by automobile, for the 11 o’clock Christmas service. Aunt Alice recalls that each year Herman Ståhl, a neighbor from Kronoby, Finland, sang "Hosianna." A generation later, Max Lidell sang the triumphal late 18th century hymn that heralds the Christmas season.

Celebrations, however they may be conducted, unite families and give consideration and continuity to cultural thought and community. In winter’s darkness, we face our own vulnerability, and within us the need to recognize our connections to each other and to the earth and all life. My grandparents lovingly presented elaborate festive occasions that are carried on three generations later, as my children now build on those traditions. Cultural traditions are born out of love, necessity, and available food and drink, and that will continue to be, although nothing stays the same. Traditions change, but in spirit, remain the same

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