Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Childhood Christmas in Sweden, Part 4

Julotta and Julgransplundring

After a long day of Christmas Eve celebrations, many Swedes get up very early to go to the Christmas Day early morning service, julottan. The church in our community outside Stockholm was small, white-washed, with a spire. It was set on a small hill in the older part of the community and it was a lovely little church. I don't believe I ever attended a julotta there as a child. I went when I was older and only have vague memories of the service. Isn't it interesting how I remember everything so clearly from when I was smaller and then memories seem to fade away?

I hope you can imagine this as I'm imagining it: On the farms the sleighs were cleaned and polished, sleigh bells were put on the harness, the horse was curried, his tail and mane  brushed and dressed with red ribbons. Around four in the morning, the farmer's family woke up, got dressed, had something warm to eat and drink before they ventured out in the dark and cold early morning hour. There would be plenty of snow, of course, so off they went with sleigh bells ringing, wrapped warmly in their sheepskins in the back of the sleigh, the horse trotting happily through the snow. It was a tradition that all animals on the farm got a special treat for Christmas and the horse had munched on his earlier and was in good spirits.

Their pretty little country church was ablaze with live candles and colorful Christmas decorations. The congregation sang one of the most beautiful hymns I know, called Var halsad skona morgonstund, and listened to the traditional Christmas Day service. After the service, I'm sure they went home and ate and drank some more.

Something I do remember from my childhood was the parties where children go to each other's homes and plunder the Christmas tree, called julgransplundring. Twelfth Night (Epiphany), is called trettondags jul in Swedish, and is observed as a holiday there on January 6. Between  this day and something called 20-day Knut we would be invited to these parties. (Each day in the Swedish calendar has a name assigned and the names day of Knut falls 20 days after Christmas -- sorry if I'm not very clear here -- I'm not even very sure, but I think this is how it is.)  In Sweden, 20-day Knut is the formal end of the Christmas holiday season. Upon our arrival at our friend's home we would find the Christmas tree dressed anew with fresh candies and cookies. There was something called, I think, smaellkarameller, a sort of tube with candies inside, wrapped in silk paper with sort of frilly ends that hung in the tree. You pulled something and it went "bang" and all the candy would fall out. Anyway, we danced around the tree, something called ring dance, ate, played games, and then set about robbing the tree of all the goodies. When the tree was empty, we would drag it outside and put it in the yard for the grownups to dispose of. And then we went home, happy with our loot of candies, cookies, nuts and a fruit or two in our goodies bags. Looking back, I think it was a lovely way for a child to say goodbye to Christmas on a high note.  

Since I have no pictures of a Swedish Christmas, I've inserted a few from this morning. Yesterday's horrible weather must have made a turn for the better during the night because we woke up to some snow and sun this morning. The dogs have been outside, having a ball in the snow. Soldier and I went for a walk up the hill earlier and he was delirious with joy. Its very cold and a perfect winter's day for me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Samson Says: It's Raining Buckets of Water

Welcome two new followers of Desert Canyon Living, Dan Binder and Deb. I am looking forward to getting to know you.

Samson Says:

I'm having such a boring day! It just rains and rains and nobody wants to be outside and play.

Angel, will you play with me in the house? Please, please…

Will you look at this weather, it's raining, it's storming and some white stuff is falling from the sky...what did you say, Mommy? Hail? OK, it's hailing too, so what's a dog to do?

Look at all that water – I hope we won't be floating away.

We're stuck in the house, so Angel we might as well just make up a game….

OK, if that's the way you want to be, I'll just make up some game of my own. Like biting your rear end! I bet you didn't like that, so why don't we play 'Steal Mommy's Shoe' -- you don't feel like it? Aww....

OK, I'll just play by myself --- this one's called 'Crossing the Abyss' -- I bet you didn't think I knew such big words, ha!

See, I made it! I crossed -- see Daddy was a mountain climber and he told me a few old stories and taught me some tricks..

Oh, oh! I guess he forgot to tell me how to get back. Woof, woof,  I don't think I like this, it gives me a kind of dizzy feeling….the abyss seems much bigger going this way.

Phew, I made it back in one piece. Climbing isn't as easy as it may seem.

Yawn, yawn….all that exercise made me tired so I think I go and take a nap now. I hope the sun shines when I wake up.

See you later everyone...have a nice day!

Posted by Samson, the Samoyed Pup.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday's Treasures & Things

Welcome Lori Skoog, a new follower of my blog. I have followed Lori's blog for a while and know that she also has a Swedish heritage. 

Thank you for all your comments -- I'm so glad you liked my Swedish Christmas tales. Part 4 will come soon. You are right that my recollections are vivid and I think that was something really good that my parents did. If I had had children, much of that would have been passed on to them. 

Today's treasures don't belong to me, they are just here, all around for me to enjoy.

Looking out my window on Christmas Day, I saw this cloud and realized that to the southeast the sky was blue with just a few clouds but on the northwest side of our house dark clouds were gathering. Since the rains, I see green grass here that I never knew existed. 

Good friends are such treasures. Rachael came for Christmas dinner and our friend, Bob, joined us as well. 

Rachael is one of the most generous people I know. I got so many wonderful gifts that I will enjoy for a long time to come, including one of my most favorite movies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A film one can enjoy over and over again. The necklace I'm wearing was a present from another friend, Judy. It's from Chico's made for a benefit for St. Jude's Children's Hospital that Judy supports. And, how cool is this, it's actually a magnifying glass. Old ladies like me need those.

Then I put the camera away and never took a picture of the gorgeous dinner my husband cooked for us. I'm truly sorry because it was a feast to behold and the table looked so lovely. My husband is my treasure for sure. 

Another treasure is the wildlife around here. Yesterday, I had just started the car when I noticed movement in the grass to the north. This bobcat came out from behind a juniper tree and slowly walked through the tall grass. He knew I was there, but he wasn't about to look scared. I jumped out of the car and got this photo as he stopped and turned around to check me out.

This is the same photo before I enlarged it. You may recall I talked about accidental pictures in my post about our visit to the Buddhist temple. This is another example -- the branches framing the cat.  

Then I dropped off a Christmas present for another friend, who is also a neighbor here. Like Rachael, she is someone who just steps up and helps when you need it. As some of you know, I've had a year of injuries, first from a fall and then from a car crash – so this person is someone I truly treasure.

On my way there I drove past the upper portions of our land. It's in the foreground of this photo and reaches down to the fields below.

Then I went to town for a blood test at our local lab. After that I drove around a bit until it was time to see the chiropractor. Since I had my camera, I took a few pictures. This one faces east.

And this faces west. The mountains, fields, clouds and the big western sky here are also treasures for me to enjoy. So, as it turns out, my treasures don't all sit in my china cabinet, they are all around me. 

When I came back home, the bobcat sat on our road. Wow, he was beautiful and so big. He took a look at my car and decided it may be best to take off -- of course not at full speed, but at a good trot through the fields. As I sat there and watched him disappear among the bushes, I felt so blessed.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Childhood Christmas in Sweden, Part 3

Merry Christmas from all of us, woof, woof!

Soldier and me, Christmas 2008

In Sweden most of the Christmas celebrations take place on Christmas Eve.  I still remember how thrilling it was to wake up on the morning of Christmas Eve, full of delight and anticipation. On the dark and cold morning the tree with its pretty ornaments, the candles and the star on top always took my breath away. When my brother and I were small, there would be just a present or two under the tree. We would get one or two that morning to keep us quiet and occupied until the evening when Santa, in the form of our Grandfather, would come walking through the snow carrying a large burlap sack full of presents.

As I said in an earlier post on this subject, I don't have any photos of Christmas in my childhood home. I hope I can describe the sights, sounds, and particularly the smells of a Christmas in a Swedish home, somewhere in the late 1940s, early 1950s.

In the kitchen of my childhood home, it was a busy time preparing for lunch and the big Christmas dinner later in the day. While the Christmas ham simmered in a big pot, various meats were added. After the ham and the added ingredients cooked for a long time, something wonderful happened in the pot: A spicy broth, thick and juicy, was getting ready for the traditional dipping in the pot, dopp i grytan, ceremony. After my mother removed the ham and rubbed it with brown sugar and mustard and studded it with cloves, she put it in the oven to glaze. Then the family gathered around the pot to dip bread in the hot broth. I remember thick slices of rye bread, I believe. It was a wonderful tradition and one that I miss. I read somewhere that this ceremony originated in pagan times when the Vikings would sacrifice to the sun by fasting around the winter solstice. For them fasting meant not eating meat, so instead they would dip bread in broth while waiting for the sun's return to their cold and dark land.

If our family hosted Christmas Eve for our grandparents and other family members, they would arrive in the afternoon. By now we, the children, would be beside ourselves with excitement and curiosity about our presents. Oh, what could it be, will I get what I really want and so on. When we were older we would look at the presents under the tree and, reading the poems that hinted at their contents, we would try to figure out what was inside.

Home made glogg, was served throughout the day. Glogg is the Swedish Christmas drink for me. It smells heavenly and tastes out of this world too. But I think it's the smell that does it for me. There is nothing like it. Made from a sweet and a dry red wine, with orange rind, raisins and spices, it's heated and when hot, vodka, or some such alcohol, is poured in and put on fire. While it's burning, you dip sugar cubes in a strainer through the fire into the wine, creating a wonderful taste and smell. It's something special for sure.

Dinner started with the traditional smorgasbord. I'm sure all of you are familiar with a smorgasbord, which actually translates to a sandwich table, but of course, that's not what it is at all. Here are some of the dishes I remember:
  • Herring, marinated in several different    ways.
  • Swedish meatballs.
  • Swedish anjovis.
  • Rullsylta – a rolled cold meat dish.
  • And several dishes that I now cannot imagine eating, such as pickled pigs feet and ox tongue. 

Many, many more dishes that I can't remember now were also served.

Eating was frequently interrupted by a toast of aquavit, brannvin, which involves the following ceremony:

You raise your glass, look the person you are toasting in the eye and say: Skoal! Everyone then replies: Skoal! Then you drink the shot glass of this strong alcohol, followed by some of the Christmas ale to wash it down.

After several of these toasts, I'm sure the lye fish, lutfish, that followed was more palatable.

You also drink the traditional Christmas ale throughout the meal. I wonder now how tipsy the adults were by the end of the day. What with the glogg and all.

After the fish, it was time for the wonderful Christmas ham and after that the rice porridge, risgrynsgroten. There are a couple of traditions involved with this porridge as well. A lone almond is placed in the porridge and if a single person gets the almond in their bowl, it's said that he or she will get married in the following year. If it lands in a bowl of a married person, he or she will prosper in the year to come. And, finally, in the olden days, a plate of porridge was placed in the barn for the little gnome, tomten, who was thought to live there.  

After this seemingly endless meal (to us kids) it was time for the presents. As I said above, my grandfather was Santa when we were small. He would trudge through the snow, up the steps, and knock on our front door with a question: Finns det nagra snalla barn har? ("Are there any good/nice children here?") You were supposed to be good and nice in order to get your gifts from Santa, so of course we yelled: "Yes!" And then we had to wait for my dad to read the poem on each gift before we could proceed to rip off the red sealing wax and open our presents.

I believe the evening ended with coffee and cakes and a glass of the Christmas punch, not an American kind of punch, but something else, in a bottle. A very 19th century drink that evokes smoky libraries where the gentlemen would withdraw after dinner to drink their punch and smoke their cigars. That's about all I can think of to describe it.

All through the day we would sing the Christmas songs. Nu ar det jul igen, I remember as the most fun of them all. In some families, but not in ours, there would be the traditional dance around the Christmas tree and throughout the house. In the Ingmar Bergman film, Fanny and Alexander, there is a wonderful part that shows a traditional Swedish Christmas at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century. In the movie, the fun deteriorated toward the end of the evening, probably a result of all those Christmas drinks.

It's interesting to me that the Swedes, these most modern of people, are so steeped in traditions this time of year. I also find it interesting that many of the traditions are not Christian at all. Some stem from the darkness around the winter solstice and were begun in pagan times, by Vikings and others who had to endure the cold and dark. They needed something to cheer them up and give them hope that the sun, light and warmth would soon return. Other traditions had to do with treating the small people, the elves and gnomes that protected you during the year, to a nice meal of rice porridge in the stable or barn. I don't know where the glogg originated; it probably just came about to keep people warm and happy during this cold and dark time of the year.

There will actually be a Part 4 to this. When one or two of the readers of my blog asked me to describe our Swedish Christmas traditions, I had no idea there would be so much to write about. The traditions are many; they are rich and interesting, so I will go on after Christmas and tell the story of the Christmas morning church service, julottan, and how we kids enjoyed the parties at each other's homes when we set out to plunder the Christmas tree, julgrans plundring, in the new year.

Have a wonderful Holiday Season and Thank You for your support of my blog this past year. You have helped me so much and it has been great to get to know you. More about that later.....

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Raindrops are Falling – Still?!

First, thank you so much for all your comments to yesterday's post. (Nancy, you shouldn't worry, but it was sweet of you.) In case you don't have time to read Part 3 of My Childhood Christmas in Sweden tomorrow (how's that for a plug and I haven't even written it yet) I want to wish you and yours a 

Merry Christmas!

Yesterday went fine, except that the dentist's office had water damage so I couldn't get my filling put in.  Still, I was kind of glad they didn't reach me in time to stop my trip to town. It was an adventure to say the least, beginning with the drive down the rescue's road to the main road that goes through the canyon. The mud was deep and so was the water in certain places. The main road was also flooded in several areas with water streaming down the hillsides and across the road. All went well and I picked up the turkey at my BIL's house, did my shopping, and stopped by my niece's place for a visit with my BIL's family, my nieces and grandniece. I dropped off a little present for her. Then I borrowed a bunch of DVDs from my niece's seemingly unending supply and drove back home in rain and hail. It felt so good to be home. The sun peaked out for a while before it was time for it to set for the night and I thought the rain would be over. So did those who are supposed to know at, but this morning it looks like this outside:

A fine rain is falling right now and the clouds look threatening.

I'm going to work on my Christmas blog for a minute, then bake my oatmeal bread/cake and make a Swedish dish of cucumbers in vinegar and sugar, with peppercorns.  And I'll find out if my husband wants me to do something with the turkey.

After that it's back to cleaning the dog run and finish up cleaning inside the house. And wrapping some presents for my husband tonight….getting in the Christmas mood.

I hope the weather is better where you are and that you all will have a nice day.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tuesday's Treasures a Day Late

The small elf or gnome we call Tomtenisse in Sweden, is a part of the rich Swedish folktale tradition that includes trolls, elves, giants, fairies, witches and the little elf-like tomte who often lived in the barn and was thought to be benevolent, looking after the farmer, his family and animals. As you can see, he bears little resemblance to the big and burly Santa of today.

I treasure this little plate, a gift from my cousin, Anders. Anders and I share an interest in Old Town, Gamla Stan, the oldest part of Stockholm. We love the jazz clubs in the ancient cellars, the magic of the narrow alleys and crooked medieval buildings. When I'm in Stockholm, Anders always treats me to a nice dinner in one of the many restaurants there. The plate is made by Arabia, Finland. Every Christmas I look at it and remember many good dinners and conversations with my cousin Anders in Gamla Stan.

Here you can see the little tomte again. He doesn't look much like Santa, does he? While I believe he may now be a Santa's helper, he is not related. It seems like this little tomte has always been with me. Maybe he is keeping an eye on things around this place.

On my Monday evening without power, I sat here and wrapped gifts as darkness fell outside. I'm so glad I took this picture and I want to share it here. It will remind me of the important things in life that you can feel and observe when modern conveniences fail you.

I'm up for another challenge today. One of those huge windstorms is going full force outside and it's raining again. And I have to go to the dentist and get the permanent filling put in and then to the lab for my diabetes blood tests. I may have cancelled, but I have a gift to bring my dentist and his wife, so I'm off. At least I'm not going to the flat desert below where I would be really scared driving the little Jeep in a storm like this. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Power-Less and Photo-Less

Apparently, I have run out of free photo storage and had to purchase some more today. And I thought blogger kept bragging about being FREE!! Since the timing was lousy – right in the middle of my Swedish Christmas musings - I hurried up and purchased some more space for $5.00. They said it may take up to 24 hours for this to become effective. So here is what happened yesterday sans the photos.

Yesterday, the rain continued, but I had to get the mail so I hiked down to the mail box. It was wonderful to walk in the rain. As I approached the mailboxes on the main road, I heard a roaring sound. Thinking it was one of the donkey rescue trucks, I looked behind me, but no truck in sight. Then I knew what it was: The creek! At one point it goes under the road through two large drums and that's where the sound came from. In the five years we have owned this place, I have only once or twice seen a trickle of water in that creek. Yesterday it was roaring, coming through the drums with a huge force and whitecaps on brown water.

And the sound…..It was wonderful…I just stood there….for a long, long time…. and listened. If you come from a country of many lakes, if you spent your childhood summers on an island or lived on a boat, if you owned a sailboat and used to sail to Catalina Island off the California coast, much as you may love the desert mountains, you will miss the sound of water because it was such a huge part of your life.

Earlier, around ten in the morning, as I was about to start baking, the power went and it didn't come back all day. So I had to get busy and make a fire. I had some wood in the house and I brought in as much of the relatively dry wood from the side of the house as I could carry.

And for the first time, I was able to make hot water for tea on my woodburning stove.

With nothing much to do, I decided to light candles, wrap presents and make my Christmas baskets.
At dinner time, I was thrilled to once again make lemonade of lemons: Since I couldn't heat my dinner or cook, I reveled in a salty, a very salty, dinner of Swedish Matjes herring with sour cream and Triskets. I love salt, but like all of us old folks, I have to limit it. Not so last night. To keep dinner a little bit healthy, I had an orange for dessert.

As the day wore on and dusk fell, the power didn't come back, so I lit more candles and just sat and watched as it grew dark outside, something I never do when I have electric service – how come, I wonder, it was a wonderful experience. I listened to the rain, stoked the fire, made sure Pippi Birdie was covered up with extra layers so he would stay safe through the night, and went to bed. I have a wonderful duvet, called a featherbed, like those in Austria and Switzerland; it's huge and thick and there is no way you can be cold snuggling under it. Angel was shivering, so I made sure she came up and spent the night in bed with me. It was early, around six. I read for a while with my flashlight then went to sleep. The power came on around five this morning. My phone answering machine alerted with it's 'please set the time' message, waking us all up. I was happy to be able to turn on the electric heaters and make some hot coffee.

The rain stopped this morning. I hope it will be nice tomorrow as I have to go to the dentist early. Have a nice evening and thank you for all your comments on Angel and Samson. You know they love the attention.

Monday, December 20, 2010

An Old Sock Brings Joy

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameful spirit. –Pablo Neruda

Angel: Hey, that's mine, I saw it first!

Angel: Don't forget who's the boss here.

Angel: What did I just say?

 Angel: What part of I'm the BOSS didn't you understand?

Samson: OK, OK, so I back off a little.

Samson: For all I care, you can have your old sock. I think I'll go and bite Soldier's leg instead.

Samson: What's up with him? He won't play with me either.

Samson: You old dogs can be sooo boring. What's a playful pup to do on such a rainy day? I guess I just lie down and wait for Angel to finish with that old sock. Then I can have a go at it.

Samson mentions the rain above. And, yes, it has now rained since Friday. A steady and wonderful rain, but also a rain that I am ill prepared for. I cannot remember a rain like this in the four winters I have lived here. I looked out toward the east this morning and saw that there was plenty of snow covering the tallest mountain I could see to the northeast. The others in the eastern range had some snow. I guess it snows right now between five and six thousand feet. If this had been a snowstorm, I would have been snowed in. Now I fear I may be rained in. I feel I have to go and get the mail this afternoon and that will give me a chance to check the road. I'm definitely not driving on it. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Childhood Christmas in Sweden, Part 2

Would you believe that I, who have so many photos of my family from my childhood, don't have a single one of our traditional Christmas Eve celebrations? I have no photos of  the family, the food, the tree, the presents.....nothing. Since I've never done a post without pictures and this one has a whole lot of writing about food, I thought I break it up with a few miscellaneous things, like the decorations I would hang in our tree if we were to have a tree. We're not having a tree this year, but I will decorate the house closer to Christmas. 

My little elf-like santas, made of yarn, called tomtenissar in Sweden. I guess they may be his helpers. The small, red one, was made by my grandfather.
The time between Santa Lucia and Christmas Eve, Julafton, the day we celebrate Christmas there, was spent getting ready. Cooking wasn't really my mother's thing, but she would make several dishes for Christmas. Fortunately what my mother lacked in cooking interest and skill was made up hugely by my paternal grandmother (she of the dimpled chin and strong personality) and her sister. They were the most fabulous bakers and cooks. 

A Santa knitted by a family friend, Doris, a long time ago now. I treasure him and he cheers me up in the middle of the hustle and bustle that precedes Christmas.

In olden days in Sweden, a bride needed to know how to prepare herring in at least 25 different ways. My mother knew a couple, but the one I remember best only appeared at Christmas time: Matjes herring pickled in vinegar, sugar, with Coleman's dry mustard, onions and a lot of white pepper corns added. It's called Skarpsill. I still make it when I can find the ingredients.

Then there is the Lutfisk, or Lye fish, which is a peculiar dish that originated in Norway. I remember the big slab of dried/salted cod or a cod relative, called ling (I have no idea what a ling is, but it said so in my book, so there it is) that was left to soak in lye in our basement laundry room. This room had huge vats for boiling and rinsing clothes – before washing machines, doing laundry was quite a chore. After soaking, the cod turned white and flaky, as I remember. While I can understand how the then plentiful cod, salted and dried, helped provide people with food during the long winters, I cannot understand all the trouble women went through for this dish. I guess some love it or it is just a tradition that must be carried on. A pretty good sauce went with it and made it tasty as far as I can remember. 

Christmas tree ornaments in my childhood home were made of straw, yarn or wood, and there was always a star at the top of the tree.  I remember that my grandparent's tree had live candles! The trees of my childhood had electric lights, shaped as candles, and always white with natural lights, never colored ones.

With the exception of the traditional gingerbread cookies, pepparkakor, I don't remember much baking going on at our house. I'm sure my grandmother and her sister baked everything and brought all the goodies with them to the Christmas dinner.

Then there was the glazed Christmas ham, Jul skinkan, to prepare. Now a ham prepared this way is absolutely delicious. In Los Angeles, I lived close by the only Swedish delicatessen in town, owned by a Mr. Olson. When the Christmas hams arrived all the Swedes in Southern California appeared at one time and there were long, long lines around the block. A really fun time in L. A. for me.

Some more cheerful ornaments. Most of these I bought at a Scandinavian store close to UCLA a long, long time ago. The silver birds are from my childhood home, they were clipped on to the tree, but have now lost their legs, the red wooden apples were a gift from my friend, Christina.

Back to my childhood where we went shopping for the Christmas tree the week before Christmas. Imagine that – so late, compared to the way it is done now. In my family we dressed the tree the evening before Christmas Eve. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the tree was up; it was fresh and smelled heavenly. I will never forget the Christmas Eve mornings of my childhood.

The evening before Christmas Eve was bustling with activity at our house. We dressed the tree and wrapped our presents. My parents waited until we went to bed and then wrapped ours. Everything was hush, hush and secret. The presents were wrapped and sealed with lack (I can't remember the English word for that red stuff that sealed envelopes and documents in olden days, so please let me know if you recall) and stamped with an insignia my Dad had. 

I have this old photo of my parents as newlyweds, circa 1938, wrapping presents and writing their Christmas poems. I think it is such a sweet picture!

Both my parents were very good writers and my Dad was a great poet. He would write poems for every occasion and never more than at Christmas time. He came up with the most wonderful verses and rhymes that were then attached to each present. Rhymes on presents were a tradition in our home, but I don't know if it is a Swedish tradition or where it came from. The rhymes always hinted at what the present might be. So my brother and I had a lot of fun looking at the rhymes the next day, trying to figure out what was inside the packages. Now, when we were small and still believed in Santa, there were no presents under the tree. More about that in the next segment.

Thanks for visiting my remembrances here. I hope you will come back for Part 3, which will cover Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning, and how we plundered the tree at the end of the 12 Days of Christmas. All this as I remember it from my childhood. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tuesday's Treasures & Things

Welcome Manzanita, a new follower of my blog. And thank you all so much for your comments on Part 1 of my Childhood Christmas. I'm so happy to learn that this is of interest, both in a personal and general sense.

Today's treasure is the Yule goat or Julbocken in Swedish. To tell you the truth, I had no idea where this custom came from. So, Google came to the rescue once again.

My friend Rachael, who is part Finnish, said that she remembered the Finnish word for Santa in a comment to a post of mine. When I read it, I thought she meant the Yule goat. What she wrote looked much like the Swedish word for Julbocken (Finland is a bi-lingual country – Finnish and Swedish are both spoken there.) However, when I looked it up, I found that the Finnish word for Santa Claus is Joulupukki, also similar to what Rachael wrote. I learned that in pagan times, there lived an evil spirit in Finland that appeared wearing goat skins and horns. Over time, and it said no one knows why or how, this evil spirit became a benevolent one that eventually turned into the Finnish version of Santa Claus.

Christmas folklore and traditions in Sweden and the other Nordic countries date back to pagan times. One explanation for the Swedish Yule goat stated that he originated with a goat that was a carrier for the god Thor. At first it seemed weird to me that the warrier god Thor, the god of thunder, a very powerful figure in our mythology, should have an important goat in his entourage. Then thinking about the scary goats of Finland, I understood that in those days, goats were not the cute and adorable critters we see on the farms of today. Instead, there were some very scary aspects to them as they associated with the devil and represented evil spirits.

As I read on, I found out that in 17th century Sweden, the goat was also a symbol of the devil, but more for fun, as people would dress up in goat skins and horns to frighten their neighbors. Then in the 18th century, the goat figure in Sweden changed and for a time was the one that came bearing the gifts. I had no idea of any of this, but I'm glad that the adorable goat has by now been redeemed and taken his rightful place at the side of Santa in Swedish Christmas traditions.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Childhood Christmas in Sweden, Part 1

Some of you asked me to describe an old-fashioned Swedish Christmas. -- Here is Part 1 of my attempt to do so. 

Advent, Santa Lucia, the Christmas Market

In churches all over the world, Christ's coming is anticipated on the four Sundays of Advent (ad'vent) n. [< L. ad, to + venire, come]In Sweden we have special Advent candle holders for four candles, one for each of these Sundays. For me as a child, anticipation began when the first candle was lit on that first Sunday. My family was not religious in a church-going sense, but we celebrated the birth of Christ and it was both a joyous and a serious time. The spirit of Christmas arrived at our house with that first candle and in the coming weeks we were getting ready for our celebrations on Christmas Eve.

The Advent Calendar, with all its little windows to be opened one for each day leading up to Christmas, was part of the excitement. In Sweden, it is also a custom to hang a golden star, made of paper with tiny holes and with a light bulb inside, in a window on the first Sunday in Advent. Stockholm in December is a dark place with few hours of daylight and I remember how lovely it was to see all the stars shining bright in the windows of the city.

Today, December 13, Santa Lucia is celebrated all over Sweden. This is a very special time, reminding people who live in this cold, dark, place that there is light in the world and celebrating this light.

According to tradition, the eldest daughter in the family, wearing a crown of candles, brings coffee and Lucia buns (lussekatter) to her parents in bed. Yes, that's me as Santa Lucia with a crown of real candles on my head! (I did have a wet napkin on my hair, underneath the crown.) The girl and her court of younger siblings sing the old Italian song, Santa Lucia, in a translation that celebrates light coming to this dark season. This tradition continues in Swedish homes today, but with battery operated candles, I'm sure.

Each community crowns their Queen of Light, their Santa Lucia, and in Stockholm there is a parade in the evening, ending in City Hall.

The original Santa Lucia was a Sicilian woman, who became a saint. She is always presented with light in some fashion in art and literature. How she came to represent the Queen of Light in far removed Sweden is a legend too long to tell here.

When I was a child in Sweden in the 1940s and early '50s, Christmas was very different from the way it is celebrated here today. Of course, it must have been very different here as well. We got presents, but I never felt a sense of stress about them or the holiday from my parents. There were no shopping malls and no Black Fridays, instead, we would go to the Christmas Market in Old Town (Gamla Stan)to buy some of our gifts. There in the medieval square, surrounded by ancient buildings with the Great Church on one side and the Royal Castle behind, was an enchanted land of Santas, goats, straw, homemade cakes, cookies, candies, toys, decorations and many, many other magical things to fill my child's mind with anticipation of the special time to come. Christmas Eve! Thinking back, anticipation may have been key to this season for me as a child. Dreaming of and wondering about the presents I would get, was certainly a part of it. But I know that as a child, my greatest joy was waking up on the morning of Christmas Eve and finding the tree decorated, lights shining, and presents underneath guarded by Julbocken, the Christmas straw goat (more about him tomorrow). 

Sunday, December 12, 2010


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