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. 


  1. oh, I love those ornaments! How wonderful to have a tree decorated with things you and your family have made themselves, instead of the latest Hallmark ornaments that everyone else has.

    I don't think I would like the fish, but, would love to try some of that ham. Inger, it is just so nice of you to share your Christmas traditions with us.

  2. Inger, was it sealing wax they used to seal the envelopes? I love those handmade and wooden ornaments...they are truly beautiful and must bring back fond memories!...:)JP

  3. Hi Inger. I think the word you were looking for was Wax. The red stuff used to seal the envelopes, often pressed with a seal.

    I LOVE those ornaments made of straw - the stars are especially beautiful - so simple, yet so precious.

    The 25 ways to prepare herring would have definitely taken me off the bridal market. I would have failed miserably... :)

  4. This is so interesting! I love the writing of poems! But cod? hmmm. I can say that I completely understand the Swedes waiting in a line around the block for their beloved hams. I have felt that way so much, living abroad myself. There are just some things that will always mean "home"... and I've found you'll do nearly anything to get them!

    This warmed my heart. :)

  5. Oh Inger, this is so special. I love the idea of the poems that your Dad wrote and attached to each present. That's so very sweet and I'm sure it made things quite interesting... What an interesting and heartwarming post. The picture of your mom and dad is wonderful. How nice your Christmas' must have been. Thank you for sharing. Looking forward to Part 3.

  6. Louise: I enjoyed sharing this. And I don't think I much liked that fish either.

    JP: If it's red and you melt it with a candle and put a stamp on it, yes. I don't think I ever knew what it's called in English. So that's it then, thanks.

    texwisgirl: I'm with you on the herring preparation! No marriage for me for sure.

    Allison: You are so right, some things from home become so special when you move away.

    Bobbi: Yes, my childhood Christmases were wonderful. My Dad was great about Christmas and Vacations and made sure my brother and I had the best of times then. And I will never forget either.

  7. What lovely Christmas ornaments! The handmade ones seemed always the best to me too! Sealing wax on the gifts, what a wonderful way to keep little hands from messing with the packages before it was time! Had never heard about poems for Christmas, what a thoughtful and memorable thing to have at Christmas!

    I remember pickled herring, we always had it at my Grandmother's at Christmas, I liked it! The other - well, I really think I would pass on, a little of that ham, you bet!

    Good Post, Inger!

  8. I really enjoyed reading about your traditions Inger. When I was young and at home, we would always put up the tree on Christmas Eve and it was a family affair.
    Those ornaments are really cute.
    'Ling' is a variety of cod. We ate it all the time (fresh) in Vancouver.
    Thanks for sharing your memories....totally enjoyed them.

  9. Inger -- I'm so intrigued about your father writing poems -- do you have any that he wrote?

    Of course, I love the ornaments you shared. They are adorable. So special.

    Looking forward to part 3 of your Christmas memories. :)

  10. once again youmake me long for a festive family holiday

  11. Sharon: I agree that handmade ornaments have a lot of meaning throughout the years.

    Jim: Thanks for the ling info. Interesting that your family also put the tree up right before Christmas. I can't remember what they do in the UK.

    Nancy: Yes, I do have poems from both my parents. I have misplaced them and some photos, but I will find them soon.

  12. Hello Ingrid! I'm being plagued by problems with blogger this week and am still unable to write comments...I'm hoping that this one makes it to you...But I wanted to tell you that I've so enjoyed reading your posts! I really love and enjoy traditions, and your Christmas is certainly steeped in that!! I can't wait for the next post!! Thank-you for sharing this part of you with all of us--I hope you are doing well!!

  13. I did some growing up in North Dakota where there was a large Norwegian influence. I remember the Lutfisk, but did not like it! I enjoyed the Lefse more. Wonderful that your father wrote poems on the gifts. What a fun tradition.

  14. this is such a beautiful post! there's so many things to comment on, it's hard. you have a wonderful collection of ornaments and it sounds like they all have stories and memories attached to them. i loved the comment that the trees used to have real candles. wow! it really seems like your family took time and deliberation for this time of year (writing poems, etc) and that's a good thing to look toward. i think our "season" is so commercialized that largely people can't slow down to experience it. thank you for such a great post and good reminder.

  15. Beautiful post, loved reading about your childhood. Those tree decorations are wonderful. xxx

  16. Kim: I've run into those problems occasionally too. I'm so glad you have enjoyed my recent posts.

    Farmchick: Lefse -- is that a bread? I didn't like the lutfisk either. A strange tradition.

    Hopeful: Thank you so much for this long comment. It means a lot to me to hear back from my friends.

    Tracey: I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

  17. I enjoyed this and loved seeing the old photo of your parents on Christmas Eve. So nice.

  18. upupaepops: I used to make my own holidays when I lived by myself. In the Swedish tradition and enjoyed myself a lot. But then I guess I am a hermit at heart.

    Sandy: Thank you, I think it is the best one I have of them.

  19. A wonderful post! Love the Christmas poems. We do something similar on our family gifts -- silly punning clues as to what the gift is.

  20. Wow Inger, I love the post. Great pictures of your ornaments. Isn't it funny what you keep in your memories? I can remenber some of my gifts as a child but not the tree. How weird is that?

  21. Thank you so much, Inger. I enjoyed this glimpse into your Christmas past. 25 ways to make herring! Oh my! And writing poems is lovely.

  22. A beautiful post about your treasured memories. The picture of your parents wrapping presents is precious.

  23. Thanks for the warm Christmas memories - I had forgotten how beautiful Swedish Christmas 'trimmings' can be. I have a few, but will need to begin to collect more. Perhaps I should take a trip to Sweden for that, eh?!
    My mother always made creamed herring, Swedish meatballs in rich, creamy gravy and yes, we had ham, too. But, I don't recall that it was any special type.
    Yup, I think we'll resume Christmas Eve, Swedish version...maybe next year. Sigh...

  24. Hey Inger - I just got caught up with your blog. OMG: I remember ludefisk, lefse & pickled herring at every Christmas! I loved the pickled herring but I didn't like either the ludefisk or lefse. I believe lefse is made from potatoes. It is very thin (like a super thin tortilla) & you wrap it with usually butter & sugar inside. That was the Norwegian side of my family (my mom's relatives). Then, my dad's side (the Finns) would make cabbage rolls & Finnish flat bread. The cabbage rolls are okay but I loved the flat bread. It was very dense & really tasty with my grandma's homemade strawberry jam. It is fun to reminisce about all of the goodies from family get-togethers in the past!

  25. Oh another wonderful post!!! I so enjoy reading about traditions...and it means a lot to me because my grandparents came from Sweden...and I have no clue about Swedish tradition, food, or anything as beautiful as what you write. So thank you!
    My favorite is that knitted Santa:))


Thanks for leaving a comment.. ~~ Inger


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