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. 


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