Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I grew up in a 250-year-old haunted home with floorboards still stained from the blood of the Civil War soldiers treated in the field hospital. Halloween was a fantastically spooky time, but no one braved our long driveway to trick-or-treat, so the house didn’t see much action, other than the lingering ghosts. Fourth of July was fun because of fireworks. We’d buy the largest kit and play for hours with them. Easter was…with formal boxwood maze gardens, you can imagine what they were like for egg hunts. Thanksgiving was so cozy with the fires in all the fireplaces and loads and loads of family and friends until the place was bursting. The three of us daughters did much of the cooking while the two brothers got to watch the football game with the men. (yeah, it was that kind of southern household). I didn’t mind, though. The kitchen was cozy and warm and the conversation was stimulating, and getting the relish dish perfectly aligned with olives and stuffed celery was an art form.
Still, Christmas was the most magical of holidays.
The eldest child was 13 years older than me, the next eldest 7 years older than me, the next 6 years older than me, and the next 5 years older than me (mom was a busy little lady for three years there, in fact, my sisters were 11 months apart). We’d all hike out into the woods surrounding our property and find the perfect tree. This was never an easy task, as opinions vastly differed.
The middle child who liked to be the rebel and contrary to every convention (a girl whose favorite color was “clear”) insisted we get a “Charlie Brown” tree, the uglier the better. The younger of the two brothers was all boy and wanted the biggest bad-ass one. The eldest brother, given the task of bringing back said conquest, didn’t want to chop down and drag the biggest bad-ass one. The oldest sister wanted the prettiest, most symmetric and flawless tree, something worthy of a Norwegian princess’s holiday monument. Me? I wanted to ride on the eldest’s shoulders for the best view and to stay off the cold ground. I’d take any tree. I just wanted to smell pine and put my handmade ornaments on it.
My father was from Norway. He liked a Norwegian Christmas. It was pretty funny because mother was Scottish, so there would be a huge debate about which was better, the nasty Vikings that attacked her ancestors or the peaceful Highlanders, (at which time my father would point out how not-so-peaceful the Highlanders were and what equally good raiders they could be). The argument never resolved, but the Christmas always revolved around Norway and Sweden, as his father was Norwegian and his mother was from Swedish Lapland.
Basically, it meant that on Christmas Eve we would have a Smorgasbord with the foods of his homeland, pickled herring, sardines, flatbreads, smoked salmon with dill, rich man cookies, fish soup, and lord help us, Lutefisk. Mind you, Lutefisk is basically dried cod soaked in lye. No wonder the Vikings raided other countries (probably in search of decent food)!
My father was all things whimsy. He liked to dance around the room and sing Hawaiian songs (He did 20 years in the Asiatic Fleet of the Navy during WWII and Korean Wars with lots of time in Hawaii). He dreamed of buying a yacht and sailing us five kids around the world for a year, taking us out of school. At which time mother would remind him that she didn’t swim. (If you hadn’t noticed yet, mother was the anchor that kept us from floating away).
But, with five siblings and a father with a real lust for living, we all were gastronomic daredevils, highly competitive in eating the nastiest and spiciest foods and outdoing each other. We’d have sardine-eating contests and shelling and eating raw oysters, but when it came to Lutefisk, we’d stare in horror. I did break through the line at the smorgasbord one year and got myself a heaping of Lutefisk. Everyone stared aghast. I promptly dumped a quarter of a bottle of malt vinegar all over it. I choked it down and then, well spent the evening learning how all that lye can…clean your pipes.
I always said that father made us have Smorgasbord to give thanks to living in America and eating foods that weren’t preserved for a long winter’s shelf life.
Once the crazy meal was done, gifts were opened that evening. Only Santa’s gifts were under the tree in the morning, unwrapped. The five of us kids would pile into one bedroom on Christmas Eve night because no one trusted the others wouldn’t go and peak.
I’ve kept some of the traditions, like opening my gifts on Christmas Eve and making mother’s smoked salmon spread with flatbread and rich man’s cookies. I’ve added some others. I make a yule log on the solstice and a fire in the fireplace. When my son was little, he could barely wait to open the gifts that taunted him under the tree, so I put the stockings up on Thanksgiving weekend with wrapped gifts inside. Each Sunday from Thanksgiving to Christmas, he got to open one gift from the stocking. He’s 21 and I still make it him do it. He hems and haws, but then greedily tears it open.
Life changes and families grow up, but there’s something about the holiday time that makes everything standstill. We all watch the Grinch on TV, hear the same caroling songs piped overhead in the stores, write out old-fashioned snail-mail cards to update family and friends on our year’s events. For all the advances in fake trees with built in Christmas lights and inflatable king-sized Santas for the front lawn, some things just remain eternal thanks to stubborn traditions binding generations. It is the great equalizer when young and old are pining for the same things.
My gift to you this holiday season: I plan to give everyone whose blog I follow a comment about what I love about the blog and why I’m glad they write it. For those who follow me but don’t have a blog, I wish you a magical and cozy, safe holiday and thank you for coming here and reading my whimsy and being my anchor!
at 9:24 AM