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A SWEDISH CHRISTMAS 

ON LONG ISLAND

 

 

Our house lay an hour and a half by car from New York City, a long one-story white structure hidden for much of the year by foliage from the tidy lawns and ranch and colonial-style homes of the street above. Its light, spacious living room had a large fireplace open to three sides and large windows lined with rubber, hibiscus, and bromeliad plants that my mother found next to curbside garbage cans and nurtured into lavish growth. Like the windows, the teak door in the main entrance hall across from the fireplace had been shipped over from Sweden on one of the ore carriers on which my father had once worked. A few days before the day of Saint Lucia on December 13, my mother filled a Swedish stoneware pot by the door with birch branches hung with hand-crocheted red hearts. She then placed an electric candelabra with seven white candles in the living room and hung a brass star in the kitchen window.

          

By early December, the homes of our neighbors announced the approach of Christmas with strands of colorful lights on rooftops and trees and the occasional plastic Santa, snowman, or reindeer on the lawn. In the rapidly changing suburban landscape of north-central Long Island in the 1960s and 70s, subdivisions of new homes mingled with peach groves and dairy farms, and oak and beech forests that neighborhood children called haunted and entered only on a dare. As the construction of the Long Island Expressway crept eastward, growing numbers of second- and third-generation Irish and Italian families moved out from New York City. The road along the southern edge of our town gradually began to string together small communities into a sprawling landscape of hastily erected houses, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and strip malls with blazing neon signs.

         

That landscape had little equivalent in the Sweden of my childhood. Sweden was a small, sparsely settled country of deep forests and compact towns and cities with tightly clustered homes and cores of old buildings, cobblestone plazas, and storefronts with small boxy signs. Larger cities such as Gothenburg were ringed by smaller cities, and beyond the city borders forests, fields, and pastures quickly took over. As the darkness of the northern winter descended, Swedes marked the approach of Christmas by placing an electrical star in their windows and candelabras with white lights on their sills. They celebrated the holiday on Christmas Eve and rarely put up a tree until a day or two before.

         

Nearly every afternoon in December, I returned home from school to an oven-warmed kitchen and the sight of my mother’s Swedish cookbook open on the counter, its binding sealed in brittle yellowing tape. Sju Sorters Kakor, Seven Kinds of Cookies, the title of the small plaid-orange book referred to the number of different kinds of cookies served at a coffee gathering by a proper Swedish hostess. My mother engaged in far more extensive holiday preparations on Long Island than when my family lived in Sweden, where we celebrated Christmas in the homes of relatives and stores sold traditional condiments and cookies. Day after day, I came up the kitchen steps to find her pulling gingerbread or jam cookies, saffron buns, pastry rings, or cake bottoms out of the oven, her shoulder-length brown hair pinned back into a clip.

         

At the sight of Camilla and me, my mother took off her apron, put on a pot of coffee, and placed a plate of cookies on the table. Camilla and I savored our snack while catching her up on our day, then wandered off in search of spoons and ladles to lick while she refilled her cup and finished a letter to a relative or leafed through the holiday edition of a Swedish magazine. The magazines arrived in packages from my grandmother, along with chocolates, cheeses, clippings from my mother’s hometown newspaper, and mittens for Camilla and me. More packages, letters, and cards arrived for my father’s, mother’s, and my birthdays, all of which fell in the weeks before Christmas. Telephone calls to Sweden remained too expensive for my parents to speak with their relatives for more than a few minutes over a static-filled line on special occasions. Often when my mother hung up the phone, refolded a letter from my grandmother, or interrupted her own letter writing to gaze into the woods out the kitchen window, I saw her eyes moisten with tears. Absence and longing laced the anticipation of our holiday season on Long Island.

         

Our Christmas baking always began in earnest with the making of a gingerbread house and cookies. While my mother filled two tins with thin cookies in the shapes of hearts, circles, and pigs, the latter a traditional holiday symbol in Sweden, my sister and I made Christmas trees, Santas, and reindeers from thicker dough. Together, the three of us then assembled the gingerbread house and squeezed white icing from plastic bags to decorate the roof with rows of dime-sized circles and create draping icicles from the eaves, wavy ledges atop the chimney and fences, and delicate white hearts on the shutters and door. The finished house was stood on a tray covered in white cotton batting on a hutch in the living room. Later that evening, my father placed a red electrical bulb inside the house and Camilla and I sat on the floor positioning red woolen gnomes against the outhouse and fences. Every evening until we began to eat of the house on New Year’s Eve, the small door stood ajar with a frosted white heart of welcome and the windows shone with the enchanted glow of home.

 

 

A bronze bell hung from a hook in our living room, the capital letters M/S Aurivaara etched by a light hand around its upper waist. A major iron ore exporter, Sweden had once commanded the world’s largest ore fleet and my parents had first crossed the Atlantic together on the Aurivaara, a cargo ship owned by the shipping line for which my father had worked. The ship had unloaded ore in Glascow before crossing the Atlantic to pick up coal in Newport News, Virginia, where it arrived after three weeks at sea to the display of fireworks over the harbor on New Year’s Eve. Delighted to have my father and his wife aboard as his only non-crew passengers, the captain had asked his machinists to turn a spare propeller shaft into a bell as a Christmas gift for my parents, a replica of the bell used to call the ship’s crew to meals. Year after year on Long Island the bell hung by the fireplace in our living room, gleaming with the flickers of dancing flames and hopes of early Atlantic crossings.

         

Paths made by padding children’s feet ran through the wooded hollow behind our home, connecting the backyards of the neighborhood. After coming home from school, children changed clothes and hollered through the woods to see who wanted to play and then ran back and forth between each others’ houses until dinnertime. To call my sister and me home for dinner, my mother took the Aurivaara’s bell off its hook and rang it in three sequences of three rings each from the patio. The bell had been made to carry over ocean winds and waves and, even if faintly, reached its rings into the dens of homes around our wooded hollow.  

         

My friend Beth lived on the other side of the woods and attended second grade with me. A pale-faced girl with hazel eyes and dark hair, Beth laughed and screamed while playing hide-and-seek and excitedly shouted “look what I can do” while hula hooping and jumping rope. The two of us often watched television in her den after school, between us on the sofa a bag of potato chips that she grabbed from the kitchen along with cans of soda. The kitchen cupboards in Beth’s home also held boxes of Crackers Jacks, colorful cereals, white Wonder Bread, artificial cake frostings, and other food items that my mother considered too unhealthy to buy. In Beth’s and other neighborhood homes, the televisions ran nearly nonstop, a large one in the living room or den and a smaller one in the master bedroom or kitchen. 

         

Sweden in the early seventies had two television channels, both commercial-free and broadcasting mainly in the late afternoon and evening. My mother insisted that Camilla and I spend our free time outdoors or engaged in small drawing, crocheting, or woodworking projects and rarely let us watch anything on television other than a nature documentary or children’s holiday special. Nor was I allowed to drink soda or eat chips other than on special occasions and Saturday evenings, when my family gathered around the coffee table in the living room for fruits, soda, chocolates, and a few other small treats. The Flintstones, Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, and as Beth and I grew older, Green Acres, I Love Lucy, and M*A*S*H, I considered watching television a treat and didn’t have a preference between the shows.

         

Like their Swedish relatives, my parents valued etiquette, order, and restraint. They didn’t tolerate dust, rust, flaking paint, wrinkled clothes, or messy closets and taught Camilla and me to shake hands with grownups firmly, but not too firmly, while curtsying deeply, but not too deeply, and to stand silently with straight backs behind our chairs at a table until invited by our hostess to sit. If I raised my voice or laughed loudly, showed too much excitement or will, or in other ways drew attention to myself, they quickly told me to calm down. When visiting my house on weekends, Beth and other neighborhood children accepted an invitation from my mother to stay for lunch by saying “are you sure it’s okay?” and, on hearing an affirmative response, asking to borrow the telephone to check with their mothers. When invited to stay for lunch at their houses, I equivocated or said “no thank you” until their mothers managed to restate the offer three times, at which point Swedish custom deemed it respectable to accept. 

         

I marveled at how readily Beth asserted her existence and delight and envied what I took for the more casual atmosphere of her home, my friend’s greater freedom to whoop and holler and decide for herself whether to watch television and eat chips, and the regular visits to McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants that she and other neighborhood children engaged in with their families. My parents bought Camilla and me books on George Washington and the thirteen colonies and on school breaks took us camping to see Niagara Falls, the Everglades, Philadelphia, the Grand Canyon, and California. They wanted us to learn about the United States. But they made it clear that we shouldn’t take after the ways of our neighborhood friends. 

         

At least once in December, my family visited a shopping mall that lay half an hour from our home to buy a few shirts and other clothing items that Camilla and I would receive as Christmas gifts. Before leaving home, Camilla and I changed out of our play clothes and combed our hair into ribbons. My father put on an ironed shirt and pressed trousers and my mother a woolen skirt and cotton turtleneck, soft-soled walking shoes, and a pale coat of lipstick, the only makeup she wore other than nail polish on her toes in summer. As we walked between stores, we passed families milling about eating soft pretzels and sipping sodas. Some men wore faded jeans, sneakers, and brass belt buckles with their first names in large letters, and some women wore fake eyelashes and fingernails and shoes with spike-like heels. Though many kids were well-behaved, others shouted and ran. The easygoing atmosphere of the mall intrigued me. On a much larger scale than I experienced in the neighborhood, it suggested the existence of entirely different standards for evaluating peoples’ conduct and worth than those found in my own home.

         

Being Swedish, I implicitly understood, mainly meant to adhere to certain values involving concrete choices for how to eat, speak, spend one’s leisure time, and behave. Though my parents also had a few American friends, they drew their closest friends on Long Island from among other Scandinavians: a Swedish colleague of my father’s and his wife, a retired Swedish couple, the Norwegian family of a carpenter who had worked on our house. When my family got together with these Scandinavian friends, I often heard the grownups comment critically on attitudes and behaviors they found hard to understand in “the American.” No Swede or Scandinavian, they would conclude, would dress, speak, think, or behave in a similar way. 

 

The differences that I observed between my own and other neighborhood families could have partly stemmed from differences in social class, general life experiences and aspirations, and the varied aesthetics and opportunities afforded by old European cities and young American suburbs. Instead, I largely took them for differences between Americans and Swedes. My parents, I would eventually realize, held more nuanced attitudes than I could take in as a child toward not only Americans but also Swedes. Yet I understood that to want to belong, as I yearned to, to the society around me on Long Island would betray their hopes for me. 

 

My family occasionally celebrated Christmas Eve with our Scandinavian friends, but more often we celebrated alone and saw our friends on December 26, also a holiday in Sweden and Norway. Our family celebration began around mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, when we gathered in front of the fireplace for cups of mulled wine or glögg and gingerbread cookies, my mother, sister, and I wearing our finest dresses and my father a three-piece suit. Decorated the day before, our tree bore cream-colored lights in the shapes of upright candles, strands of silver tassel, red and white silk balls, straw stars, dancing figures, and pigs, and braided paper hearts filled with hazelnuts. Small gnomes in wood and wool sat on chests and shelves throughout the house and a tall, crown-shaped candleholder stood on an elegant green cloth in the middle of the dining room table. A popular holiday accent in Sweden, the iron crown had first been made in the 1800s by a blacksmith in Toarps parish near my mother’s hometown of Borås and had seven candles and spikes with dangling sheep shears and wooden figurines in folk dress.

         

Once the candles had been lit, the four of us proceeded into the kitchen to fill our plates from the julbord or holiday table. The table’s festive red cloth brimmed with platters of meatballs, potato sausage, and ham, a cold beet and herring salad decorated with fine rows of finely chopped egg whites, yellows, and parsley, an anchovy and potato casserole, and assorted pickled herrings and condiments. Brass angels played horns and struck cymbals with dangling sticks in the heat of the flames on a candle chime on the counter. By the time we sat down at the dining room table, dusk had begun to fall outside. Our mostly Catholic neighbors instead celebrated the holiday on Christmas Day. I looked out the window at the lights of the homes visible between the bare trees and pictured Beth and my other friends slouched in play clothes in front of their televisions. A sense of smallness crept into the expectancy of the evening, the knowledge that my family alone in the neighborhood celebrated our year’s most festive day.  

         

Before long, the conversation around the table turned to plans for the holiday break, which usually included a trip into New York City to see the tree in Times Square and our Swedish friends. Or it turned to the humorous stories that Camilla often recounted from her days in school or the neighborhood. While I had inherited my father’s thick wavy hair and quiet, tentative temperament, my sister had my mother’s straight hair and energetic, extraverted personality. She excelled at stories in which she and her friends appeared as clumsy characters in one small drama after another: the escape of the class hamster from its cage, repeated fumbles that caused her team to lose in gym class, sinking of the plastic boat in which she and her friends paddled around the sump up the road. “Oh, I can just picture it!” my mother would say and laugh. My father and I mostly chuckled. 

         

Yet with only the four of us, sustaining a festive mood around the table seemed to require an unspoken agreement, and we also ate through long silences. Eventually, my mother would ask Camilla and me what we thought tomten would bring. Camilla and I briefly tried to guess what Santa would bring and eventually my father said that he was looking forward to reading the holiday cards that had arrived from our relatives and friends in Sweden. The cards remained unopened until we read them out loud while eating cake after unwrapping our presents. 

         

“It’s not a real Christmas again, not without relatives,” my mother slowly shook her head and said, gazing absently down at her plate as her eyes filled with tears. Then she abruptly rose and slumped through the swinging door into the kitchen, saying that she needed to reheat the broth in which we dipped slices of spiced holiday bread before our second trip to the julbord. I watched her disappear in helpless silence. No amount of Swedish tradition, nor any lovingly adorned real or gingerbread house, could make up for the absence of the relatives whose laughter would have surrounded us as generously as good food in Sweden. Nor, I sensed, could the presence of my father, sister, or me. The family and home for which my mother longed remained an ocean away.

         

Two hours later, after washing the dinner dishes, my father disappeared with the garbage down the kitchen steps into the garage. As Camilla and I put away the last of the dried dishes, my mother began to speak of hearing distant bells and before long Santa knocked on the front door bearing a burlap sack of gifts, which he proceeded to distribute from the hearth before quickly taking leave. My father soon returned up the kitchen steps, his red Santa suit, black boots, and mask with rosy cheeks and a white beard stowed away for another year. Together we spent the next hour taking turns opening our gifts. 

         

Later that evening my mother set the table with platters of pastry, roll cake, and assorted cookies, and a traditional holiday cake layered with raspberry jam, vanilla sauce, and whipped cream and decorated with green marzipan and thimble-sized homemade pink marzipan pigs and red gnomes. Once the cake had been cleared and the rice porridge placed to simmer on the stove, my father pulled the Christmas tree onto the open floor of the living room and my mother put on a record of Swedish dance songs. My family only played the record on Christmas Eve, but Swedes danced to many of the same songs around the maypole on Midsummer’s Eve and Camilla and I knew the movements to the lyrics.

         

Slowly the four of us walked with joined hands in a ring around the tree, swinging our arms to the rhythm of the music. As the pace of the music picked up, we began to release and rejoin hands, curtsy and bow, and play imaginary flutes and fiddles into the air. Soon we started to skip in a small winding chain and to twirl and march as we made our way around the living room, past the Aurivaara’s bell into the kitchen, and back through the swinging door and around the fireplace to the tree. 

         

In my memory, lightness and relief swept across our faces. My mother had a refrigerator full of leftovers, my father holiday cards to reread from relatives and family friends, and my sister and I new clothes, books, and toys. Weeks of anticipation tinged with longing lay behind us. When the music finally stopped, we briefly lingered around the tree with joined hands. I looked at the gingerbread house on its hutch. Its roof had begun to sag in the center, but through its open door and windows the light still shone with the enchanted glow of home.

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