The Legendary Swedish Christmas Parties of My Youth

My mom had friends who wanted their sons to marry me so they could get an invite to our Swedish family Christmas parties.  When I was a kid, they were THE family party to look forward to every year.  My paternal grandmother had  a dozen siblings, and while not all of them were in the Chicago area (or even in the United States- or alive), most were at least within driving distance.  They rotated whose home hosted the dysfunctional chaos, er…uh, party. In those days, it wasn’t a potluck- the hostess did all of the cooking.  That in itself was a major undertaking. Add 50-60 people in various ages and stages of sobriety to the mix, and it was a big deal!  I loved it!   One year, dad was anxious about driving in the bad weather… he’d heard about some folks who had skidded off of the highway (not the bazillion who got through).  Mom and I started bawling.  Dad ended up taking the plunge, probably wanting to risk ending up in a ditch vs. dealing with being blamed for ruining Christmas that year.  We got there and home just fine.

My dad’s parents both came over on a boat from Sweden in the early 1920’s.  They were on separate trips, but left from the same place in Sweden (Goteborg), and on the same ship (Drottningholm), though different years. Grandpa thought that anything was a party; he had a great time en route to a whole new life in America ( and later, just mowing the lawn). Grandma wasn’t as fortunate on the trip. Her many siblings were of some comfort, but at Ellis Island, they ‘lost’ one of their sisters in the fray and later found her at the hospital on Ellis Island.  She later was taken back to Sweden for medical reasons, and died as a young adult. On the train from NYC to Chicago, somebody (not family) slit their own throat in the train bathroom and they had to watch blood flow down the aisle of the train.  They were young- some just kids.  And they were terrified. Nobody spoke English. But they all brought their ethnic cooking and holiday customs with them.  All of the various great aunts and uncles, and assorted cousins of parents, second cousins, first cousins once removed, and so on all reaped the benefits of those celebrations.

The Christmas Eve celebrations began in late afternoon at someone’s home.  The women of the generation that came over on the boats were generally involved in helping with the final cooking and food prep, and getting the table filled with food that was served buffet (or smorgasbord) style.  The ‘middle’ generation (those born in the United States to those who came over on the boats) were busy getting caught up on the year’s events….and drinking glögg (more on that in a minute). The youngest generation were running amok. There were basically two ‘sets’ of ages to this third group. I was in the  younger group.  The older group was 3-12 years older than I was (give or take a couple of years).  We just had fun and enjoyed seeing each other.

 

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Christmas Eve 1932…. my dad was about 4 months old.

Before getting to that smorgasbord, there was a tradition of making a sort of semi-sedate conga line, everyone holding the waist of the person ahead of them, and making a chain throughout the house, moving to the song ‘Nu År Det Jul Igen’ (It’s Christmas Time Again).  It was mandatory. Only one person really knew the words to the whole song (one of grandma’s sister-in-laws), and the rest of us mostly mumbled to the tune.  It is a catchy little number!  If anybody has seen the movie ‘Fannie and Alexander’, it’s in there. And the song itself is  on YouTube.

The smorgasbord  was a precursor to the high protein diet craze. Most carbohydrates had a rough time getting on that table. There was always ham (and for the host family, ham for days in various incarnations), Bondost (Swedish farmer cheese with caraway seeds), ‘korv’ (pork and potato boiled sausage), pickled herring, sylta (think ground veal jello- not my favorite), Swedish meatballs (a very special recipe that I still make),  lingonberries (tiny Swedish cranberry-like fruit), and the other permitted carbs: hardtack (thick rye cracker) and limpa (Swedish rye bread), some baked brown beans that are like ‘regular’ baked beans (I hated them, and still do), a green lime and pear jello mold (another ‘I’ll pass’ item), and boiled potatoes. Must have boiled potatoes.  Carbohydrates were more like condiments than a food group for the holiday dinner…except for the cookies later in the evening.  It was an amazing meal that I looked forward to every year.

At midnight, lutefisk was served (with more boiled potatoes, a cream sauce, and nutmeg).  There are many jokes about lutefisk, and for good reason.  It’s cod that has been soaked in lye, and then dried (to preserve it back in the days before refrigeration or freezers for long journeys on ships, or just because; during the winter, living near the Arctic Circle made for some iffy fishing opportunities). Lye is the same stuff used to make soap, oven cleaners, and drain opener. The fish had to be rinsed in water for days (water changed daily) to be sure it didn’t create an opening between the esophagus and neck when someone ate it as the lye ate through the person.  Sounds yummy, eh?  It was/is so popular in Scandanavian circles that it is sold in plastic bags, packed in some of that final stage of rinse water, ready to heat and eat!  Once boiled, the texture is similar to gelatinized rubber bands. With fish flavor. Strong fish flavor. Are you hungry now?   I haven’t had the stuff for decades, but I did eat it as a kid.  Those who have read some of my other posts know that my food intake was very restricted when I was a kid; I’d eat just about anything when I was turned loose at the Christmas party. Except the cloyingly sweet baked beans, and that green jello mold. Not going near those.  Had to save room for cookies 🙂

For those who don’t know about glögg, it is a mixture of brandy, port wine, some ‘warm’ spices, orange rind, almonds (had to have one in the bottom of each cup, or some horrible Scandinavian evils would find their way to the unlucky imbiber) and Everclear…or basically the kerosene of drinkable alcohol. To make it so that it wasn’t a form of euthanasia, it had to be ignited to burn off some of the alcohol.  That just meant that more was consumed.  There were some bonafide alcoholics in this family.  For the most part, they just got rowdy and loved everything ! I don’t remember any mean drunks… and for a long time I didn’t even realize why Santa didn’t show up until 2-3 a.m..  One of the first generation had to sober up enough to dole out the presents in a Santa suit, and it had to be one of the older generation, as the middle generation had kids who would miss a parent during the gift opening.  Us kids would be dozing off, and jerking ourselves awake when we realized that we were still waiting for Santa to show up. They were long nights ! But the sort of dysfunction that made for amazing memories 🙂

The glögg did have some unpleasant effects; one year a neighbor of the host and hostess knocked on the door to inquire as to the identity of the person who was face planted in the snow pile out front, with his arse in the air…my dad and one of his cousins went and fished out Cousin B from the pile of snow in the front yard… Good times !

Eventually, someone would come stumbling down the stairs shouting ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and laughing in a jolly manner. All of us kids would suddenly perk up.  Often, someone was walking closely with ‘Claus, and I now wonder if it was for stability should ‘Claus start having trouble with his balance and gravity.  To me, it was the start of an amazing thing. It fascinated me that whatever I flagged in the JCPenney Christmas toy catalog  at grandma and grandpa J’s house would show up from Santa !  (I was the only grandchild of my paternal grandparents).  Grandma seemed to have some direct connections to the North Pole. (And Grandma J never told Santa I needed socks or undies). Imagine 6 of us ‘younger’ kids and 4-5 (depending on the age cut-off) of the ‘older’ kids all opening gifts at one time, in their respective ‘groups’ of families. Gift wrap, bows, and boxes would be coming down blizzard style. It truly was a magical time, especially when we were younger.  Looking back at the old photos, it’s obvious who was stuffed into the Santa suit; as children, we were mesmerized to be in the presence of the ‘real’ Santa Claus.

Every year was fun. It was a holiday that was steeped in ethnic traditions that made it special, and unlike anything I’d see on TV or heard friends talk about. The real reason for the season was sprinkled into the evening at some point, but Jesus’ birth was not the main focus of the celebration.  My parents and I always celebrated church Christmas events, so I was very aware of the meaning of Christmas; the Swedish party was the heritage part of the season.  I loved those parties. We still have smaller versions of the old days, with family who is in town (or at least nearby), and some years, those who have moved away will join in. Now it’s a potluck, which makes it nice to be able to contribute, and not as horrible on the hostess.  I’ve been limited in actually being at the parties due to the heat intolerance with the dysautonomia, but with the ice vest I now have, I’ve at least been able to go to the last part of the evening  It’s much earlier in the evening  than it was when I was a kid, and the glögg is enjoyed in moderation (I can’t drink at all for medication reasons).  I make the meatballs to send with my dad- same recipe that we had at the old parties. The ‘dance’ before eating is still done.

It’s still a very special part of the holidays, and wonderful to remember the ‘old days’. So many are no longer alive, but thanks to those decades of  incredible family parties, they are still there in spirit.

Swedish Christmas Eve, and my cousin's last Christmas…

Swedish Christmas Eve, and my cousin’s last Christmas…

Edit:  Christmas Eve 2013 was bittersweet… while the old traditions were still there, and our heritage was celebrated in familiar ways, it was the last Christmas for one of my cousins, who had been battling cancer since the summer.  At Christmas, I was still hoping things would be OK eventually, but I was also concerned about some new things she told me about.  She lost her fierce battle on March 2, 2014.   Her mother (dad’s first cousin) died later in 2014.   She was the hostess of the Christmas Eve parties for many, many years.

And, in 2016… it will be much different this year without dad.   SO much family history was tied up in the Swedish Christmas Eve party…. and it will be missed.   I’m so thankful for the incredible memories.  ❤

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5 thoughts on “The Legendary Swedish Christmas Parties of My Youth

  1. I loved reading about the huge three generation parties. They were very much a part of my youth too! For us, it was not Christmas, but the Chinese New Year. The ladies would be cooking, the men playing cards and drinking, and the children all over the place.

  2. That is SUCH a wonderful story Jill (apart from the very sad tale on the train). I don’t have happy Christmas memories (I must write about them sometime) but I loved your tales of Swedish high jinks and gloog?! BTW over here in the UK you can get a lot of those Swedish foods in Ikea now! xx

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