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An Essay on the Scandinavian Christmas

Among the papers and photographs I inherited from my grandparents was a spiral notebook that belonged to my great-grandmother, Emma Mohr. In it were a a number of short poems (I can’t say whether they’re original or transcribed), some personal snippets that would fit right in on a weblog, and the text of a couple speeches she made to various groups in which she was a member. The longest of these is titled “An Essay on the Scandinavian Christmas.” I thought it might be interesting to post the speech here, so I typed it in verbatim and present it for your enjoyment…

An Essay on the Scandinavian Christmas

compiled by my-self to be read for “The East Side Civic Groups” at their annual Christmas Party Dec 12th 1945

Madame President, Chairman, and members of the East-side Civic Association and Friends:

It gives me great pleasure to fulfill your request of telling you how “The Scandinavians” celebrate Christmas, such as I myself enjoyed 55 years ago in such surroundings. However, my story would not be complete without a little touch of prehistoric data of the Juletide also, from “The Pagan Times - The Book, Christmas Everywhere,” by Dr. J.O. Hall tells us that the celebration of the Juletide was practiced between “The Norsemen” long before they accepted the Christian religion. This heathen celebration was a feast, in honor of the sun when in January it seemed to renew its strength and overcame the power of darkness, by rising high enough on the firmament to spread its golden rays over the country. During the 2 weeks of festival only the most necessary work was to be done. Implements with wheels as wagons and the spinning wheels must rest. To let a wheel move was a sacriledge against “the holy sun” as it might indicate that they wanted the sun wheel to move faster. Fish, bird and beast must have perfect peace during the 2 week celebration of Jule. Therefore every trap and snare must be removed from the ocean and rivers.

When the Christian religion was introduced, Christmas was celebrated a couple weeks earlier than Jule and thenceforth heathen and Christian customs were mixed. All of the home must be thoroughly cleaned before Christmas and December 21st St. Thomas day usually concluded all cleanings. All the pretty ornaments for the table and tree were made by parents and children together the evenings preceding Christmas. Fathers and sons usually spent one evening to carefully shell a lot of walnuts most cautious to paste correct sides together again with little hangers and painted with silver and gold and shone pretty on the Christmas tree for our festival. Mother usually saved a sheet that had reached its maturity of purpose and cut little doll sheets and pillow cases, around which we crocheted colorful edges. Some of our favorite pals received such a layette as Christmas gifts from our mothers. From old woolen coats and blankets we usually made bedroom slippers for the whole family and laid them under the Jule tree.

An old spinster aunt whom we kiddies called rich because she still earned lots of money and brought us lovely gifts for the Juletide celebration, also was cared for with pretty crocheted slippers with real soles on, as our other homemade slippers did not seem to do justice to her. For our bachelor uncle, Daddy, and older brother, we usually made pretty ties from silk mother provided for us. Grandma always had a pair of newly knitted stockings for every member of the family laying under the tree. Father made cute violins from cigar boxes and always repaired all old toys for the younger folks.

I got no new dolly for Christmas instead a mended dolly with all new clothes for the occasion. At the grocer we kiddies negotiated for empty wooden candy pails, we decorated with scraps to be knitting containers for Mother and Granny. The boys would whittle a pretty piece of hardwood into a lovely pipe for dad and some neighbor [?] would polish and shelack same into perfection. Most of the many gifts under the tree were homemade but we dearly anticipated the opening of the many packages at that.

The last week before the holiday was usually spent in baking and cooking of many delicious dainties as The Scandinavians do not cook for about 12 days at Juletide. They eat their Christmas dinner on the eve of December 24th. On December 25th, they attend Church services in the morning and celebrate open house for visitors in the afternoon. All windows are lit with pretty candles in the early hours of the morning. Let me state here one of our lovely treats on [?] Dec. 23rd or little Christmas eve as we called same. On this eve we forgo a warm dinner and instead a frying skillet with little circular hollows came into the picture. A rich yeast dough was dropped by the spoonfuls in these heated hollows and quickly turned and a complete baked ball came out and was covered with powdered sugar. We had all our “tummies” could hold and “Oh Boy” how good. We had to have our bath on this night and early to bed, so the adults could trim the Christmas tree. There was an old tradition of witches riding down the chimneys on Christmas eve unless spruce logs had been sawed and burned in the fireplace all night. Father always said this custom was to warn the mothers to hide their brooms and quit working during the celebrations.

On December 24th, a large fat goose filled with apples and prunes was baking in the oven and sweet-sour steam fried Red Cabbage could be smelled all through the house. Instead of Cranberries the Scandinavians favor “The Lingen Berries” cooked in their own juice. [Y]ellow crisp cucumbers pickled in the fall with small pearl onions was the favorite pickle. A rice porridge cooked with milk sugar cinnamon and raisons was the favorite dessert and one blanched almond was placed in same, the son or daughter who got this almond was to be the first to marry. Many delicious delicacies filled the pantry shelves for the Christmas week. A dainty prepared cookie called “Danish Kleiners” and fried in deep grease usually filled a 5 gal. container, which we treated neighbors and friends with. Following the lovely Jule-night dinner, we all adjourned to the parlor and enjoyed the lighted tree and calling [?] our gifts. Hymn singing continues all of the week, and less fortunate neighbors or old deserted Grannies and grandpas was treated with our call and a basket of good eats and songs outside of their windows. About 2 centuries ago a little imaginary “Santa” in the form of a bearded dwarf called nisser or tomter roamed the hills and forests and were supposed to deliver the Juletide gifts: we read a lot of these elves in Norse mythology. One of their strict laws was, for all the spread sunshine and kindness to some less fortunate during the Christmas week. The scandinavians are most hospitable in this manner, and wishing peace and good will to all mankind, Christmas was a group of continuous celebrations and the tree was never removed until January 2nd. No wash days, [?] days or cleaning days were tolerated in the Jule week. It was customary for friends and neighbors to call on one another, at some time during this celebration to call and wish one another Merry Christmas. Although the religious rites are paramount in the Christmas celebrations, the spirit of kindness, one to another in making all kindred and friends happy at this great fete is most commendable among the scandinavians.

When I was 12 years old my husband’s family invited me to a children’s Christmas party. I knew I could only accept if I could prepare some tokens of affection for his many sisters. Well this was quite a problem, so I consulted with my Grandmother as to what I could do. She asked how much I had accumulated. I told her 14 pennies of which 2 were to be used for a pen I had seen at the school store for my husband or friend as he was then. My grannie bought some variegated crochet cotton for me and helped me make pretty fan doilies for each of these sisters and she furnished the baby ribbon they were trimmed with. When my husband was 18 years old he used this Christmas pen to write his gov. p.o. examination and when he succeeded, I was the first to be informed of same and of the pen he had used for the examination.

In Chicago for about 3 square miles is a regular scandinavian settlement around Humboldt Park area and their celebrations were almost duplicates of The Foreign Fetes. The merchants give gifts of their raisins and sweets to the children during the holidays and the eats and manners identical with overseas celebrations. The trimmings for Christmas all through the houses are most elaborate and yet display more toil than expense. The whole scandinavian Jule Festival would hardly cost more than your and my turkey today. As aforementioned, this was a Festival of 55 years ago and I am told the variations today are very slight.

You will pardon me, I know if I wish to be a child again just for tonight in my old scandinavian home at one of their Juletide Fetes.

—Mohr

Thank you and a most Merry Christmas to all of you.