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Christmas memories

18 Dec
18 December 2017
It’s been fully seven years since we last spent Christmas in our own home in the U.S. As I decorated the house, purchased gifts, and wrapped the presents, I have been reflecting on prior Christmases from when I was a child, from young adulthood, and over the 33 Christmases that Ric and I have been together.

My first Christmas, 1953, pictured with my big brother, Rick, and our dachshund, Peter, at Grandma & Grandpa’s house.

My earliest memories of Christmas are from about 1957 or 1958. Before that, I have only photos to tell me a little about our holidays.  What I do remember vividly: tangerines in the toes of our stockings (whoever thought that was what a kid wanted to find?); a flocked tree with silver & gold decorations (very modern! 1960?); tinsel on Grandma’s tree; an eggnog and cookie sugar high on Christmas morning while we opened presents; my parents’ insane tradition of inviting a few dozen friends and neighbors for a Christmas Day breakfast buffet of Swedish pancakes and sausage. I am certain my mother hated that stress and workload, but Dad was a real entertainer. Perhaps one reason their marriage failed eventually.

Also from 1953, my first visit to Santa at about age 10 months with brother Rick.

Swedish traditions ran through our celebrations. Our grandparents were all born in Sweden so their foods were the building blocks of the Christmas Eve feast. Swedish sausage, rutmus (a questionable concoction of rutabagas and mashed potatoes), sometimes the vile lutefisk, always limpa rye bread. And those lovely, delicate Swedish pancakes along with julekaka on Christmas morning.
My mother used to make dozens of complicated and delicate cookies every year. Several nights during the season she would come home from work and spend hours over such delicacies as sandbakkelse, pepparkakor, krumkake, rosettes, fattigman, and spritz, as well as Mexican Wedding cookies. All were stored in boxes in the hall closet which we dared not touch without permission. They were for Christmas, not before! We were only allowed to eat the broken and less-than-perfect specimens.

Classic family picture, probably for the Christmas card, in 1964. Brother Rick, sister Nancy, and me. And another flocked tree!

I cannot make many of these cookies. I never mastered the delicate touch required for Sandbakkelse or pepparkakor and my spritz took on demented forms although I can turn out a decent krumkake. Mom would be appalled to find that IKEA sells a pepparkakor to rival hers, albeit without the tiny almond slivers.
For many years I made limpa and julekaka but that has faded away except for the odd year I make these breads as house gifts. (Invite me over and I just might bless you with one!)
Some years our decorations were extensive and some not. Once I wrapped several large framed pieces of art with Christmas red foil wrap and white ribbon. One year I used fabric as gift wrap. My Martha Stewart moments. By contrast, when we were waiting for our house to be built, living in a temporary apartment with three cats and a gigantic collie, all of our Christmas stuff was in storage as our house was supposed to be ready by early December. Apartment bound, we had an evergreen in a pot on our patio that we strung with lights and a single red candle on the mantle.

That’s me, front-and-center, with the 1970 Santa Lucia candidates at out Swedish Lutheran church, Gustavus Adolphus.

For many years there was a nativity, but eventually, so few pieces remained unbroken it was discarded. When Derek was little he liked to hang “Herk” on the roof of the manger shed. You know, “Herk, the herald angel” from the carol.
The church was a big part of the holidays until we became rather “unchurched” (Lapsed Lutheran here). 11:00 pm services on Christmas Eve, Sunday School pageants, choir concerts, and Advent wreaths. In 1970 I was a candidate for the Lucia Queen at our Swedish Lutheran Church in St. Paul. Didn’t get crowned, though. Mom said, “They gave it to the rich girl.”
Many holiday seasons were spent working in retail, which can ruin Christmas for you if you aren’t careful. My high school and college jobs were in retail but luckily back then stores were not open extended hours like today. We still closed at 21:00 and Sundays were Noon-17:00. When Ric and I had a retail store, it was so overwhelming at Christmas that I barely remember having a tree one year.

Derek, 1977. So sweet!

Then there was the year we almost killed Mom. Our mother worked hard as a nurse for 44 years. Often she was stuck working Christmas Eve or Day. One year she was quite unhappy because my brother and his wife were not going to be able to travel to St. Paul for the holiday. After work on Christmas Eve, she was invited to my house after so she could be a guest and not the hostess. She came in from the cold Minnesota evening, her glasses fogging up, and much to her surprise my brother bellowed out “Merry Christmas.” She dropped everything she had in her hands and burst into tears. I thought she was going to keel over from the surprise. That was a good Christmas.
Our entire family lived in Minnesota when I was a child and young adult but eventually dispersed as careers and marriages took my siblings, cousins, and me to other states. Inevitably we would forget who-was-where for what holiday. My mom and I would argue about where we were the prior Christmas or Thanksgiving, and we would forget who-gave-what-to-whom as a gift. In order to stop the arguments short in 1980 I started keeping a holiday journal with all the relevant details. Many years I have whipped out that journal to solve a dispute or remind myself what had happened.
As youngsters and up until I was 30, we always gathered with our maternal cousins for the big holidays. Some years there were 15-20 people and no one had a very big house. Everyone brought part of the dinner so no one had to do everything. I remember a lot of fun, warm, wonderful gatherings as our cousins were practically siblings to us.

Ric’s sister and her family invaded Omaha for the holiday in 1985. We still talk about how much fun we had!

In the 33 years Ric and I have been together the cast of characters at the table have changed. Parents and my sister have passed away, cousins live far away. Our Oregon years have seen gatherings of friends and neighbors as well as a few holidays we spent alone by choice at the coast.
Our time in Rome was a huge change. We often traveled over Christmas enjoying winter wandern in the mountains or holiday lights in Paris and London. Last year we were freeloading at Derek’s while house hunting but enjoyed a traditional holiday in Durango, CO, with my brother and sister-in-law. A very white and merry holiday indeed!

Christmas Eve 2008, >8 inches of snow kept everyone from leaving the ‘hood.

On the other hand, Christmas 2008 sticks in memory due to the horrific weather we endured for a week. Day-after-day it snowed, cars got stuck, the airport shut down, offices closed. Living at 750 feet above sea level, my car was frozen to the driveway for eight days. I spent six hours getting home from work via public transportation on the 23rd. Our friends could not get to us for Christmas festivities and our neighbors could not leave the ‘hood. We pooled our resources, with Scott bringing 2 magnums of fine Australian Syrah while Ric, Derek, and I cooked a beef short-rib dinner. The weather was awful and inconvenient but we relish the memories of that holiday.
Bone-chilling cold is also a memory of Minnesota Christmases. For several years I held an open house on the Sunday before Christmas and I remember one year that it was so cold that when we got home from church that morning the toilets did not function. I am not certain how I got them working. Luck, I guess, because the party went on. One year I got drunk on Swedish glogg at my own open house. Heating it up does not really kill the alcohol. My sister poured me into bed and did all the cleanup.

Santa takes his dinner break at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milano in 2015.

Bless all of you who plan ahead and send out hand-addressed Christmas cards every year. It is a tradition that I have let slip completely. I have embraced e-cards, which I know do not offer the same personal connection. I remember my mom, when not laboring over her cookie hoard, spending evenings sitting at a card table in the living room writing notes in cards, addressing them by hand, and carefully recording in her book who she had sent a card to and who she received them from. If she did not get a card from someone for two-or-three years, she dropped them from her list. Does anyone do that anymore? Track the giving and receiving of cards?

Ric and I at a mountain rifugio above Italy’s Val Gardena for Christmas Eve lunch.

Oh, so many more things come to mind as I write this! My Barbie Dream House from Santa in 1962; Going to our favorite Grandma’s on Orange Street in St. Paul with all of the cousins (how did we all fit in that tiny one-bathroom house?); Rushing home from church on Christmas Eve 1968 for the Apollo 8 moon orbit; Derek’s delight at receiving a rocking horse when he was a toddler; Traipsing around eastern Nebraska and western Iowa seeking a u-cut Christmas tree, finding none and ultimately buying one at the YMCA in Omaha; Pickled herring, sylta (headcheese), and Bond Öst for our Christmas Eve Swedish antipasto; Walking on an Oregon beach with frost on the sand; An Italian all-fish dinner on La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve) at Antica Taverna in Roma; Hiking across the Alpe di Siusi on Christmas Day.

 

Preparing lunch for Epiphany in our embassy-provided apartment in Rome. Epiphany is a BIG DEAL in Italy.

Most of all, I like to remember being surrounded by family and friends, whether as a little tyke in Minnesota, or all those years gathered ‘round the (various) tables we set in Portland. The traditions may change, the location too, but the Christmas feeling is there with the ones we love.
Merry Christmas everybody!

Our 2017 tree in our new home in Lincoln City. Our first big tree since 2010.

 

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16 Responses to “Christmas memories”

  1. jonnietootling December 22, 2017 at 08:59 #

    Oh what lovely memories. Well maybe not the part where you scared your Mom half-to-death, but the rest was endearing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laurel Barton-Girovaga.com December 22, 2017 at 11:29 #

      Yeah, well, we scared her in a good way. 🙂

      I am happy you liked it. The older I get the more precious those old pictures become.

      Like

  2. nigewelly December 19, 2017 at 11:36 #

    nice. I keep lists and so does my wife. The lists keep getting shorter. Sounds like your mother was a saint.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laurel Barton-Girovaga.com December 19, 2017 at 15:06 #

      Well maybe not a saint…but devoted to traditions and we always had a lovely Christmas. I know she worked VERY hard to do that as well as working hard at her job as a nurse.

      Like

  3. Kim Freed December 19, 2017 at 08:05 #

    I loved reading your story and especially the photos. So cute.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kathy December 18, 2017 at 23:02 #

    I enjoyed reading about your childhood Christmas memories and seeing the pictures. Many of my memories have faded, but one thing that was always a favorite of mine was my grandmother’s yeast rolls. I have thought so much about those over the years; but my aunt who took over the tradition of making them, told me she didn’t have a recipe. Finally, last Christmas, I was able to get the recipe from her. Unfortunately, my aunt passed away suddenly just three months later. I will forever cherish the memories of the Christmas dinners that we shared. I made the yeast rolls for Thanksgiving this year, and my grandson loved them! I look forward to passing down the recipe to him. Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laurel Barton-Girovaga.com December 19, 2017 at 06:16 #

      Thanks Kathy. Those old family recipes can really make memories come flooding back! My grandma made caramel rolls that we fought over. I am a cook, not a baker, so those are lost to history. Merry Christmas to you, too!

      Like

  5. Marcia December 18, 2017 at 19:55 #

    You made me laugh out loud because yes, I track sent and received Christmas cards BUT it doesn’t matter if I receive. I track but I don’t real care if I receive. Yep, all about me!

    I cried reading your Mom working so hard and arriving to your house on Christmas after her shift and bursting into tears. I’ve had a few of those myself as we didn’t close early in the past. I worked retail for a number of years while in college.

    Question… did you ever face the masses for Christmas at the Vatican?

    Merry Christmas to you, Ric and Janie. We would love to be with you.

    PS…I’ve had too much champagne on Christmas Eve and had to go to bed too! Mom was horrified!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laurel Barton-Girovaga.com December 18, 2017 at 20:01 #

      You know, I have never prepared nor drunk Glogg since that awful occurrence!

      We went to New Year’s Eve services at the Vatican twice: once with Pope Benedict and once with Papa Francesco. NY was less crazy than Christmas Eve. For the latter, you pretty much went to mass and did nothing else as people would need to line up at 7:30 or 8:00 pm in order to get in for seats for an 11:00 pm mass, even if they had a ticket!

      Hope you guys will think about visiting the cool Oregon Coast next summer. Merry Christmas to all of you!

      Like

  6. momentaryreverie December 18, 2017 at 19:23 #

    Enjoyed! My mom had a special book she used to keep track of Christmas card receipts!

    Like

  7. phoenixraay December 18, 2017 at 19:10 #

    beautifully written xx

    Like

  8. Chloe December 18, 2017 at 19:02 #

    Thank you for sharing. Your letter/blog brought back many memories. The only one that I will share concerns our first Christmas after we were married. We lived in Norfolk, where my husband was a marine. We bought a tree, which I am convinced was left over from the year before, as by the time Christmas arrived, there was not one needle left on it. Sadder than anything that Charlie Brown ever had. Have a Christmas day of joy and love and a New Year filled with fun and Adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laurel Barton-Girovaga.com December 18, 2017 at 19:56 #

      Chloe that is brilliant! I always hate the sound of the needles hitting the packages as I feel like the tree’s useful life is being counted out in each fall. So far so good with ours this year but then it was probably cut within 10 miles of here!

      Merry Christmas to you!

      Like

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