December 22, 2011 Leave a comment
This week’s blog post comes from Ingrid Estell, our sales manager.
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In America, almost every family has holiday traditions and cultural celebrations. Fulcrum Publishing has a fascinating book, New Year’s to Kwanzaa: Original Stories of Celebration by Kendall Haven (ISBN 978-1-55591-962-7, 240 pages, $16.95) that showcases 30 celebrations observed by a variety of worldwide cultures found in the United States. Through each story, readers learn about the culture, customs, people, and places of the celebration. What better way to understand people throughout the world than to understand what and how they celebrate?
Recently, I had my own small cultural exchange with my elderly Swedish neighbor, Gunda Van der Mars. Before I begin, I must pass along the quick Swedish language and cultural lesson Gunda shared with me. God Jul means “Good Christmas” in Swedish and is the common greeting of the season. The Tomten (and I do mean the Tomten) is a character from Swedish folklore who is similar to Santa Claus, but unlike the single Santa who helps Americans celebrate Christmas, The Tomten is one among many Tomtar, plural of Tomte, mythical creatures, both large and small, that live in the Swedish countryside. The Jul Tomten is the most important Tomte of the year. Other Tomte are associated with other Swedish holidays and seasons.
On December 29, 1929, Gunda Van der Mars was born in Tallsjo, a small Swedish village just south of the Arctic Circle. She remembers the unending forest where her father and the other villagers worked as lumberjacks. In the winter, three or four feet of snow covered the ground for four months. She remarked, “My father made all eight of his children wooden skis. We cross-country skied to school through the winter.”
Gunda remembers the anticipation she felt before the Christmas holiday. “On Christmas Eve, my father would strap on his skis and take his children into the forest to look for the perfect tree. If the tree wasn’t perfect, once we had it home, he’d drill holes in the trunk and insert branches so a perfect inverted V was created. We decorated the tree with cookies, little apples, candles, and woven heart baskets. Sometimes we put little treats in the baskets and ate them on Christmas Day. We also put Swedish flags on the tree.” Once up and decorated, the tree was kept in the house for twenty days after Christmas.
“My father was handy,” Gunda said. “He built our house and made the chimney from bricks he made himself. He made a birch bark backpack to carry supplies when he was out in the woods. He sewed the bark together with juniper roots. Sometimes, he’d be gone all week in the woods and he’d take butter, bread, and other food with him. He even made a wooden butter dish to carry inside his pack. He made each of us children small packs too. In the fall, we’d all go berry picking for wild lingonberries and blueberries. We’d pick enough berries for the entire year and my mother would preserve them.” Gunda was handy herself; she learned to knit when she was six. In her words, “It was a necessity. We made almost everything we needed to live. I made socks and mittens for the family.”
In Sweden, children anxiously waited for The Jul Tomten to make his yearly visit. Gunda remembers sitting at the window, looking out into the Swedish winter night. She told me, “Some years, the moon would be full and I could see a long way down the road. The Northern Lights would move across the sky in sheets of color: green, blue, and yellow. The lights looked like brilliant ribbons in the cold air. The lake near the village would ‘boom and sing’ – deep groaning noises came from the ice when the Northern Lights shone. I could see the stars so clearly. In December, Sweden’s days were very short, but the nights were so bright that sometimes I could read by moonlight.” And, she could see The Jul Tomten making his way on the snow-covered road toward her house.
In her memory, a knock sounded on the door and The Tomten stepped in. Dressed in colorful clothes and wearing a red stocking cap on his head, he held a sack of packages in his arms. His rosy cheeks glistened from the cold and perhaps a little something else as he asked, “Are any good children here?”
Gunda’s mother replied in a loud voice, “Yes,” and packages were passed around. Gunda and her brothers and sisters were excited. A soft package was likely to be mittens or clothes—welcome, but expected. A hard package, on the other hand, could be something wonderful!
“When I was six,” said Gunda, “my aunt sent me a ‘hard package’ from Stockholm. It was exciting to get a package from Stockholm, our capital city. It seemed so far away especially as I hadn’t even seen a train or airplane yet. My aunt had moved to Stockholm years before and worked as a clothes designer and seamstress. She created and made costumes for the opera and theatre. She sometimes sent us ‘fancy’ stuff. That year, when I opened her gift, I found a set of doll furniture hand-painted with beautiful flowers. I carried that furniture with me for months.”
While Gunda and her brothers and sisters opened their gifts, The Tomten joined Gunda’s father in the other room. For many years, Gunda didn’t know why. Now, she knows that The Tomten, a villager named Oscar, was enjoying a cup of cheer: a cup of schnapps. She also knows her mother placed the sack of gifts outside the house for The Tomten to deliver. Every house that The Tomten visited shared a cup of cheer with him, so by the time he’d made his village rounds, Oscar was a very tipsy Tomten indeed! Some years, he finished his Tomten duties facedown in the snow, but good Viking genes kept him unfrozen and alive to be The Tomten again and again. “God Jul!”