By Amy Hammond Hagberg
My Grandpa Art, God rest his soul, was a proud and sturdy Norwegian – a farmer from the plains of North Dakota. He was the kind of grandpa who told silly jokes, gave me a crisp $5 bill every time he saw me, taught me how to play cards and bounced me on his knee for hours on end singing old family favorites. Once I was old enough to know better, I thought it was strange that this stoic Norseman sang a song called “I’m a Swede from North Dakota,” but I guess Art embraced diversity long before it was trendy.
Grandpa Art used to sing a special song at Christmas, “Plums and Prunes and Cherries.” I’m not sure if it was an original song like so many of his, but it always reminded me of the mouthwatering aromas wafting from Grandma’s kitchen. Alvilda Tollefson made everything from scratch, even her daily bread. Take a listen and tap your foot:
Like so many other farmers from the prairies of North Dakota, my mother came from solid Scandinavian stock; Americans who love their families in a no-nonsense manner and work the land feverishly to provide for them.
During my adolescence, I was all about being Norwegian. I even went to a Norwegian language camp in the summer so I could learn to “snakke Norsk” with Grandpa. Funny… he never could understand what I was saying. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the teacher and less to the boys…
My grandparents usually made the grueling 400-mile road trip down to Minneapolis to celebrate Christmas with my family. I’ll never forget how Grandpa pronounced it “Minnaplis” in his cute little Norwegian accent. They always arrived with a pack of Juicy Fruit gum at the ready and some treats from Grandma’s kitchen. It was cute how if bought the gum at the store:
“What can I get you, Art” the clerk said.
“I’d like a pack of yoosie fruit gum, and made damn sure it’s yoosie!”
Now, we weren’t particularly “ethnic” during the rest of the year, but at Christmas we went all out. Much of the fare was Scandinavian, although we steered clear of a peculiar entree called “lutefisk.” A chemically-treated mainstay of Nordic holiday tables, lutefisk is an odiferous dried cod that is soaked in lye – a strong alkaline solution derived from wood ashes – and then boiled and served in a white sauce. It has a delightful gelatinous consistency.
Instead, we stuck with chemical-free foods like Swedish Meatballs, Krumkake and homemade lefse that Grandma always contributed to the meal. Lefse is the Norwegian version of a tortilla but is made with potatoes rather than flour. Grandma’s was by far the best on the planet. Slathered with butter and sprinkled generously with cinnamon-sugar it was nothing short of heavenly. A real pain to make, lefse is a true labor of love.
Now that I have kids of my own, I’ve worked diligently to create unique Christmas memories for them too. In addition to their regular gifts, each year we give them a one-of-a-kind personalized ornament; one that reflects their life or personality at the time. Each passing fancy is covered, from hockey to piano, a new puppy to a pair of skis, and the kids treasure them. When the time comes for them to leave the nest, they’ll have a nice head start on decorating their own Christmas trees.
Something magical happens every Christmas Eve at our house, I can’t quite explain it. Sometime between the candlelight service, Christmas dinner and the opening of gifts, the “Pajama Elf” visits their bedrooms and leaves a brand-new pair of Christmas pj’s. If the Elf ever missed us, it would be a tragedy of epic proportions because the kids look forward to that surprise more than any other.
The constant stream of holiday music on the stereo, the fragrance of traditional cookies baking in the oven, the warmth of our fieldstone fireplace and the beauty of the snowy Minnesota landscape create a homespun, festive atmosphere we all treasure. Now I’m the one singing, Plums and Prunes and Cherries as we get ready to celebrate the birthday of the Messiah.
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