Swedish Christmas in America. Relatives gather for evening of hymns and herring

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Growing up in a mixed ethnic neighborhood in a Boston suburb was interesting all year round, but especially fun around the holidays. The wonderful assortment of foods and aromas that came from the kitchens were always unique. There was a Greek family across the street, Irish families on either side of our home; a small Italian community was down the hill, and a few fellow Swedes dotted the neighborhood.

When I was growing up as a first-generation American, Christmas came wrapped in all the color and tradition of my Scandinavian parents. Our tree was always trimmed with treasured straw ornaments brought back from the ``old country'' by relatives. Special favorites were Julbok (Christmas goats) and squatty little elves called Jul Tomten. Strings of small gold-and-blue Swedish flags made of paper were placed on the tree with a certain chauvinistic pride.

As with most European families, Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day was the time of celebration.

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Family and friends began arriving around 7 p.m., just after I had run across the street to the woods and picked boughs of white pine, laying them along the snow-covered walk and up the front steps.

The house glowed with candles in every window and room. At the most solemn part of the evening, the two dozen or so live candles decorating the tree were lighted while we gathered around an old upright piano. Mother played, while Father led us in a few Swedish songs, always starting with a rousing ``Nu Ar Det Jul Igen'' (Now It's Christmas Again) and ending with a favorite hymn.

The exchange of modest presents was the high point for the children. But it was the smorgasbord that began around 10 o'clock and never seemed to end that really drew the crowds. Grandmother made sylta -- a kind of headcheese of pressed meat -- while relatives brought their favorite breads and pastries.

It was my job as the youngest in the family to roll the Swedish meatballs. ``Not so big,'' my mother would admonish. They would be laced with a cream sauce and served in a fine old pewter and brass chafing dish.

Mother and my aunt prepared the herring. Acres of herring! Salt herring, smoked herring, glassblower's herring, deviled eggs with herring, herring casserole, inlagd herring.

We could never understand how the Italian families down the street could eat seven different kinds of fish on Christmas Eve, but to have a table ladened with endless herring seemed absolutely logical.

Our family has grown and changed over the years, but many of the traditional foods are still served and appreciated by the non-Swedes who have become part of the family.

Once a favorite niece brought over her Irish beau, and future husband, on Christmas Eve. The family was a bit cool until he approached the table and gingerly took his first piece of herring with sour cream on a cracker, swallowed it in one gulp, and beamed with delight. He passed his Trial by Herring and was accepted on the spot. A platter of herring is no longer safe within his reach.

Some of the Scandinavian dishes we now serve have been ``Americanized'' slightly -- we now make pickled beets with canned beets. But others like pressylta (headcheese) are still lovingly and laboriously made when several members of the family gather a few days before the holiday.

Here are just a few foods without which our Christmas Eve dinner would be little more than an everyday meal. Pressylta (Headcheese) 1 6-pound fresh pork shoulder with bone in 1 3-pound fresh veal roast with bone in 2 bay leaves 4 whole cloves 6 whole peppercorns 6 whole allspice 2 tablespoons salt 1 small onion, sliced

Place pork and veal in large stockpot. Add enough water to cover and remaining ingredients. Heat to boiling, skim, and reduce to simmer.

Cook until tender, about 2 hours. Let stand at room temperature until cool enough to handle easily, but still very warm.

An easier and less expensive version may be made with a larger fresh pork shoulder and no veal. To assemble the Pressylta Cheesecloth 2 tablespoons salt 2 teaspoons white pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice 1/2 teaspoon ground clove

Dip cheesecloth into veal and pork broth and lay evenly in large bowl, allowing enough over the sides to be able to tie finished headcheese together.

Combine and mix thoroughly salt and spices in a small bowl. Remove pork and veal to a large platter. Slice fat from pork and line it along cheesecloth-covered bowl.

Slice veal and pork and alternate layers of each, sprinkling each layer with combined salt and spices. When bowl is full, tie ends of cheesecloth together firmly and place headcheese back in boiling broth for 10 minutes.

Return to bowl and weight with smaller plate and brick or heavy object to press meat firmly. Add enough broth to cover, allow to cool, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours -- several days if possible.

Remove weight and keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

To serve, remove from bowl and wipe off any jelled broth. Remove cheesecloth and slice thinly. Serve on hardtack with pickled beets and sharp mustard. Pickled Beets 1-pound can sliced beets 1 1/2 cups white vinegar 3/4 cup sugar 4 cloves 1/4 cup sliced onion 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish

Drain the beet juice into a saucepan. Add all the ingredients except the beets and simmer until onions are slightly softened. Then add the beets, cool, and refrigerate overnight. Dopp I Grytan (Dip in the Pot)

This dish is traditionally served the afternoon of Christmas Eve. It's usually a stand-up meal eaten on the run while preparing for the evening festivities. The defatted broth from the sylta is heated, then bread is dipped into the hot broth and eaten.

Today we place our favorite bread in a small bowl and add hot broth. It is sometimes served with cooked pork sausage, called kokkorv.

If you prefer, the broth may be frozen for later use as a soup base. In any case, it's much too good to discard. Gasolgo (Goose Eye) 1 egg yolk 8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped 1 1/2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons chopped pickled beets 2 tablespoons fresh dill or parsley 1 tablespoon capers

With raw egg yolk in center of a platter or large dinner plate, arrange each ingredient around it in attractive concentric circles. Sprinkle with capers.

The first person to help himself to the dish stirs all ingredients together. Serve thinly spread on hardtack. Inlagd Sill (Pickled Herring) 3 large salted herring 1 cup white vinegar 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup sliced onions 3 bay leaves 6 whole peppercorns 6 whole allspice Sour cream

Rinse herring and soak in lightly salted water for 12 hours or overnight, changing salted water three or four times.

Skin and remove as many bones as possible from herring and slice into half-inch lengths.

Combine ingredients in non-aluminum saucepan. Bring to boil and let cool. Add herring to cooled mixture and store in jars in refrigerator. Keeps several weeks.

Serve on hardtack or crackers with sour cream.

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