Swedish Christmas in America. Relatives gather for evening of hymns and herring
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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