The creche was the first clue. It was always reverently placed center stage on the dining room table between the pickled herring and the Swedish meatballs. Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus were in residence, of course, but strewn along the manger's peaked roof were strings of paper Swedish flags. Traditional Swedish straw goats replaced the donkey and cattle, and a small herd of painted horses relegated the wise men's camels to left field.
Christmas Day was simply another Swedish holiday in my youth, carefully orchestrated by my Swedish parents. (Don't let the byline fool you; my father changed the family name from Ljungberg to Young when he immigrated.)
Christmas Eve was the celebrated time. That's when guests filled the house. Christmas Day was reserved for washing dishes.
Mother prepared the baked ham, studding it with cloves and whipping up an accompanying mayonnaise and mustard sauce.
I would be on meatball-rolling detail under Mother's watchful eye. "Smaller. Make them smaller," she'd coach.
Small wasn't necessarily best, but factored into the overall count. (Meatball rolling is an Olympic event in Sweden. I modestly admit that my 240 still stands as a family record.)
Meanwhile, Grandmother was baking her braided coffee breads, filling the air with the scent of cardamom, while Dad made hot mulled drinks spiced with cinnamon and dried fruits.
My older sisters were arranging the table with enough herring to feed every sea lion in the San Diego Zoo.
Mulled drinks and coffee cake, let it be noted, are the only places spices exist in Swedish cuisine. Spices are to Swedes what garlic is to vampires. Swedes also have an inborn fear of color in their food. Anything edible that's not as blond as their offspring is viewed with suspicion, and quickly blanketed with cream sauce. They even use white pepper. I believe the Swedish Parliament banned the use of black pepper in the 19th century.
Everything went smoothly as we waited for other family members to gather; Cousin Lydia, who never so much as shaken hands with a frying pan, would arrive with an artistic arrangement of raw vegetables. (Being assembled of dreaded Foods of Color, it was largely ignored.)
Then came dear Uncle Fritz who is remembered for two things; his collection of snuff boxes and his lutefisk. This national dish of Sweden is served at every true smorgasbord. Notice I didn't say eaten. At least not by anyone born outside Sweden. Somehow dried cod soaked for days in lye (the active ingredient in Drano) has never held much appeal outside Scandinavia.
"Ah, here's Fritz with the lutefisk," the elder Swedes from the Old Country would chime in, eyes welling with tears. (It's the only time Swedes ever come close to crying.) The children would simply stare at the gelatinous mass is disbelief.
Dear old Uncle Fritz eventually passed from the scene, along with his lutefisk recipe. We miss Uncle Fritz, but not his lutefisk.
Once everyone gathered, Swedish records were played as we all joined hands and danced around - and under - the smorgasbord table, and up and down stairs.
Grandmother sat sternly under a picture of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, contemplating whether to tap her foot to the music.
Christmas Eve always ended with everyone around the piano singing Swedish carols and hymns, while my sisters served a choice of desserts: Snow Pudding or Rice Pudding (note how the color matches perfectly).
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