Today is a good day. Since the longest night of the year (Sunday to Monday), the day has increased with two minutes. Now why do i hear some of you laughing out loud? Two minutes is two minutes – enough to read your horoscope in, to solve three crossword clues or finalise the Sudoku – without having to turn on the lights.
By New Year’s Eve, the day will have increased by nine minutes. By the end of January, we’re talking one hour and thirty minutes – and even then, the sun still sets at four thirty in the afternoon…
Anyway, besides the lengthening days, today is also a good day because its the day before Christmas. For us Swedes, it’s Christmas Eve that is THE day – we’re an impatient lot that just can’t sit around waiting for Christmas Day. Tomorrow, Swedes all over the country will fall atop the traditional julbord, which is the Christmas version of the classic Swedish smorgasbord. So what’s on this spectacular buffet, you may wonder, and the short answer to that is everything. More or less.
Herring, salmon, eel, mackerel, eggs, meatballs, sausages of various types, ham, ribs, trotters, smoked lamb, various types of patés, red cabbage, brown cabbage (which is normal cabbage cooked with so much sugar/syrup it turns brown) kale cooked in cream, brussel sprouts, potatoes, cheese, bread of various types, mustard, rice porridge, gingerbread cookies, candies, whipped cream, cloudberry jam, almond cakes to go with the cream and jam,It takes a committed eater to survive that table let me tell you, and most of us don’t even try: we zero in on a couple of favourites and skip the rest.
The reason Christmas is so much about food comes down to the historical fact that not so long ago people didn’t eat all that well. Up here in the north, 90% of the population lived on cabbage and barley gruel. All year round. There’d be an occasional salted herring to liven things up, but meat was something to dream about. Yes, pigs were raised, but keeping the piglets alive and happy required substantial effort, and even so, one could not eat them until they were well and truly dead, and the little piggies did not go to piggie heaven until late autumn, when they were at their fattest.
Most of the pigs raised by the farmers were sold to the well-off 10%. But many farmers could afford to keep one pig back, and so the household prepared for a major pig-feast, in which every part of the pig was somehow cooked and served. That’s why it’s ham and sausages and trotters and jellied pork brisket and ribs at Christmas. For three days, there was no barley gruel, no over cooked cabbage. For three days, people ate pork meat in whatever form it came – including the boiled head. And then the pig was gone and it was back to gruel, to days spent dreaming about NEXT Christmas and all that wonderful, delicious food.
These days, we don’t exactly revert to living off gruel and cabbage after the holidays. Major problem from a waistline perspective (those historical ancestors of ours probably didn’t worry all that much about being overweight – or how they’d look in a bikini) On the other hand, few of us risk starvation in the months of March and April, traditionally the months when food supplies were at their lowest.
We don’t do the buffet thing in my home. It requires much more time for preparations than I have, and besides, we’re more into salads than cabbage. But we do go a bit wild and crazy with cakes and homemade candy – which is why we always need to take a very long walk before dinner. Truth be told, we’d need that same walk after dinner as well, but by then we’re too tired – and full. Besides, at three o’clock on Christmas Eve, we have that most hallowed of Swedish Christmas traditions (and I can hear you holding your breath, so excited are you at finding out what this might be. Do we dance around the traditional Christmas Goat? Do we drink huge amounts of beer and stand on our heads while yodeling? Of course not, yodeling is not a Swedish tradition!) No, dear people, at three o’clock, Swedish families across the country collect before the TV to watch… taa-daa… an hour of Disney cartoons. Yup, you heard me: the biggest moment in our Christmas celebration is when Jiminy Cricket sings “When you wish upon a star”.
Now, so as not to leave you thinking we are somewhat ga-ga up here in the dark north, it may be appropriate to point out that this fixation with Disney cartoons stems from a time when we didn’t have any cartoons – at all. Think 1970s, think a Sweden where the cultural elite sneers at such imbecile tings as cartoons, advocating instead serious, progressive (which for some reason very often is leftist) TV programmes. Thing is, the Swedish people didn’t want serious programmes – at least not always. No, we wanted to see Donald Duck decorate the tree while Chip and Dale made life hell for him. We wanted to see Lady and the Tramp eat spaghetti. We just had to see Ferdinand the bull sit on that bumble bee. So, once a year, Swedish Television fell for the pressure and gave us one whole hour of cartoons. On Christmas Eve. Go figure – but I suspect the cultural elite preferred cartoons to fairy tales involving a stable, a star, a pregnant Virgin and the miracle of God made man. (The 70s were very anti-religion in our neck of the woods).
Our family doesn’t watch the cartoons. Obviously, we are not your typical Swedish family, seeing as we don’t eat traditional Swedish Christmas fare nor do the traditional Swedish Christmas things involving Donald Duck. Instead, we engage in deadly combat over various board games. In our family, we don’t believe in that drivel about participating being more important than winning. We go for the winning – all of us. We are poor winners (yes, we gloat) and pretty bad losers (yes, we sulk). But hey, it’s Christmas, and soon we’ll be distributing the presents under the Christmas tree, so the winner gloats less than usual and the losers decide it was pure luck, not skill, that had the winner winning, and so they need sulk no more.
Hubby and I end our Christmas celebration in front of the fire. The kids – however adult they may be – are playing yet another round of board games in the kitchen, and they’re laughing and arguing at the same time, with Only Daughter protesting it isn’t fair when all three of her brothers band together to wipe her off the Risk board. It is nice to hear them squabble, to have them home. It is even nicer to snuggle up close to the man of my life and hear him wish me a Merry Christmas. This, after all, is what Christmas is all about: the people around us, the people we love and care for.
So maybe it’s not a bad idea to follow Jiminy Cricket’s advice and wish upon a star. Wish for peace in the year to come, wish for health for your loved ones. Wish for many, many future Christmases we can celebrate together. My family. The single most important thing in my life. God bless them all – God bless you all, and may you have the Christmas of your dreams, no matter where you are.