I love traditions, especially around the winter holidays. Until I met Fredrik, my silent assassin, kills you with kindness, more tattoos on him than a Victorian noblewoman, Norse hunk of sugar and spice–I thought I had a fairly good grasp on what Christmas was all about. I wrongfully assumed it was mostly the same everywhere. I mean, it is, sort of, but the devil is in the details.
Isn’t it always.
One of the more surreal things about a Swedish Christmas–or Jul, let’s be fair, no one calls it Christmas up here–has got to be the Eve itself. Julafton, December 24th, is the culmination of an entire month of preparation.
There are advent candles everywhere, but don’t you dare light them all at once or you’ll be excommunicated; sweet saffron bread, some with almonds, most with raisins; pepper cookies, mistranslated as gingerbread because both contain ginger; more spices than you can shake a cinnamon stick at; a decorated tree, potentially involving angels, but not necessarily; Every December 13th, children dress up to celebrate Saint Lucia with singing, wearing candle wreaths and long white robes.
Ham roast prepared with mustard and cloves; julegröt obliterated by powdered cinnamon and sugar, devoured for breakfast, lunch or dinner; and the Yuletide cousin of the smorgasbord, the julbord, groaning under the weight of all the weird and wonderful treats of the season. Come Julafton, you’ve had so many julbord already you should be sick of the stuff, but it still feels special on the day.
However, this isn’t a story about Jul in general, but my very first one. The time I almost irreversibly transplanted my foot to my mouth over something as (I thought) inconsequential as spice.
One of the most stressful things in anyone’s life is going to meet the family of the person they love more than anything in the world. Right? The pressure to, maybe not outright impress the parents, but at least leave them with the overall conclusion that you’re a good person. Reflect well on their adult child and their ability to make adult life choices. I think we can all agree on that.
Now, imagine, if you may, how to make it worse. You’re off to see your boyfriend’s family, parents and all, in a foreign country. Daunting! But there’s more.
A foreign country, over the Holidays.
More specifically, Christmas. In a country that doesn’t even call it Christmas.
Sweden, in December. I was about to experience juletid, not as in neopaganism, but an actual, modern Jul: and all the pitfalls associated with unfamiliar traditions.
So. First time I met the parents, we made it there the night before December 24th, as in Christmas Eve. I knew they celebrate a day early by my standards, but although Fredrik told me it was more about the food and the ornaments than anything outright religious, I really didn’t know what to expect. His confidence made me feel less apprehensive, but only by a very slight margin. Apparently, people weren’t all that religious, and especially not over ‘Jul.’
Fredrik even went so far as to say the religious schtick was mostly window dressing, an excuse to carry on with the ‘old traditions,’ whatever that meant. Altars? Winter solstice blood sacrifices? Not so much. I’d tried my hand at research. I know my way around a search bar or two. Saffron in pastries was one of the weirder stuff I’d found. More spices, and in quantities I didn’t expect of Viking country. Cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, cardamom, hot mustard. But, as I was about to find out sooner than later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the genuine article.
As we stood outside the door in a cookie cutter neighbourhood barely decorated by US standards, everything covered in snow, Fredrik gave me a final flurry of advice.
“If you get the almond in the rice pudding–porridge–tomorrow morning, don’t just eat it. Announce it to the room. It’s good luck.”
And, “Don’t pick the raisins from the saffron buns. Bad form, bad manners.”
And, “Dad insists on lutfisk every year, don’t ask me why, but if you have to try it, go bananas with the sauce. It’s the only edible thing on the plate, including the potatoes.”
But the most important thing, out of all the very many things he said, was this: “Whatever you do, when we have breakfast–don’t forget the cinnamon.”
Ominous as it sounded, I didn’t dwell on it. Surely he was kidding. He’d never been one to care how or what people ate, for whatever reason. I don’t particularly enjoy the stuff, and it’s never been a problem in the past. I figured, to my own detriment, that it was #NoBigDeal.
Mom and Dad, Harry and Agneta, both wore understated knitted sweaters with Norwegian style snowflake motif. They greeted us at the door, with bright smiles and firm handshakes from Mom and a bear hug from Dad, everything was sunshine and happy days. The aroma of strong coffee permeated the small house from decades of shameless caffeine addiction. Coffee, candle wax, and the obligatory pork roast lovingly prepared on this, the night before the big day.
We sat in the living room, getting acquainted, while Dad proceeded to stuff me with a lifetime of treats I’d ‘missed out on,’ and Mom looked embarrassed on his behalf. We talked about work, and the weather, and traditions: Dad talking about Christmas as one big amalgamation of global culture. A national treasure, the Christmas tree, but ultimately imported goods. Just like Santa.
“Yes, we have the bearded man in the red suit,” Dad told me with a twinkling in his eye. “But we also have the Yule gnome. They’ve morphed into the same entity over the years, strangely enough. And every year, we perpetuate the charade that he’s brought Christmas presents. I blame Disney. And Coke! They invented Santa, you know!”
“Oh, Harry,” said Mom with a genteel smile. “We set out rice porridge for Jultomten on the porch every year, too, so he won’t go hungry. It’s a big night, delivering all those presents.”
Again with the rice porridge. I didn’t say anything about cookies or milk, because I had a sense this was a moment where all I had to do was sit back, listen, and soak up the Yuletide spirit. Jultomten, I was beginning to realize, was a different beast than Santa Claus. By the end of the evening, spent playing Bingolotto until midnight, I’d had so much coffee and spiced treats I couldn’t sleep.
Me and Fredrik slept in the sofa bed downstairs, right there in the living room with the Christmas tree. If Santa left something under the tree, he’d have to’ve pulled a Mission Impossible on us, because I was wide awake for the most part, trying to sort through all the conflicting information about Swedish table manners, Yuletide traditions, what to eat and how. Fredrik reassured me I’d be fine, and I chose to believe him, spending most of the night listening to his soft snores and the gurglings of my own, overstuffed stomach.
Come morning we gathered at the kitchen table in our pajamas and robes. I’d ‘ve worn a hat indoors if I didn’t care about being polite, it was so cold. A pot filled to the brim with coffee shared the space with a carton of milk, and a porcelain dish groaning under the weight of the biggest roast ham I’d ever seen. Next to it sat my Nemesis: the silkiest, fluffiest white rice concoction you could imagine. Dotted around the table were tiny porcelain figures, of little bearded men in blue or gray vests and red pointy hats.
Dad ladled out the stuff, proudly announcing he’d whipped the cream by hand. Mom carved the ham, and Fredrik was already scraping butter over a wedge of crisp bread.
Dessert and sandwiches for breakfast, what a concept.
Between the milk and the porridge, the ham and hot mustard open sandwich (which Fredrik said was a must), and the tiny little porcelain men in somewhat lewd poses staring up at me, I committed what is possibly the greatest sin of all.
Not being queer.
Not wearing mixed fabrics.
Not having meat on a Friday.
Dear reader. I forgot all about the importance of cinnamon.
For about ten seconds, I sat there sampling the strange mix of foodstuffs, thinking no wonder the Swedes love their spices if everything has a sweet/salty flavor profile, until I glanced up at Harry and Agneta. Such polite, friendly, hospitable people, I thought, now replaced by their doppelgangers. Like in that movie. They looked exactly the same, but pale, void of the warmth I’d already come to associate with them. Harry’s eyes were blank chasms, Agneta went paler than the porridge, and my only saving grace was I didn’t know any better.
Fredrik, unsung hero that he is, knocked over the powdered cinnamon right on top of my bowl, obliterating my pristine porridge, and in doing so, kicked up a cloud that covered the entire table. Once the coughing subsided and the bark-brown mists cleared, all was back to normal. Agneta aimed at a polite smile and delicately sipped her coffee; Harry cleared his throat, saying no problem. They had another 470 grams of the stuff.
Crisis averted, we could all go back to initiating me into the weird and wonderful phenomenon of Julafton, including the nation-wide, practically obligatory viewing of an episode of Disney’s The Wonderful World of Disney from the 1950s. Santa’s workshop mingling with Donald Duck trying desperately to take photographs of birds in the wilderness, Goofy’s chaotic attempt to steer a caravan down a mountain, and Robin Hood making an appearance right along Jiminy Cricket, Snow White, and Pluto–engaged as always in a bitter feud with Chip and Dale. No one opens any presents until it’s over, and it doesn’t even start until 3 P.M.
So, what I learned from that first Christmas in Sweden, at my darling Fredrik’s parents’ house, is that the holidays, no matter your religion or lack thereof, are about celebration and cherishing the people we love. It’s about family and friends, in whatever shape or size they come. But in Sweden, Jul is more than anything else about the food, and the treats, and the baking: preparing for the big eve. The otherworldly takes second place. It’s about tradition. Love, compassion, and understanding. From All of Us to All of You.
As long as you remember to put cinnamon on your porridge.