Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Cinnamongate”

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.

BY @CollideWords

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: ” Boredom, Elitism, Luxury, Love, Envy”

Thin whispers of silver moonlight creep through gaps in the satin curtains, not quite reaching my body. Shadows and darkness surround me. Inside and out. The silence is uninterrupted, leaving me with only my thoughts for company. It would be peaceful to many. This whole life would be a dream to most. It was to me once. Having existed within it for so long, it is no longer. I tire of fancy gowns I may only wear once. I yawn during the extravagant meals, wondering what happens to the copious amounts of uneaten food. Military displays are always the same, birthdays and balls have no unique qualities, every day is like the one before. Is there nothing new in life anymore? Is this the curse of growing old? One of many such curses. It is not always easy for me to leave this luxurious bed in the mornings these days. Sometimes it is not possible at all. My joints do not work like they used to. Let alone my eyes, my ears, my hands, the list continues but I care not for it. Those pains make filling my time an ever more challenging task. I have already read through all the books in the library, what else am I to do? What new worlds am I to travel to? There are few hobbies befitting of me that I can manage. Even fewer that I am allowed to do. Would the ordinary folk care? Truly? I find it hard to believe that they would. The staff are the only people I think would. Arguing for freedom now is purposeless, they are far too entrenched in their mindset regarding me. The funny girl. The most peculiar one.

 What happened?

Once upon a time I had ambition. I had energy. I sang my wishes in the street, my desires for a more exciting life. It was not to be. I found the love of my life, yet never the thrills I wanted. No matter where I looked. No matter what I did. Do those moments I longed for exist? I will never know first hand. I know not whether I care. My husband knows I am unhappy though he knows not what to do about me. I know not what he can do for me. He does love me dearly and I do love him with all my heart. I am forever grateful to have him. But he was born into this life. He knows no different, he does not understand. At one point I enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony he loves. Reveled in the flamboyance. Now it is all so tiresome. I am sure he wishes he could help. He does in little ways. He brings me tea and wine, he holds my hands, he reminds me frequently that he loves me. Although now I cannot see why he does. Without him I dread to think quite what state I would be in. Well, I know, do I not?

 Am I merely selfish?

My surroundings are far more than comfortable. The foods I eat would be called exquisite by the little people. I never fear the cold, or the sicknesses. Perhaps I am. Others have it worse. My problems pale in comparison to theirs. What problems do I really have? Those little people seem happier than I despite them. They have purpose. They work in some form or another. Every day they have tasks they must fulfil. Be that making bread, selling eggs, caring for books, even my husband deals with all manner of politics. He has a purpose. He talks to me of work often, I know much of his duties. However I could never assist him. No. That would not do. I have knowledge aplenty, I could be valuable. He ends his days exhausted and stressed, forever wanting extra hands. Though not mine. What am I expected to do? Smile and look pretty was what the staff always told me at all the functions when I was young. I cannot imagine being able to look pretty now. Let alone smile. Especially not for some foreign, self righteous nobleman with a lecherous gaze. How did I ever? How did I ever smile?

 This night grows long. Sleep eludes me still. Perhaps on some level I do regret my choices. Never finding an art form of my own. Never making time for others in my prime. Having children instead of enjoying my youth. Would it be different if they were not estranged? I wish it were not like this. Their father is no beast, he has been rid of his curse for decades now. If only they would listen. I tried. Oh I tried. My words fell on deaf ears, my letters were viewed by blind eyes. What more could I have done? The young people in the town these days have no idea what happened back then. There is no remnant of the curse within him. How could anyone think otherwise having met him? Having known him? My understanding can only go so far. As can theirs, evidently. Some day they surely will change. They will have to replace him. When they do they will see his work and what good he has done. Could it not be before that? Could it not be within my lifetime? I very much doubt it. How much longer do I have now? Not long at all I would hope. What purpose does hope serve other than to make us suffer? To show us a reality that will never be realized?

 Ah, finally the black tides are encroaching on my somber mind. Soon the next dull day will greet me. My knees do not ache. Nor does my crumbling spine. This slumber seems as though it will be deeper than most. So long as it drowns out my thoughts, it is enough. A few merciful hours of mental silence before I have to watch out over the quiet lands and listen to my dreary self again.

BY @JadeBlack21

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Daughter of the Rising Tide”

The sea calls to her, but she doesn’t know if she has the strength to answer.

She has never failed to answer before, but now most days her legs feel too heavy to lift, and her ancient body won’t bear the strain of trying to stand. At least the career they sent today has helped her prop herself up on pillows, briskly plumping them up and smoothing down the blankets so that Cordelia can look out at the rolling waves far below.  The tide is coming in now, and the call grows louder.

*~*~*

The first time she answered the sea’s call she was six years old. Her parents drove them up the cliff road, that final summer before the end of the second millennium. Thorns scratched at her legs as they scrambled through undergrowth to see the last cracked gravestone from a church long lost to the sea.

 Her father told her how a whole city had once stood there until it had crumbled bit by bit into the sea, how people claimed to hear the church bells ringing from beneath the brine, how the living had left but the sea took the dead. Her older sister had been repulsed by the thought of disarticulated bones dropping onto the beach below, but Cordelia found it strangely comforting. Better to rest in the soothing rhythm of the tide than the cold dark stillness of the earth.

That afternoon they played on the beach nearby, until Cordelia’s mother swam out and pulled her roughly from the sea, where she had waded in so far her chin floated on the water.

“How could you be so reckless?” Her mother’s arm wrapped the child’s waist and dragged her back to shore.

“I heard the bells.” Cordelia turned her head back towards the horizon. 

Her mother shook even after she had finished shivering, but Cordelia had always felt safe with the sea. It wouldn’t take her until it was time.

*~*~*

Bridget and Nasima have come to visit her today, and they have both brought their grandchildren. A flurry of small bodies moves through the house like a minnows rippling through the water. Bridget won’t let them go outside.

“The cliff edge is far too dangerous,” she says. “I do wish you’d move in with us, Mum. We could set you up in Harry’s old bedroom. ” Cordelia bats her away with a shrunken hand.

“All dried up like a smoked haddock? I don’t think so. Won’t be long now anyway.”

*~*~*

The house wasn’t always so close to the cliff. It had been two miles inland when she and Tom first moved in, when Dylan was two and Bridget was still in the womb. Somehow Cordelia had known that was just the right distance. 

 The sea had grown stronger, year on year, as it took more and more of the land. As it grew stronger its call grew louder. No longer the distant tinkling of bells, it became the swelling of a thousand voices, insistent and alluring.

When Bridget was thirteen, it had called so loudly one night that Cordelia had walked to the shore barefoot, the wind and rain whipping at her thin nightgown. She tiptoed across the wet sand under a full moon and gave the sea her answer.

 The wind and rain dropped away then, the clouds retreated, and Cordelia stood looking out to sea as the storm swept in the challenge she had accepted. Nasima was the first one she found,  her long black hair spread out like strands of seaweed on the beach and her brown eyes looking up at the newly-revealed stars. Cordelia had scooped her up and carried her beyond the tide line, then returned for her brother Ahmed. There were five more children and three adults, all exhausted but alive.

When the sun rose over the sea that morning Tom came, somehow knowing where Cordelia must have gone. They took the refugees back to the house and called for medical assistance. A few weeks later, Nasima and Ahmed moved in, the first of many refugee children who started the long process of healing in the salt air with Cordelia and Tom as their foster parents. The house was rarely quiet; it rang with the sound of children playing, of seagulls hooting, of Dylan practising guitar and Nasima singing lullabies to Ahmed. But sometimes, when the children were at school and the wind was blowing inland, Cordelia still heard the call of the sea.

*~*~*

Nasima makes sure Cordelia takes her pills before she leaves, and checks that the pillow nest is still secure. She is still working as a GP, one of many who trained in those first few years of rebuilding after the country had split itself apart and then come back together, like a shoal of fish splintered by the approach of a predator. The shoal became one again and as it mourned its losses Nasima learned to heal the very people who had once hated her.

“Goodnight, mama,” Nasima says, as she plants a kiss on Cordelia’s papery cheek. Bridget does the same, and the children —  all six of them — waving goodbye as they traipse out the door into the watercolour evening.

Harry’s youngest looks so like her Tom: fitting then that he’s named after him. He has his great-granddad’s dimples and his dark brown curls. He likes to run along with his arms out as if he’s hoping to take off, just the way Tom used to do when they came up here together as teenagers. The cliff top had always been the perfect spot for a marriage of air and water.

Tom always was a creature of the air rather than the sea. They never had the money for him to get his pilot’s license, so he made do by watching the sea birds from a hidden nook in the cliffs. He used to take the kids too. Cordelia remembers them all piling in one day in late summer, excited that they had seen a storm petrel on its way south. It had always been his favourite bird.

“It’s like you love,” he’d say. “So small, so rare and yet so strong.”

*~*~*

 They hid in the nook on the night when the country hit its lowest ebb and angry men had attacked their house for taking in the refugee children. The sea protected them then.  A squall blew in and sent the men running home with rods of horizontal rain. Cordelia and Tom wrapped their arms round small frightened bundles and calmly held them until the danger had passed. The little cave escaped the worst of it: the sea wanted to be a thoroughfare,  not a border.

*~*~*

Now Cordelia can see dark clouds once more,  looming on the horizon as the sun sets. The seagulls were loud earlier, but now they are gone, fleeing further inland in search of shelter from the coming storm. The wind picks up and the solar panels on the roof begin to rattle. Cordelia remains propped on her pillow throne, letting the voices of the sea rush in through her ears. She can see the waves below as they change from a landscape of rolling foothills to mountainous terrain, their white caps like the snow on treacherous peaks. They pound the cliffs below her like the voices pound now in her head.

“I have come for you, Cordelia. It is time.”

*~*~*

Ahmed calls her, his smiling face flickering in the air in front of her, projected by one of these new-fangled watches Dylan gave her.

“Are you alright, Mum?” he asks, hearing the howling of the wind at both ends of the call. “I can come and get you if you like?”

 He is a politician now, one of the many who voted to divert resources to health and housing rather than sea defences. Cordelia doesn’t blame him. He lives in the seaside town on the sheltered side of the bay with his husband and two labradors. The smell of wet dog and the aroma of curry cooking linger in the air as she speaks to him, another feature she’s never quite got used to. She supposes he can smell the stench of seaweed and salt that the storm is bringing in. A deep breath pulls it further into her nostrils.

“Storms make me feel alive,” she says. “I shall enjoy that while it lasts.”

“Love you, Mum,” he says, before he vanishes.

*~*~*

As the night falls a full moon rises, but it only shows its face in glimpses between the skittering clouds. Rain slaps the window. There is thunder in the distance. Above all this, the call of the sea roars yet louder, taking full control of Cordelia’s consciousness. She shuffles to the edge of the bed, and miraculously finds that her legs take her weight with little trouble. She walks outside, answering one more time.

Up above a tiny bird flies in the haze of raindrops. A storm petrel? But it can’t be, not at this time of year. It is not fighting the wind as it should be but rather seems unmoved by it, as if on another plane entirely.

Cordelia is the storm. The wind wraps the rain around her like a cloak. It cleanses her, sloughing off the marks and folds of age, sweeping the decay from her bones with a tide of youthful joy. Crinkled white skin is replaced with something sparkling, moving, rolling in waves from teal to violet to the deepest navy blue. Whether it is made of light or water she can’t tell, but she knows she is no longer solid.

When the wind retreats, she finds she is submerged beneath the breakers. Above, a beam of light from the moon cuts through the water. A city lies below. Bells chime. Shimmering shoals of fish, recently returned to these waters, spin around her in the deep.  She does not breath and yet she foams with life.

Her head breaks water at the top of a wave and she watches there, the storm petrel fluttering above her head,  as the old house creaks on the cliff top. With one final sigh the cliff crumbles and the house plummets readily into the open arms of the waiting sea. 

The sea sings a welcome and Cordelia sings with it;  no longer call-and-answer but a harmony.

* * *

BY @sarahwriteaway