Skip to main content

Scandinavian Winters

No sign of snow yet.

Our family’s Scandinavian roots are something which emerged from the closet every second year around Christmas when we flew north to Minnesota for two months. My father’s side of the family, the Edwalls, is a celebratory, gregarious clan which will take any excuse for a feast, or a game day, always ready to pull up a chair or begin a new tradition. Legend has it that my great-grandfather Nathaniel, or perhaps even his father, got off the boat in America and was ordered by the immigrations official to change his name as there were already too many Olsens in the country. So we became Edwalls: Baptists, teetotalers, loggers, woodworkers, musicians, missionaries. Tall, fair-skinned blond and redheads appeared in my generation, the brown hair and brown eyes and brown skin being my mother’s singular gift to my brothers and me.

Our Swedish-ness manifests in only two very distinct traditions: Santa Lucia on December 13th and The Lefse Song. Santa Lucia is the most sacred of childhood Christmas rituals. On December 13th, at the ungodly hour of three or four in the morning, the aunts would rouse my cousins Jessica and Cassie and I (all oldest daughters), dress us in white gowns with red sashes on our waists, and place on our heads gaudy green plastic crowns with battery-operated light bulbs on prongs masquerading as candle-lit wreaths. In their defense, I can’t imagine what sort of mother that would put a real wreath with real candles on the head of a sleepy five-year-old. They would take us to visit family members by knocking on their doors very loudly and calling out our Santa Lucia greetings, rewarding the haggard faces of our menfolk with pastries and coffee. We would sing the Santa Lucia song, which I only remember the opening line (to repeat ad nauseum), the very surprising lyrics “Sant-a Luci-i-a.” This became an even better tradition when I was given my first American Girl doll, Kirsten (who was Swedish) and came with a matching Santa Lucia outfit.

Santa Lucia is a Scandinavian saint imported from Naples, Italy; a virgin martyr who had her eyes plucked out by a fork. Lucy (one of my favorite names) coming from “Lux” or lucis - light, the bearer of light, the bearer of vision, the patron saint of the blind. In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is Lucy who first discovers Narnia, leading her brothers and sister with her vision and pure-hearted insight. In Northern Europe, Lucy comes with candles and lanterns to light the unending darkness.




I made bastard attempts at Santa Lucia during college, running from room to room with a paper wreath on my head and a tin of cookies in my hands. Last year Kristin and I woke early to drive around to wake several of our friends, who reacted with kind, taciturn long-suffering faces. This year, yesterday, Santa Lucia made an appearance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne (an Anglo-Catholic parish with no other connections to Scandinavia other than the general genetic inheritance of Seattleites), dressed in white and red, the same plastic green wreath with battery-operated candles on her (blond) head, serving pastries from a basket. In the corner of the room an American Girl doll, Kirsten, stood on a table in an identical outfit, surveying the basement room with plastic blue-eyed goodwill. And then we sang the song (and I learned all the words).

The Lefse Song is another story for another time.

Nearly every day this November was grey and rainy. December began with thirteen days of brilliant sunshine and crystalline coldness. Freezing fingers, the necessity of scarves and socks and two pants to bed at night.

This past Wednesday we went to Golden Gardens, a beach overlooking the Puget Sound, with islands and mountains in the distance. This past summer, where the city suffered 103 degree weather, we ran to Golden Gardens to cool ourselves, to feel the breeze off the water, and to watch the sun sink into a pink sky that reflected to make the Sound look like a colored bubble bath. People were out on the sand until 10, until the stars came out, and the fires and barbecues were extinguished.



Now, the beach wore its solitude like a morning robe. Everything was spare and isolated; walkers and their dogs passed every ten minutes. There were no gulls, just the sound of the lapping water, the fierce air, and the stripped winter trees.

As Kristin ran, I settled onto a large piece of weathered driftwood, spreading hacked branches like a throne. I sat there this past August with my family. This December, I huddled on the top branch and opened True Deceiver, Tove Jansson's novel of two women in a snowy Swedish village, circling around each other warily. Katri and her brother Mats live in the village where, because of their refusal to play social games and their yellow eyes, they are regarded with suspicion. Anna Aemelin is an artist who is as famous for her children’s books featuring rabbits as Tove Jansson was famous for Moomins. Both women are alone, but when they begin to live each other, their opposing ideals and philosophies cause friction. The heavy snow, the darkness, the austere society - all felt right and mirrored my own wintry reality.

Continuing to want to wallow in Scandinavia, I have picked up Kristin Lavransdatter, the medieval epic by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Winner, Sigrid Undset. I thought about it all morning, and - pow - it arrived at the bookstore yesterday evening. Magic!

To tie it all together, today is my roommate's birthday, who has claimed Saint Lucy for her patron saint. Happy birthday, Kristin. Enjoy your ice cream.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. D…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…

Cassandra at the Wedding - Dorothy Baker

The perfect airplane read for a person en route to a wedding, this tautly written 1962 novel about a woman falling apart, coming home to her family’s ranch to derail her twin sister’s wedding. That’s the summary – but obviously it’s about so much more: about the nature of love and obsession, about identity and the self.

Cassandra Edwards, named for the doomed wailer at the gates of Troy, is a student at Berkley, an “Existentialist-Zen-Marxist, Freudian branch. Deviation, rather.” The reader is fully aware from the beginning that Cassandra feels antagonistically about the wedding – she anticipates duties of “tak[ing] over the bouquet while [Judith] received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it…” She purposefully gets the groom’s name wrong. She plans to stage a “last-minute rescue.”

The isolated family ranch the Edwards family as a self-sufficient unit – emotionally and intellectually. Her alcoholic father, a retired skeptical philosopher who act…