..in Andersonville, on the north side of Chicago, originally settled by Swedes after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
An unseasonably thin sheet of snow lay politely on the pavement of Clark Street as I made my way to meet a friend at SVEA, a quaint little diner in the heart of the old Swedetown, located on the north side of Chicago. Andersonville, as this area is commonly known, is so called after the once ubiquitous Anderson, Svensson and similarly generic Swedish family names that once dominated the neighborhood's mailboxes. Though today many of these families have since relocated, the community maintains a strong sense of "Swedishness," reflected by the ever present color themes of blue and yellow, as well as a domineering and recognizable water tower with the Swedish flag painted on all sides.
I pass the familiar Swedish-American Museum, the nexus of the community whose name it bears. More than a simple testament to the past, here visitors are invited to experience history. A reading room features current publications, and the gift shop offers everything a Swedish home could want from new and traditional decorative arts to candy. Icons of the Scandinavian winter such as julbocken, tomten, and Adventsjulstake in the window remind each passerby that Chicago is getting ready for Christmas.
While I grew up in London and South Florida, my SWEA mother was always adamant about including my brother, John, and I in the preparation and anticipation of the family holiday we knew as Jul, which unlike the religious Christmas took on a more ecumenical and seasonal feel. I fondly remember the annual feasts on Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ home in Bromma, a residential neighborhood on the west side of Stockholm. At farmor’s julbord, Jewish, agnostic, Baptist and Lutheran members of my family sat down and shared in the warmth of a group that geographically and ideologically were very diverse yet cherished each other's company, conversation and kinship.
Traditional malt wine, glögg and julmust, a seasonally flavored cola enjoyed during the winter months, were welcomed guests too. Since my grandmother was raised in the Baptist tradition, music always played a central role in faith and family life. With an accomplished gospel singer and organist as our matriarch, we would typically sing both religious and seasonal songs together.
The songs, discussions and chit chat of the evening were interrupted only by the ever-expected remarks of my father, uncle and grand father—and of course the Donald Duck Christmas show, which I am convinced was more widely viewed than masses attended. I recently brought up this phenomenon with a former Disney executive and cast member (a title bestowed upon all levels of the Disney Company payroll). I learned that following the World War II, Swedes found Mickey Mouse, the very symbol of Disney, to be a charming and fun chap yet ultimately irrelevant. Unlike the corporate Big Ears, Donald Duck (Kalle Anka), resonated better with Swedes as a respected, if misunderstood, champion of the pantless and under-appreciated masses.
Now that I am older and living in America, I think how odd it was to have grown up in a family where my Swedish childhood was so fused with flavors from the American experience. The Betania congregation that my grandparents belonged to had, for as long as anyone could recall, fostered close ties to the African-American community, whose Baptist churches were a constant source of friendship and inspiration. Martin Luther King and Joseph Abernathy had once each honored my family as guests during the 1950s. Though I may never truly know what was said between my grandparents and these great men, I have to smile when I try to imagine Farmor serving coffee and bullar to these civil rights heroes in that old green couch I remembered climbing on as a little kid.
I recently moved back to Chicago, an important city in both the African-American and Swedish-American heritage of the United States. This humble yet elegant cosmopolitan city I called home during my years at the University of Chicago, now amazes me as a young professional with the wonder of its constantly revitalizing spirit.
This winter has been blessed with milder than average temperatures and the reopening of Erickson’s Deli, an institution that since 1925 has served familiar Swedish household goods to Chicago and across the U.S. I recognize so much of my Swedishness in the windows of the renovated shops, the cozy restaurants and of course the famous Swedish Bakery.
Here I can find treats that were once unique luxuries to me at my grandparents' home and at the annual bazaar at the Hedvig Eleonora Church in London. Similar to the German Weinachtsmarkt, Swedish communities around the world host winter markets to sell seasonal confections, gifts, decorations and produce used in the preparation of traditional winter meals. Even Andersonville, Chicago’s last Swedish neighborhood, hosts “Late Night Andersonville” in early December and features a popular Julmarknad with extended hours for shops, restaurants and galleries along Clark Street.
With the lighting of the first Advent candle and the opening of the first Advent calendar window, Swedish families traditionally usher in the yuletide season. However, for those of us living in Swedish America, Christmas is announced not just by seasonal storefront displays but also by a host of consumer-driven media initiatives including retail promotions, online ads, and radio stations dedicated entirely to carols and festive jingles well before Thanksgiving. Though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, there is something uncomfortable about such a frustratingly large amount of hype surrounding what for me was a peaceful, respected time for family.
I still have plenty of time to finish whatever shopping I ultimately decide to do. I relax with my headphones on, looking out on a dark winter afternoon. The Adolf Fredricks Goder Afton CD plays on loop from my iTunes and I savor a ginger bread cookie. In Andersonville, I can again reclaim that warmth of friendly company and the taste of Jul. Perhaps this diner is a far cry from Ingmar Bergman’s "Fanny and Alexander," which many consider the epitome of the classic Swedish Christmastime, but so what? My newly adopted home has again reminded me that in these wintry months of cold, we can always use a little cheer, whatever that means to us. Now I spend the Christmahannukah holidays with my Chicago family, a motley crew from various religious and cultural traditions. Regardless of what we believe, we all agree: No one should be alone for the holidays.
So to all of you at home and abroad, however you celebrate your Jul, may this be a time of peace, joy and love. God jul!
Andersonville, located on the north side of Chicago, was originally settled by first generation immigrant Swedes after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Simon’s Bar at 5210 North Clark St. in Chicago, across the street from the Swedish American Museum - When original owner Simon Lundberg first opened his tavern, it was a mecca for the many Swedish immigrants.