InBox My memories of Christmas and Christmas music

Music, song and melodies awaken memories in me like nothing else can. Not only the memory of an event, but also the feeling tied to it. The music of Christmas wakens beautiful memories from my own childhood and from the time when my children were small.
In Sweden we count Christmas from the time of the First of Advent, about December 1 until January 13, when we "carry Christmas out."
My daughter, Helena, had her birthday on February 9, so I used to combine her birthday party with her “julgransplundring." I had to keep the Christmas tree alive that long.
On the First of Advent, Advent stars appeared in windows. Most homes had a yellow and red paper star with small holes from which the light shone through. Later came stars of thin wood. Nowadays one can see electric candleholders in nearly every Swedish home. They can have five or seven bulbs and are built as a staircase. Some homes have many Advent candleholders in many windows shining through the night.
On the tables we still have the old real Advent holders for four candles, often decorated with moss and lingonberry branches. The first candle is lit on the First of Advent. Often the daughter of the house reads the innocent verses: "The first candle I light, the first in Advent." On the second Sunday both the first and the second candles are lit. When all four candles stand lit, Christmas has arrived.
The First Advent Sunday has become the most visited church service in today's Sweden and has taken over the importance of the “Julotta" Christmas morning service. Franz Michael Franzen's "Bereden väg för Herran! Berg sjunken, djup stån opp!" (Make room for the Lord. Mountains sink down and depths rise up) always starts the service and is sung with strong voices.
On December 13, Lucia was celebrated in every town, in churches, schools and work places, as well as on the radio, television and nearly every home. To be chosen as the city Lucia was an honor—one did not need only to be blond (this was 60 years ago in a more homogenous society) and beautiful, but also kind. Lucia wore a crown wreath of lingonberry branches with four or five candles on it. Under the crown was hidden a wet towel to protect the hair from fire and dripping wax. The mother or the teacher stood ready with a wet towel and a water pitcher. I must admit that the living candles made a stronger impression than today’s battery lights, which often lean backward in a way that no real candles could.
In Bethel's Methodist Church in Norrköping, I attended the Lucia pageant for many years. We could not afford Lucia gowns but with straight pins (not safety pins) gowns were created with simple sheets. The pins, hidden by lingonberry branches, stuck under the arms and pinched us on our shoulders. The Lucia attendants carried candles in their hands with candle rings to protect the hands from dripping wax, but they also had the verses written on them in case words to the songs were forgotten. It was important not to walk too close to the person in front of you, so you did not put their hair on fire.
The same songs were sung year after year, generation after generation, like a strictly choreographed play. "Natten går tunga fjät, runt gård och stuva, kring jord som sol'n förgät." (The night treads with heavy feet around farm and cottage, around the world which the sun has forgotten.) "Staffan var en stalledräng, vi tackom nu så gärna." (Staffan was a stable lad, we give thanks with joy.)
In the Lucia pageant there were also little tomte nissar (gnomes). “Midnatt råder, tyst det är i husen" (Midnight is here, it's quiet in the house). Three pepparkaksgubbar (gingerbread people) would sing, "Vi komma, vi komma från pepparkakeland." (We come from the land of gingerbread.) "Nu ha vi ljus här i vårt hus. Julen är kommen, hopp faralla la." (Now we have light in our house. Christmas is come, hop farallla la.) "Nu är det jul igen." (Now it is Christmas again.)
The Lucia pageant was a whole concert. “Nu tändas tusen juleljus kring jordens mörka rund." (Now a thousand Christmas lights are lit around the dark round earth). The Swedish author Victor Rydberg wrote the famous "Gläns över sjö och strand, stjärna ur fjärran" (Shine over lake and shore, star far away).
The familiar church hymns were lifted high under the 1,000-year-old Lund's Domkyrka, where I sang in the choir for several years. I could never get my children Helena and Thomas to join me for "Julbönen," the 3 p.m. Christmas Eve service, because then they didn’t want to miss what all of Sweden was watching, the traditional "Kalle Ankas Jul" (Donald Duck's Christmas).
I went with my own father to "Julotta," the Christmas service at 7 a.m. People along Storsvängen lit candles to guide the wanderers through the night. Everybody stood up when the organ roared "Var hälsad sköna morgonstund" (Be greeted blessed morning). "Gå Sion din konung att möta." (Go Sion your king to meet.)" “Ett barn är fött på denna dag, så var Guds välbehag” (A child is born on this day, because that was God's good will) and "Gör portarna höga och dörrarna vida." (Make the ports high and the doors wide.)
"När juldagsmorgon glimmar, jag vill till stallet gå" (When Christmas morning is gleaming, I want to go to the stable) was a favorite, as was "Stilla Natt, Heliga Natt."
On Christmas Eve, we celebrated Christmas. Sill (herring) and egg, Jansson’s frestelse and ham and special scented bread were eaten. The one who got an almond in the rice porridge had to come up with a poem, and the Christmas tree was lit with candles. A hard knock on the door brought in Santa Claus asking, "Are there any nice children in here?"
There were children's parties and grown up parties and dancing around the Christmas tree, like at Midsummer.
On "tjugondag Knut" on January 13, Christmas was over and the tree could be thrown out (julgransplundring). As seen in “Fanny and Alexander,” children got a paper bag with one orange, a chewy candy tomte, a papperskaramell and a licorice string rolled around a sugar ball.
Before you throw out the tree, you are supposed to sing and dance around the tree again. "Vi äro musikanter allt ifrån Skaraborg.” “Små grodorna,” “Jungfru, jungfru, jungfru jungfru skär.” “Björnen sover.”
We used to sing on the top of our lungs, "Nu är den glada julen slut, slut, slut. Julegranen bäres ut, ut, ut." (Now is the happy Christmas over. The Christmas tree is carried out, out, out.) I gave my kids all the instruments we had and added pots and pans and lids. We opened the door from the living room to the garden to try to convince Staffanstorp's townspeople that we had the loudest orchestra.
One year I hung cookies in the tree for decoration and for the kids to eat—of course they fell on the floor and were crushed during the dances and games. The tree was wet from standing in its stand and from the snow and dirt outside. After that julgransplundring the wooden floor had fat spots from the cookies and damage from Christmas tree and water.
But it was worth it!
In Helena's second grade class I arranged a Christmas party for the children, who practiced for a play, had a Lucia pageant and sang Christmas songs. The party was held in the gym of Borggårdsskolan. Invited were parents, siblings and grandparents who all were dancing around the Christmas tree in the end. That was one of the most enjoyable projects I have done.
That was a real Swedish Christmas!
Is this how you remember your own Christmases?

Lisbeth Nordström-Lerner
Scandia Women's Chorus; Swedish Cub, Farmington Hills, Michigan; SWEA Michigan.