Have you already tossed out your Christmas tree? By the time this article reaches you, I assume that you have. So, perhaps the real question is when did you throw it out? And did you throw out anything else?

I was reminded of the transitoriness of the holidays when I visited a store the day after Christmas and saw it already decorated for Valentines Day. Of course, my questions are really about the holiday spirit, whether you're Christian or not, since this period from Thanksgiving through the New Years has become an even more significant commercial period. Sometimes the emphasis on gifts can even overwhelm the good tidings of “Peace on earth. Good will toward men.”

Historically in Sweden and the Nordic countries the winter solstice was celebrated. When Christianity swept northern Europe, Christmas was layered upon those local festivities. In Sweden and among Swedish-Americans in the U.S., the holiday season starts with the beginning of Advent (the four weeks preceding Christmas), or secularly even before then with Thanksgiving, then highlighting Sankta Lucia’s Day, climaxing with Christmas and New Year’s Day, and concluding on Epiphany (January 6), celebrating the arrival of the Wise Men to honor “the newborn king."

The final day of the season is the 20th day after Christmas, Saint Knut’s Day ("Tjugondag Jul" or "Tjugondag Knut"). Now this celebration for peace and joy is more typically remembered as “julgransplundring” (Christmas tree plundering), the day to strip the home of all Christmas decorations and to burn the tree. We conclude our old year and start afresh in the new year. All our cartoons show Old Father Time passing on his burdens to the New Year’s Babe.

Lessons for the new year
This year I am grateful to be reminded of the significance of the true meaning of the holiday spirit by two young women, whose memories of the past and of passing on important cultural traditions and personal values is something I hope to retain throughout the year. Both women come from families who are pillars of the San Francisco Bay Area’s local Swedish-American communities.

Marta Weissenborn’s memory came as she was kneading dough to make her Christmas cookies. While thinking of the pain of preparing the dough, she was reminded of her arthritic mom making cookies and of her mom’s grandmother’s gift of cookies to her family. She learned to value the kindness of giving and the giver, rather than the appearance of the gift.

"The Value of a Swedish Spritz Cookie" by Marta Weissenborn
My hands are killing me! I just finished making Swedish Spritz cookies and these cookies can be hard on your hands. My mom, who had arthritis in her hands, would make these every year and I can only imagine how badly her hands hurt. Tonight, as my hands throb, I'm reminded of a favorite Christmas story she would share with her students every year before the holiday break.

When my mom was young, her grandma would give her a tin of ginger snap cookies. Every year [Mom] would turn to her cousin Ricky and say "More dog biscuits!" Some of the cookies were burned. Some were in odd shapes. They weren't perfect. They would laugh and thank grandma for the gift even though they didn't think it was much of a gift. When my mom was at college many years later, she came home one Christmas and visited her grandma who happened to be making ginger snap cookies that day. My mom sat and watched her. She rolled the dough. Rolled it again. And again. And again. Until she got it as thin as possible. It was a tedious process.

It was at that moment my mom realized how very special those cookies were. You see, her grandma was blind. This meant she had to feel the dough to make sure it was just right. She had to trust that she made the recipe just right. That day, my mom drove home to her parents' house and cried. She was ashamed of all the years she called the cookies dog biscuits. This would be the last year my mom received the cookies from her grandma.

The moral of the story is to be thankful for whatever gift you receive. You never know what went into making or getting said gift.

I'm thankful for that last Christmas I had with my mom. She showed me how to make Swedish spritz cookies and directed me from a chair in the kitchen. They weren't perfect, and they still aren't, but they are made with love, and to me these cookies are what make Christmas!

Legacy lessons
The other story was from Ninna Gaensler Debs. She works at our school district’s public radio station. Her memento is of the sounds of Swedish Christmas season and the critical work that women have played in passing on this tradition not only to their own children but for posterity in our community.

Ninna's mother, Karin Gaensler, has for years directed the team of supportive parents and their children in the Swedish Jul Choir in Lucia performances throughout the Bay Area. Preparations and rehearsals begin more than a month in advance; each year new kids join in this choral rite of passage as older ones graduate. The occasion is particularly memorable to the young woman chosen to be Lucia, after typically having spent the better part of a decade participating in the choir. But for other girls and boys in the choir, memorizing and singing the traditional Christmas songs is as much a highlight of the season as it is for the groups of people who are serenaded, such as at our annual SWEA Christmas Bazaar (reported on in Nordstjernan’s last issue by SWEA-SF President Camilla Podowski) and at the Young Scandinavian Club’s Sankta Lucia program.

Ninna’s tale, like the Bazaar and pageant itself, remind us of the debt we owe for such maternal nurturing of these children and of the significant role they all play in passing on to younger generations our beloved traditions. But no one can tell this tale better than Ninna Gaensler Debs. I particularly appreciated how skillfully she crafted this audio broadcast, both narrating the story and illustrating each part with snippets of the occasion. I guarantee you’ll relive the whole season when you listen to this loving story from her December 3rd radio broadcast on KALW at http://kalw.org/post/audiographs-sound-week-swedish-christmas#stream/0

May you have a healthy and happy new year.
By Ted Olsson

Ted Olsson's reflections on the state of the world this Christmas: Living Christmas lessons