Christmas in Norway.
Three words, and my bones go all cheese fonduey.
That’s because there is, even in my memory, a special spirit to a Norwegian Christmas. With New Jersey’s jingle jangle still in my head, Norway’s quiet spirit caught me off guard the first Christmas we lived on our island. And during all the Christmases that followed, I felt slowed down, whoa-ed down. Again and again and again.
Christmas in Norway is synonymous with making music, and since singing was my job, I did a lot of it during the holidays. Where did I sing, with whom and what? Let’s just say the range was eclectic. “Chestnuts Roasting” and other American standards with a jazz band in Holmenkollen kappell, a restored stave church high overlooking the Oslo fjord. The “Messiah” with an electronic keyboard run by a generator in a dilapidated barn hidden deep in the mountains. (I was offered an ankle length military uniform coat from an audience member, which I accepted so I could sing the soprano solos without getting whiplash from my teeth-chattering.) Scandinavian folk tunes with traditional instruments surrounded by candlelight in a stark Lutheran church. Spirituals with trumpets, sax and drums on Norway’s answer to The Tonight Snow. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a screen test for a national T.V. commercial. Brahms with full orchestra and viola descant in a sumptuous opera house. Simple hymns with our Mormon congregation’s small and struggling yet achingly sincere choir.
Then there was that most unforgettable of Christmases: The Viking Birth. That’s when I sang out five-kilo Dalton Haakon on a high note of “Amazing Grace”:
“And grace my fears relieeeeeeeeeeeeved.”
And grace sure did.
This post will be the last that focuses on our Norway years contained in the first few chapters of Global Mom, A Memoir, coming to you in January. The next posts about Global Mom will introduce you to France, or more specifically to Versailles, where we first landed straight from our Nordic island isolation.
Versailles of the Sun King. Of the famous château. And of our son, our petit prince, Luc William. And of the not-so-famous château where he was born.
Then I’ll give you a good long look at Paris.
Then Munich. The City of Monks. Our Monastery Years.
Then Singapore. With flash-backs to Hong Kong.
Then Switzerland. With flash-backs to Vienna.
And much of the craggy, glossy, pitch dark, shimmering terrain in between.
So sit back. It’s October wherever you are in the world.
But right now in Global Mom it’s December.
Global Mom, A Memoir
Bente calls me at 5:30 a.m. Whispering in Norwegian, she tells me to hurry – run!— to the T.V. to catch the broadcast. My friend has no idea what she’s asking. I’m almost nine months pregnant, which means running resembles a slo-mo animation of global plate tectonics, my pelvis held together by what feels like no more than three shredded rubber bands. But I waddle obediently down the stairs and dump my fertile self into the sofa.
Sitting breathless and alone in the darkness, I watch. In total stillness, the program illumines. It is one long, still moment until this crescent of blonde girls dressed in floor-length white gowns and with wreaths and burning candles atop their heads begins singing:
Night walks with heavy steps. . .
Shadows are brooding. . .
In every room so hushed. . .
Whispering like wings. . .
Santa Lucia. This is the darkest night of the year. And in Norwegian, that means darkness of the underside of the blackest inkiest black. Something about that thick backdrop makes my anticipation for this moment and for this season more intense, intimate. I’m awaiting the Christ child’s birth, awaiting the Bradford child’s birth. The Unknowns; one under the taut skin of my belly, the other under the night skin of the world, and this slow awakening happening in the sphere of my body, in the land of Norway.
Baby rump gyrates up under a rib. A knee there. A foot print there. A head grinding relentlessly like a street dancer spinning on my bladder. Now he’s rhythmically filing his toenails on my lowest left rib while he hiccups the effects of last night’s spiced lentil soup. I push down with the heel of my hand. The lump bulges right back again, defiantly. Can he hear the television? Because he’s pulled a lever on his recliner so he can spread eagle from my pancreas to my esophagus. I’m stretchy both in skin and in soul.
Bente has prepped me about Santa Lucia. “If you want to really get Julestemning, you must watch the performance live or at least on the live broadcast from Stockholm.”
Julestemning is an untranslatable expression, but every Norwegian knows what it means. Closest thing we have in English is “Christmas spirit.” But used in English, it conjures up for me at least images of neon pulsing robotically waving snowmen in shopping malls, the slosh of musak in the dairy aisle of your supermarket. Andy Williams rapping “Ole Saint Nick.”
In Norway, that spirit is different. Deep as the darkness. Fresh as snowfall in the nighttime. I hadn’t understood the term, really, when just a few weeks earlier at a Norwegian friend’s house their young adult daughter was on the phone from California. She was there doing a year-long exchange in the land of The O.C., cooler than anything, you’d think. But from her end of the line I could hear she was sucking back tears, sobbing to her family, “Det er ikke Julsestemningnen her enda!” (There’s no Christmas spirit here yet!)
But now I begin to understand. In our basement, in the dark, low in sofa, high in pregnant, I watch the television glow with angel girls singing about the heavy tread of darkness and the pending light, singing with innocence, their faces almost iridescent with the sweet liquid warmth of a musical sunrise, and I’m lulled, nearly half-dozing. Before I can tug on the corner of the blanket that has slipped off my shoulder, I realize I’m draining tears from both eyes. Crying, for hormones’ sake! Punch drunk on Julestemning.
Bente, my formidable friend of the predawn phone call, has gifted me with something priceless in that phone call. She and her family are, in every respect, our tutors in things Norwegian. This holds true particularly when it comes to holidays and music. Here, she tutors me in Christmas:
“You begin,” Bente’s bright blue eyes widen enthusiastically, “with a thorough Christmas cleaning.”
This means, I learn, on-your-hands-and-knees scrub down of every inch of pine, including the ceiling. Polishing windows with vinegar and lemon. Beating rugs and bedding and mattresses and bushes. Flossing your banister. Tipping over the fridge. Wiping under it. Picking lint out of the wiry element on the backside of your appliances. With a Q-tip.
“Then you’re ready for Christmas curtains,” Bente’s adorably girlish Swedish sister-in-law Pia schools me. She is also smiling.
“Curtains” means taking down all your everyday window treatments. Washing them, folding them, storing them in plastic bags you’ve sucked the air out of. And replacing them with flouncy fabric in red and green. Holly berries, candy canes, bows, polar bears, trolls.
“So, where do you pick up these curtains?” I am decidedly curtain challenged, except for stage curtains, which I’d never sewn or laundered.
“Pick them up? Oh no. You buy the fabric. You sew them.”
“Sew? Curtains? For all your windows? For every Christmas?”
Was this even legal?
“And after that, you do the syv sorter,” Bente adds, still smiling. She is tall, has four tall children, and they all have peachy complexions with bright, winning smiles. I conclude it’s a national mandate.
Syv sorter means making seven different sorts of Christmas cookies all in the course of one day. (And there are prescribed sorts, I was to learn, of which Pillsbury ready-bake is not one, you sluggards.) Real Norwegians like Bente are born to do seven sorts in a day and from scratch. But they are also born with peachy complexions, winning smiles, skis on their feet, a hockey stick in their fist, and something in their constitution that lets them slurp the teensy eggs out of the tails of raw shrimp. And still smile.
“And don’t forget kransekake,” Pia wants to explain to me, her dimples softening the blow. By now I’m feverishly scribbling notes. “You start with hand-ground almonds and powdered sugar and — you want to borrow my moulds?” She hands me her cast iron ring moulds for the traditional stacked wreath cake, then pulls me aside. “You can actually buy the dough ready made.” She lowers her voice, “But not a word.”
I’d never seen darling blonde Pia look stern. This time, she’s glowering.
At Bente’s, we all gather for Christmas Eve. We have come in our best clothing (Bente and Pia’s children are in Sunday best and opulent traditional Norwegian costume) because, as Christian, Bente’s oldest has told us, this evening will be “litt høytidlig.”
A bit solemn. Formal. Reverent.
I gather this is code for. Please, pants with belts. Drawstrings and elasticized ankles turned away at the door. (And you will forever be labeled, “Bumpkin.” )
We gather around Bente’s table set with a great-great-grandmother’s crystal, heirloom silver, china handed down generations. There are candles. There is an order to things, a program. A first course followed by a song. Another course. Another song. There are pewter warming plates and hand-tatted linens from another great-grandmother. The menu includes substantial fare; traditional white sausage, delicately boiled potatoes, steamed Brussel sprouts and caramel pudding right before the crowning treat: stacked rings of the kransekake, each ascending ring decorated with small Norwegian flags.
No paper plates, even Chinette. No feet propped on the coffee table. No root beer floats in mismatched Jets and Yankees mugs. Not a single popcorn ball, corn dog or Jell-o salad. Nothing of that sort anywhere from the Arctic circle all the way down to the southern border that Christmas Eve.
Just a guess. But one I’d stake my life on.
Given that Christmas in Norway means gathering, we buy a huge table. This particular three-meter plateau of pine has room for twelve, and we have twelve traditional curved farm chairs made and painted to match. In a pinch, there is room for fourteen. Sixteen, if everyone dines armlessly.
Even with the table as talisman, I never really fully master the Norwegian Christmas. Maybe because it takes much longer than five years to do so. Maybe because I do not really master so very much domestically, if you must know the truth. I do get all the traditional decorations, serve mounds of fish in every possible state at every one of my gatherings, make vat upon vat of something called gløgg, an onomatopoetically named cider that Norwegians consume with or without alcohol. (But mostly with. And with lots).
I even perfect my own recipe for gingerbread, the very mortar of any true Norwegian Christmas. I learn all the local songs about the art and lure of gingerbread-baking. I sing them with my children and add choreography I can still pull off today if you put a kransekake mould to my head. One year, I made enough gingerbread dough to re-shingle our roof. Then loaded it in my car and took it to church where two dozen children built a scale model of Machu Picchu, looked like. Machu Picchu with shiny green gum drops and red striped fences all around.
In the course of our Norway years, I scrape off the biggest scabs of the vestiges of a crusty old feminism that had preached disdain for all things — for every thing — domestic. I shimmied out of that brittle role model while also squeezing sideways past The Good Norwegian Housewife one. (I never, for instance, tipped or Q-tipped my fridge. Never once). But I took a swan dive into the one domestic task I liked: Food preparation. Food preparation, specifically, that gets people together. I gave up Gloria Steinem for Rachel Ray and traded in Bella Abzug for Julia Childs.
In fact, I now see that in some ways I at least subconsciously took Mrs. Julia Childs as a muse, a model. Many years after leaving Norway, after Childs’ death, I saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian which featured her huge meat cleaver-scarred Norwegian farm table. She said it had been the heart of her home. She even had similar curved farm chairs to mine. Or better, I did to hers. And they were all collected during the time she’d lived in Oslo with her husband, Paul.
Hmm. She’d also lived twice in France.
And once in Germany.
And along the east coast of the U.S.
Now I’ve got you thinking we’re nearly identical, Mrs. Childs and I.
But besides the fact that I am not six feet tall, do not have an arsenal of kitchen knives, have never in my life made a boeuf bourguignon nor, lets be honest, a single pot roast, and besides the tiny fact I’m neither genius nor legend, there is one feature of our lives, of my life and the life of Mrs. Childs, that does not match.
She had none.
I was bursting with my third.
Which was good.
But given the paragraphs below, hard.
From my journal:
This year has marked the kids’ surge in growth of all kinds. Parker’s making great headway with his Norwegian, managing to converse like a native with his little first grade buddies and participating in the church program with a major speaking part. Wise Man #1. And at school for the Christmas program he’s Troll #1.
Is the universe trying to tell me something?
He’s lost teeth right in front so he epitomizes the gangly six-and-a-half-year-old, wild about his sport club, crazy about his weekly swimming classes. Claire has refined a large repertoire of native folk songs which she hollers and croons at all times and in all places. Both children are sturdy and active, joyous reminders to us of the vibrancy and hope of childhood. I can drone on and on about their energy and bright minds, how Claire loves all things theatrical, how Parker has a penchant for memorizing long texts. Actually, it’s a little creepy, his ability to memorize. According to his teachers, they’ve never seen the likes. He has something like a perfect aural memory.
But. But. Adjusting to the whole local school thing has been hard work for him. For us all. HARD. Parker’s teachers have been terrific—kind, flexible, patient—and the school’s principal, Sigrid, has been an absolute wonder. She’s called me in to conference with her every week—a schedule that will spread out to once a month, we plan—just to make a team out of home and school in order to assure this boy, this first non-Norwegian child they’ve ever had, has a good experience in the school, in Norway.
So here goes: I came close to crying in yesterday’s conference. As Sigrid was expressing her concerns about Parker’s behavior (and his four teachers around the table were describing how disruptive he can sometimes be in class, erratic, uncontainable, sometimes explosive), I felt that salty wave climbing my throat. Times like this I’m convinced that it would have been better for everybody had I stuck with full-time theater, had we not moved to a foreign country, and had I let child care professionals duke it out over this child. It’s all so tiring. So deflating.
Point is, I have little natural talent for domesticity, for mothering. All my other talents, (that short list that’s steadily getting shorter) have no application at home. I can love, love a lot, but that love doesn’t seem to be the pill for Parker. So while I am listening to the Norwegian terms for this boy — “strong character”, “unchanneled energy”, “sensitive” — I don’t say it out loud but my internal voice is blaring on loudspeaker, “This is too much for me! This here? It’s nowhere in my skill set!!”
Well, bless her heart, Sigrid reached across to me when I guess she saw my eyes drop to the table top, and she put her hand on mine; “Think”, she said, “of the adventure we’d all miss without his powerful presence in our lives!”
I managed a smile then. But hearing her words now in my mind makes we weep with confused but sweet gratitude for this boy.
And writing those words many years later pierces me straight through.
On Decmeber 29th, approximately 5:30 a.m., I called Bente. I whispered, “Han er kommet.”
He, our baby boy, has come.
And with that arrival, the arrival of number three, a second son, the dark winter skies confirmed that there was now even less of a chance of turning back from being the worthless and incompetent mother I was wholly convinced I already was.
Darkness shall take flight soon
From earth’s valley.
So she speaks
Wonderful words to us:
A new day will rise again
From the rosy sky. . .
Sankta Lucia! Sankta Lucia!
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.