I remember those Christmases as if yesterday. They came with deep meaning, earnest preparation and overflowing anticipation.
In the cold and dreary North, Christmas comes as a festival of light with candles and sparklers, and a show of love and generosity. The embodiment of light to me, as a child, was the tall, snow-covered pine tree all lit up with electric lights in the park in the middle of town. It must have been an hundred feet tall, reaching all the way to Heaven! There was a special lighting ceremony, and most of the town gathered around. As the lights were turned on, all exclaimed in unison with approval and admiration. The winter night waxed cold and all seemed to do a strange dance, stomping to keep their feet warm. But somehow the feet didnt really matter, because our hearts were warm.
Part of the unexplainable magic came in store windows. Shopping in those days was simple and unassuming. Not much money exchanged hands--the stores seemed to decorate their windows for more show than enticement to buy. One certain shop was famous for mechanized displays--Santa in his workshop with his little helpers, or a beautiful winter scene on a frozen lake with ice-skaters and music. How did they do that Magic? My eyes were glued to the delicately moving figures until I was part of the scene. To own it? Never entered my heart.
A couple of the main streets in town hung decorations on the lamp-posts. Some extended across the street, swaging from building to building. Christmas music was played over loudspeakers. A week before Christmas Santa himself came to town in his sleigh, throwing candy to eager little spectators. Christmas had arrived!
Mother signaled the start of the festive season in our home by gathering her secret ingredients for her aromatic ginger bread cookies, tarts and special breads. There were the old familiar well-worn baking board, heaping with sacks of flour and sugar, small canisters of fragrant cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, a ceramic bowl that donned cracks and nicks from diligent use, a bent wooden mixing spoon, a handmade, one-piece rolling pin, and three shapes of aluminum cookie cutters: a star, a crescent moon and the traditional scalloped ginger snap cutter. In a matter of minutes it seemed, Mother created the most heavenly array of Christmas goodies, and the entire house was filled with the true fragrance of Christmas.
In school, we started making our little presents for our families well in advance. As a young child, each Christmas I crocheted hot pads for Mother, a scarf for Father and mittens for my brother. Often it was hard to tell the hot pads from the mittens, but it made no difference to us--they were all made with simple love. I usually received a refurbished doll: either the doll had a new, pretty head, or her clothes were spanking new. My brothers customary present was a new hockey stick and pucks--the icy lakes were ideal for ice-hockey for several months.
The tree was not cut or bought till the morning of Christmas Eve. Father usually went to the market place in the middle of our town and selected the one he deemed suitable for our family and house. It was always a beautiful, straight and symmetrical blue spruce, with lots of sturdy branches for placing the real little candles.
Decorating the tree was usually my task. What an important responsibility that was! To get the candles to stand up straight, carefully placed so that the flames would not touch the branches above . . . To spread the garland in perfect patterns, the sparklers and the colorfully wrapped wooden candy crackers in appropriate places . . . But most importantlyand this was always done under Fathers supervisionto crown the tree with the Star of Bethlehem!
The tree was dressed in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Now it was time for Mother to put the fatty Christmas ham in the oven. She had prepared it with a pasty coating made of rye flour, salt and water--it made the shank of ham juicy and full of flavor. In our home, Mother had to heat the oven first by burning wood inside the oven, and when it was appropriately hot--I never knew exactly how she determined that--she would sweep the hot embers out of the oven and place them in the stove where they would heat some other Christmas delicacy ready for cooking.
While the ham was thus baking, we took turns going for the traditional Christmas sauna. There were fluffy towels scattered around and a new crop of fragrant dried birch branches for our vasta. The sauna seemed unusually dimly lit for this special occasion--only a few candles burned in the small window to accentuate the festive feeling. Usually Mother and I would go first so that we could be preparing the Christmas meal details as the men folk enjoyed their sauna.
The meal was spread for the spanking clean sauna-goers: piping hot ham in its brown crust, casseroles of carrots and rutabaga, boiled potatoes and a beverage of home-brewed Christmas beer we called kalja. For dessert there were rice pudding and plum kiisseli--a sort of thickened soup that went well with the pudding. And the never-ending variety of Christmas ginger bread cookies, prune tarts and sweet breads!
The table was decorated with bowls of fragrant fruit--a rare commodity for the Northerners in the dead of winter--great big oranges from Jaffa, and apples and pears. Never since have I tasted such sweet, succulent fruit--not even the oranges of Jaffa in Jaffa could spell magic quite the same. In the center of the table was a potted flower, a cluster of tulips, hyacinths, freesias or crocuses--a perfumed promise of spring yet so far away. Surely there was no better time in the entire year!
About dessert time there usually came a knock at the door, and we all knew who it was: joulupukki, of course! This old man came dressed in a drab fur coat, with long hair and beard, carrying a tattered old bag full of presents. We always invited Him in with certain reverence and great excitement, and He always had time to linger a while to enjoy the lively flames of the candles on the tree, an occasional sparkler and many a Christmas hymn sung by children whose hearts were bursting with the glory of the moment. And for some magical reason, it did not matter at all that this venerable old man seemed to bring me the same doll year after year. This was Christmas time, a time of Love, Light, Warmth and Magic, and there was no room for questions.
Contributed by Liisa Berg
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