Christmas 1950: A Nostalgic Look Back
The ribbon candy glistened in a bowl on the buffet table next to the electric bubbling candles. They were nestled in a bough of evergreen cut that morning from the forest behind my grandparents’ home. The spruce scent filled my head as I breathed in the aroma of Christmas. I was six years old, awaiting the arrival of Joulupukki, the Finnish word for Father Christmas. My grandparents kept their Finnish cultural traditions and incorporated new American ideas into the holiday the family loved. When my parents and I arrived early in the morning on Christmas Eve, the women of the family already were busy in the kitchen-- hands in bowls were kneading Finnish rye bread and braided Pulla, a sweet cardamom confection. My grandmother, Aiti, was preparing a breakfast of Riisipuuro, rice porridge served with cinnamon sugar and a dollop of spiced plum jam—kind of like American rice pudding, except better. Yum!
Aiti set up a stool for me to stand on so I could continue stirring the rice while she prepared the lipeakala, salted codfish that soaked in a vat of lye in the barn for a few days. She was finishing the rinsing process, also a several days’ procedure, to rid the now gelatinous fish of the lye. This would be an afternoon snack, served with a white sauce on crackers. Uncles and adult second cousins waited in anticipation for the completion of this dish. What a pity! To me it tasted like salted rubber bands.
Christmas Eve breakfast included not only the rice dish and Joulutorttu, Finnish pastries, but also my once a year opportunity to sample coffee. Finns are known for their prodigious coffee drinking through a lump of sugar held in the mouth. Often, at home, to cool the coffee, Finns pour it into the saucer of the cup and drink the first swallows from there. My cup of “coffee” was mostly milk, but I loved drinking it from the saucer through the sugar lump.
Another special treat for Christmas breakfast was to see who would get the one almond that had been stirred into the riisipuuro during preparation. And lucky me—I found it on my spoon! Everyone cheered and clapped. Finding the almond meant that I could close my eyes and make a wish. And of course, I wished that my father would turn into a good person and be nice to me—a wish I had every day.
After breakfast we took a trip to the forest behind the barn to find a Christmas tree. I trudged by my grandfather’s side in about six inches of snow through thick evergreens. Soft snow sifted off the tree branches onto my hat, coat, and mittens. He said we should look for a fir tree, a little taller than he was, so he could still reach the top to place the silver star.
I lagged a bit behind his fast pace and spied the ideal tree. “Look over here,” I called, “this one’s perfect.”
“You found a good one. Wonderful.” With a few swift blows of his ax, the tree was ours. We dragged it back, brushed snow off the branches, and brought it in next to the wood stove to dry out before taking it to the living room.
The aroma of Christmas intensified. The evergreen scent combined with cardamom, cinnamon, and piparkakut, molasses cookies baking in the oven. I saw the kinkku, Christmas ham, slathered with a traditional mustard sauce, ready for a slow bake after the cookies were done. Women prepared vegetable casseroles: potato and carrot, and my favorite, lanttulaatikko, a rutabaga casserole made with fresh rutabaga, butter, sugar, and white pepper—had to be white pepper.
In the late morning, my grandfather always went Christmas shopping. When I was older, I realized that this shopping expedition was for presents that Joulupukki placed under the tree for opening on Christmas Eve. I was appointed to use thick paper stencils of various Christmas scenes and spray a product called glass wax, generally used for polishing windows, on the stencil while holding it on the window. The effect was a white figure of a child on a sled, a Christmas tree, or stockings hanging from a mantel. After the holidays, the wax could be easily polished off the window.
In the afternoon when my grandfather returned, we made suet balls for birds and squirrels and hung them on trees in the yard. He explained that Finnish people have a deep appreciation for nature and do all they can to help preserve the land and the animals that live there.
“You are so lucky to be Finnish” he said. “Only Finnish people know the true Joulupukki. He lives in Lapland in the north of Finland and rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer that also live in Lapland. He can find Finnish children no matter where they live in the world. Even though he delivers presents to all the children of the world, Finnish children are very special to him.”
My anticipation of presents under the tree ballooned. I felt I could hardly wait as we decorated the tree. I hung colorful glass balls while my grandfather placed spun glass angel hair in small clouds around the tree, and then clipped on small candles ready to be lighted with matches later in the evening. Finally, we added tinsel, brilliant hanging bits of the thinnest metal, like tiny glittering ribbons dangling from branches. I was awestruck! It was one of the most beautiful sights of the year.
Just before dinner my grandfather said, “Come to the sitting room. I have a few new reels for the View-Master you might like to look at, and you can play a new Christmas record on the phonograph. Remember you have to keep turning the handle for it to keep playing.” While I was entertaining myself, he disappeared. A few years later I realized he was wrapping the presents from Joulupukki and putting them under the tree along with other presents for the family.
Aiti called everyone to the table with her Christmas bell, a red glass ornament that had a tinkling sound I always remembered. After stuffing ourselves with the wonderful feast prepared that morning, there was apple pie, pumpkin pie, molasses cookies, and if we wanted, blueberry soup for desert. Aiti picked wild blueberries during the summer and made a sweet soup that she canned in jars for special occasions like Christmas.
Finally, it was time for singing Christmas carols in Finnish and English while my grandfather lighted the candles. He sat next to the tree with a cup and a bucket of water in case a candle spark strayed to a branch. The presents were passed out and a flurry of tearing paper, and flying ribbons began amid “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” and “Just what I wanted” around the room. That year Joulupukki brought me gold-wrapped chocolate coins, an apple and an orange, a pink plastic piggy bank, a View-Master and reels, bobby pins for setting my hair at night, a doll with clothing, and galoshes to wear over my shoes on wintery days. Mom and Dad gave me ice skates. I was delighted! Aiti had knitted a sweater, mittens, scarf, hat, and socks for me, and my grandfather had fashioned from wood a pair of strap-on skis. He made a new pair every year as I grew taller. He told me that in Finland, all children learned in school to make their own skis, and boys as well as girls learned to knit their hats, gloves, socks, scarves, mittens, and sweaters for the very long, cold winters.
After the last cookies were crunched, and other relatives left, my family stayed overnight. I loved the quiet of the living room where I could be alone and safe. I thought about the great day and the possibility of sledding and skating tomorrow. I got to sleep in two living room chairs pushed together next to the tree. It felt cozy in the soft cushions under homemade quilts; and I loved the scent of the tree filling the air.
Christmas day was lower key. My grandfather drove me to a favorite sledding hill where lots of the town’s children were sliding head-first (no helmets) on their American Flyer sleds. It was a liberating feeling, almost flying like a bird I thought. In the afternoon there were more outdoor sports: trying out my new Christmas ice skates on a pond where many locals skated. I loved it!
A trip to the home sauna ended the day. Finns invented the sauna, and many Finnish homes had their own sauna. My grandparents’ sauna was a wooden building behind the barn. They heated a large kettle of water and poured it over a large box of rocks. Steam heated the room while occupants sweated and washed themselves with buckets of warm water. To the disappointment of my relatives, I hated the sauna. I felt I couldn’t breathe in the thick steam and heat, so I stayed in the changing room where Aiti came with a basin of warm water and a washcloth that I could use for washing. After the sauna sweat and wash, everyone, except me, jumped and rolled in the snow outside as they hooted and hollered as loud as they could. They claimed it was refreshing and revitalizing. Not for me!
Looking back at Christmas with my maternal grandparents, I realized that it was a respite from life with my parents—an abusive father and a mother who couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene. I cherish these Christmas memories with the grandparents who taught me about kindness, generosity, and love.