Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Christmas Eve
It is Christmas Eve that is the big day for Norwegians, and I have been working like crazy the last few days to have everything ready for tonight. Still, with everything I don't mean everything the way my mother did it. When I grew up I spent the afternoons and evenings helping out in a house where Christmas preparations went on from November.

My mother would buy the side of a sheep and make "rull" - a sausage-like meat for cuts, spicy and flavourful unlike anything commonly associated with Norwegian cooking. Her "sylte" - the pork version of the same things - was also sharp and offered a mixture of cloves, nutmeg and pepper to cut the fat meat. I learned to stuff, roll and sew these meats before I was 12, and they would swim in salt, under pressure, until they were frozen before christmas. In cold years they would just be left on the verandah, covered to keep the crows off them. My mother would never stop at seven types of cakes. She would have a long long list which always started and ended with pleskener, a simple lady-finger like cookie. She would make them early in December, and the first batch would be gone long before Christmas. But in the mean time she would make berlinerkranser, sandkaker, sollikjeks, lefser, sandnøtter, fattigmenn, julemanna (julemenn), mandelpletter, sirupssnipper and four or five other types with names I can't remember, before she made doughnuts, a night-long session where she rolled them out and my father cooked them, and then ended it all with a final batch of pleskener again.

From this I learned to wield a rolling pin, to organise the kitchen, to plan for several processes simultaneously, and to have way too much in the kitchen cabinet compared to what a normal modern family needs... And I got a fixation on cookie tins, which still pulls me into antique shops and makes me buy chocolates and cookies I don't really want because they are in such incredibly neat tins.

When the last cakes were baked, the cleaning would start. In my mother's house there was no mercy at this time. I am pretty sure that I might have had much better grades in high-school if she had been a little more easygoing about Christmas, because every December, just as all others were preparing for their final exams, I was cleaning. I was emptying out closets, cupboards and cabinets, cleaning walls and ceilings, taking the covers off all the cushions, cleaning them and stitching them back on - by hand, of course, it had to be invisible! This is also when I got my first repeated stress injuries in shoulders and arms - I would have aching, clumsy arms and hands by the time of the final tests at school, barely able to hold the pen. It wasn't until I was at the University and didn't have all those tests before Christmas but still returned home to clean the house, that I realised it wasn't the writing that did it to me at all, but the cleaning: evenings spent scrubbing down a new room in my mother's large house.

All these preparations were not in vain. Ours was a large family, and we carried cakes and slices of meat to relatives, old, sick or just too busy to make some "real" christmas food. The house on Christmas Eve would smell like a mixture of pine, spice and soap, and when we came up from the sauna to dress and carry the presents into the livingroom and put them under the tree we would be cleansed as was the house, ritually for the turn of the sun. It carried with it a feeling of being born again, being new and ready, having achieved something vital, something that would ensure the birth of the new sun and bring the light back to the earth. When we feasted on all the riches prepared for this long, long night, it was with wild abandon and with the knowledge that we had done it all, all that we could, and it had all been done right.

The best thing of being an adult with two almost adult children is that I can make my own decisions about these Christmas traditions. I can decide just how much I want to clean. I still like to have a clean and tidy house, and I force my children to help with the pre-christmas chores, but I haven't cleaned a ceiling in this house since we moved in. I will soon have to, it's starting to look a little grey, but I will do it sometime this summer or spring, when there is a lot of light, when I can leave doors and windows open, a summer cleaning at my own leisure. I can also bake JUST as much as I like. OK, so I like baking a little more than strictly needed, and who really needs seven types of cookies these days, but it's fun! And some traditions, like the ginger-bread house, have become too important to ignore.

But I don't change all the tablecloths for christmas-themed ones, and I don't have crates and crates of decorations to fill up every corner of the house. I don't even have special Christmas curtains for the kitchen. And I certainly don't have salted, dried mutton ribs for Christmas dinner. For Christmas we have, of all things, turkey, lean gentle meat that agrees with adults and children alike. And my cake this year is a carrot cake decorated in the least Christmassy colours I could find in the cabinet.

Still - I have done all that I could. I have done it with all the energy I have, and my offering to the new sun is all of my spare time and a house prepared as I find most fit for the celebration this night. And we will eat, drink , sing, walk around the Christmas tree and give presents lovingly chosen and wrapped. I will bring cookies to share with my relatives and I will taste theirs, careful not to "carry the Christmas away from the house" by refusing to take part in what hospitality is offered me. The midwinter feast is all about light, hope and the return of life to this bleak, stormwhipped land, and it is a task we all take part in, as we know best.