Augusta Parsons Hylander’s memories of 19th-century Swedish life, part four: Christmas and Midsummer
This section is a bit of a digression within Augusta’s story – she turns aside from the account of her imminent emigration in order to describe Sturup village life and Swedish festive traditions. I thought about holding it back to post nearer the holidays, as it’s very Christmassy and could easily have been extracted without disrupting the narrative.
In the end, though, I couldn’t bring myself to present the text out of order, mostly because it seemed wrong on principle. This is a document that’s reached me largely by chance, not really mine to manipulate.
It wasn’t just that, though; it was also a sense that the shift of gears at this point in Augusta’s story might be telling us something about her state of mind as she wrote. I mean, the content of the previous section suggested to me that while she was writing that, she was recalling a keen youthful longing to escape her home life, which she perhaps resented a little in those days, for the promise of freedom in America. I might be projecting somewhat, but her desire to leave Sturup far behind following her father’s death seemed pretty evident, despite her matter-of-fact tone.
And if that was so, who could blame her? The amount of domestic work and strain she’d taken on had nearly killed her. Her brothers in America were happy and prosperous; by contrast, her sister’s life in Sweden as a domestic worker and shopkeeper must have seemed very dull. Their father had earlier denied Augusta the chance to study away from home and then teach, trumping her wish to spread her wings with his need of her help on the farm. Now, though, he was gone, and nothing was left to hold her back.
All this informs my speculation as to why, seventy years on, she might have put the brakes on her story as it approached the crucial moment of departure from Sweden. I imagine (indulge me) a surge of nostalgia stopping her – a reluctance to leave all over again without a pause, a last long look around the memory-image of her childhood home. The urge to set down in writing the ephemeral things she could remember: happy times before her mother’s illness, traditional celebrations, the beauty of seasonal change. Few teenagers want to dwell on these as they prepare to fly the nest at sixteen, but the further you fly and the older you get, the stronger the pull of those recollections. Rightly so; they do much to make us what we are.
Again, I’m reading between the lines, essentially making all of this up. So sue me. Here it is: the final section of detailed information about life in Sturup in the 1880s, long before the wildflowers and the windmill gave way to poured concrete runways. After this, the next instalment will see the pace pick up considerably as Augusta heads for Ellis Island via Malmö.
I have a few more things to talk about before leaving Sturup and Sweden. Right in the center of the village up a hill stood a windmill where farmers both big and small came with their grain to have it ground into flour. We ourselves raised rye, but many wealthy farmers grew wheat. The miller who owned this mill was called Lars Person. He would take a percentage of the weight of the flour as his pay.
Besides the miller there was a shoemaker in the village. In his shop he made shoes to order, and one would have to come and get measured first. No shoes could be bought ready-made. Shoes made to order were very expensive, and we didn’t get many pairs. Wooden shoes were worn a great deal, but I believe were made by a different shoe-maker. They were hung up on an outside wall as a sort of showcase for customers to see.
Wooden shoes were worn for daily use. The children wore them to school, and probably grown-ups wore them most of the time too. I can’t quite remember that. I do know that I always wore wooden shoes to school. They were quite neat looking. Sometimes the upper part was leather attached with brass nails to make them look attractive.
There were one or perhaps two little general stores that handled groceries, sewing articles, school supplies, and other such items.
There was a blacksmith’s shop also, and a carpenter’s shop right in the middle of the village where furniture was made, chairs and tables, and even wagons and carriages.
In Sturup and other little villages in the country in Sweden the people worked very hard most of the time. But there were several special times of the year when work took second place and great festivities took first place. The most exciting of these was Christmas, a festive season to which we looked forward all the year.
In our house the Christmas rites began with killing our pig, our meat for the whole year. This was done by the slaughter-man who came to the house at 5:00 AM two weeks before Christmas. Every part of the pig was utilized so that it would provide food for us for the year – bacon, shoulders, chops and roasts, and so forth. Most Christmassy of all was the head of the pig, prepared over a long period, salted and pressed. It was served in slices and always eaten with pickled beets. Fortunately it did not look like the head of a pig when it was ready to be eaten. The name of this delicacy is sylta.
Preparing for Christmas meant lots of baking. This would continue for two weeks before Christmas and included the special Christmas treat of buying white flour and baking white bread. We made one batch of white bread and one of rye bread, then made and baked coffee-bread, “coffee-rings” as we called them. We never made cake or pie. We all loved coffee, and the coffee-pot was always kept warm on the hob. During these two weeks every food that could be baked or roasted or prepared ahead of time was cooked and put away for the coming festive days.
Then the house would be thoroughly cleaned, the curtains taken down and washed and ironed, and the floors scrubbed until they shone, for at Christmas all the children who did not now live at home returned to be with the family, and it was the most wonderful time of the year.
When the house was immaculate everyone in it had to be the same. A flurry of scrubbing and shampooing went on, with the men cutting their hair and trimming their beards, and the women and girls after long brushing braiding their shining blonde hair. Then all dressed up in their traditional Swedish clothes, used only on special festive days.
Each of the 25 provinces in Sweden was originally a small kingdom with its own traditions and customs. Now the country is divided into 24 departments for administrative purposes, partially coinciding with the original provinces which still maintain their regional differences in costumes, traditions, architecture, and speech.
Both men and women have such costumes, with the children in miniature versions of the same style as their parents. They are all pretty and picturesque and brightly colored. At one time they were worn all the time, with simple variations for daily use, but more modern dress crept in, and now native dress is usually seen only at special festive times of the year.
In one province, however, on the shores of Lake Siljan, this traditional dress can still frequently be seen, especially on Sundays. The region is called Dalarna, and here old Swedish customs are still maintained. Near the town of Leksand is a beautiful white church on the shore of the lake, and here congregations of other small villages on the lake come to the Leksand church for their Sunday services. Wearing their Swedish dress they come across the lake in long open church-boats, built like row-boats with cross-wise seats for about 20 people, parents and children. At each end stands a man poling the boat. Every Sunday a number of such boats can be seen crossing the lake, their goal the Leksand church, the people singing church psalms as they come. The longboat is decorated with little white birch trees along the sides and ends. When they disembark and enter the church the people are greeted by one of the prettiest churches in Sweden. All is white and gold and blue, liberally frescoed and decorated. Outside around the church are little red wooden cottages, once used by people who came to the services and were marooned there by storms on the lake.
I shall now return to Christmas in Sturup. Christmas Eve was the highlight of the season. The traditional dinner was Swedish meatballs (köttbullar) and brown beans (brune bönar), followed by risengröt (rice porridge soaked overnight in water, then cooked in milk for many hours with sticks of cinnamon and a little salt and sugar). It was served up in little round dishes with ground cinnamon sprinkled on top in pretty patterns. In the same dish would be rödgröt (red porridge), red raspberry juice cooked and thickened, also with sticks of cinnamon. Risengröt and rödgröt were the dessert.
After dinner we sang together for a while, then went to bed, but soon got up, and all of us, big and small, prepared to go to church.
Everyone looked very handsome in their festive dress. The girls and women were especially pretty in their stiff full-sleeved white blouses, gathered wide skirts striped in brilliant colors, tight little waistcoats gold-buckled in front, aprons woven in stripes or flowers, starched white caps, red stockings, and their best black shoes tied with red ribbon bows. All their clothing had been woven by themselves. The smaller girls were wild with excitement, singing and dancing around the room, their long braids flying straight out.
Then it was time to walk to church, two Swedish miles, for Julotta (“little Christmas”), a service held in the church at four o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day. Before we left home we had coffee and coffee-bread to fortify ourselves. Such nights were usually very cold and crisp and clear, the sky filled with stars. On the roads to the church families from far and near came trudging along in the snow, their lighted lanterns guiding them on their way. Everyone was filled with joy. The unusual service at four in the morning seemed like a fairy tale or a dream, an exciting moment in our hard-working lives.
Inside the church, candles were lit in all the windows, reflecting on the snowy ground outside. The atmosphere was festive and joyful. All members of the families were there, filling the church – grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, children, even the tiniest babies.
I don’t remember that a sermon was preached. I think the whole service consisted of Christmas Scriptures, prayers, and lots of singing of Christmas hymns, or chorales as we called them. Everyone was familiar with the Christmas songs, and everyone sang his loudest. The church was full of joyous sounds and thankful hearts. Then the service was over. It was still dark, and the candles in the windows of the church still reflected on the deep snow outside. There were lingering farewells to friends and neighbours, then off we went home again. After our usual long walk we were glad to be in our snug home again and soon were enjoying our traditional Christmas morning breakfast of sylta and pickled beets, white bread and butter, coffee and coffee-bread. The family was very happy to be together again at this Christmas season. We always offered thanks to God before and after every meal, and on this day they were especially fervent.
We never did any work on Christmas Day, just got the meals, did the necessary housework, and fed the animals. We never gave each other presents at Christmas. It was not the custom. We had a special thought for birds at Christmas and attached a large sheaf of wheat to a tall pole so that they could peck at it for their Christmas dinner.
Christmas Day was spent by the villagers in Sturup in visiting each other, a pleasure they had little time for most of the year. At each home visitors were treated to the fine food prepared earlier for their neighbors and friends as well as for themselves. The younger people had dance after dance, and skated on our ponds with the smaller children. For two weeks this lovely life went on – no work, no school.
New Year’s Day everyone hung out a basket, and people came and put cards in it, especially the boys if there were girls in the house that they liked. During these two weeks perhaps most of the fun took place outdoors, for there was always snow and ice, with sleds and skates in constant use, the children tumbling in the snow, their cheeks as red as apples.
This fun and freedom lasted until sometime in early January, and so ended the Christmas and New Year’s season. Then back to work again, with the two weeks only a memory.
The great festival in the summer was Midsummer’s Day, the 24th of June. At this time the young people of the village all went out together into the woods and cut down a tall straight tree, brought it back into the village, and trimmed it of its branches and leaves. Then while still on the ground it was decorated with wreaths of flowers and leaves and other ornaments until it looked very beautiful. Then it was raised up, put into place and fixed securely. Every village had a Midsummer’s tree, usually in a central open place where everyone could see it. Many traditional dances with the participants in their provincial costumes took place around this Midsummer’s pole. A neighborhood boy played his violin for the dancing. The dancers often sang as they danced, when they had enough breath to do so, for the dances were fast and very lively. The dancing often went on all night. At that time in the summer it was light almost all night. It was beautiful, with birds singing and flowers blooming. Especially lovely were blue bachelor’s buttons, a flower that grew wild around Sturup.