Face to face with a fresh Swede not yet tainted by American customs, I asked Martin to describe his Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve day, he said, starts with Disney cartoons, followed by a lunch of roast pork, herring, beet salad, meatballs and potatoes. Later, a father figure will remember that he has to go out and buy a paper. In the meantime, the household hears a knock on the door. A man with a big red coat and a limp (method acting to create the illusion of old age) enters, calling off names to match gift with child. Eventually, Santa leaves and the patriarch returns, without any evidence of his errand. The next day is busy with shopping and drinking at bars. Church and lutfisk don’t even make a cameo appearance.
Thankfully, Sally plumped me up with unadulterated Swedish treats and traditions. She told me that during the rice pudding course, the celebrant who finds the almond is destined to meet her Prince Carl Philip or his Princess Victoria, or some variation of a charming sweetheart. And that for Julotta, the early service on Christmas Day, residents travel to the church by sleigh, carrying glowing lanterns and lighted candles. So that I’d sound Swedish, she helped me with the pronunciation of “God Jul,” or Merry Christmas. Swap the “o” for a long “u,” and the “j” for “y.”
Now say it together: “God Jul.”
After my spin through the United States of Other Cultures, I assumed that I’d return to the United States of Shopping Malls. As a true-blue American, I knew that I had some unfinished business at the Mall of America.
But I was sidetracked by the American Swedish Institute, which was holding a special Christmas festival and market. In the entryway, a volunteer was passing around pepparkakors. She explained that I should place the cookie in the palm of my hand, make a wish and tap the treat in the center. If it broke into three pieces, my wish would come true.
I made my silent request, struck the cookie lightly and watched it shatter into thirds. I guess it knew that my wish had already come true.
Details: Old World towns in the Midwest