Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the American Swedish Institute as the Swedish Institute of America. This version has been updated.
I already have a computer, a smartphone and my two front teeth. I’m too old for Tonka trucks and fairies and too young for orthopedic socks. I wish for world peace and a cure for cancer, but I’m realistic: Those holiday gifts are too expansive to fit inside a box tied with red ribbon and topped with a bow.
That said, what I really want for Christmas is tradition — and not just my own. Stepping inside a glass-blown globe, I wish to spin from culture to culture, celebrating the nearly universal holiday on a national level. I want to pull up a chair at a Swedish church for a holiday dinner of lutfisk, meatballs and rice pudding, and join a party of Germans for kaffeetrinken with stollen and gluhwein, a mulled wine that turns your cheeks cherubic pink. I want to stock up on bratzeli, the crispy Swiss cookie, and impress Schmutzli, Santa’s parole officer, with my good deeds. And I want — or more like need — to stay true to my American upbringing and join my people, the procrastinators, at the mall.
To achieve this Christmas wish, I could write a letter to Santa and hope that he’ll send me an open-jaw ticket to Europe. The downside to this plan: finding an open square on the Advent calendar for travel abroad. Instead, I relied on my own elf smarts and saddled up my horse-powered sleigh for a tour of American towns pickled in Old World traditions.
I drove into the heart of the country and the holiday, to Minnesota and Wisconsin, where Swedes, Swiss and Germans immigrated more than a century ago, moving from one wintry landscape to another. Though the 19th-century settlers left behind their homelands, they did not abandon their holiday customs — or characters. At this time of year, Samichlaus, Tomte and Sankt Nikolaus all come out to play.
They were exactly the toys I wanted for Christmas.
No disrespect to the Founding Fathers, but we are a nation based on the economic principle of shopping and the dopamine rush of snagging a bargain. Over the holidays, we can justify our shopping habits on spiritual and family pretexts. It’s God’s, and Granny’s, will.
The holy church of retailers is the Mall of America, which claims to be the largest shopping and entertainment emporium in the country. The Minneapolis-area mall contains 520 stores, plus a Nickelodeon theme park and an aquarium. If you feel guilty for shopping instead of going to the gym, don’t: Walk a lap on each of the four levels and you just completed a 5K. Ask the information desk for the 10K route.
Before tackling marathon shopping, I needed to warm up or else risk a cramp outside Victoria’s Secret. To stretch my legs, I headed for the rotunda to stroll among the 44-foot-tall Christmas trees draped like divas in white lights. For shelter from the unchanging mall temperature of 70 degrees, I ducked into a gingerbread-style house erected by HGTV.
A diminutive man not made of sugar and spice enrolled my name in a contest for various prizes, including furniture and flooring. I have no qualms about regifting when the giver is a cable network.
Six times a day, the Christmas trees perform a 32,000-LED-light show that’s part rave, part hyper kid commandeering the light switch. The red, green and white bulbs flashed and blinked to tinny holiday music, a John Cage-esque performance of illumination.
“How about a round of applause for that light show, Mall of America,” an employee hollered to visitors observing from overhead balconies. He was met with a silent night.
To capture the holiday mood, the mall strings 21 miles of lights throughout the interior, including curtains of bulbs that drip from the ceiling like silvery waterfalls. Through Dec. 23, choirs, church groups and other performers belt out jolly jingles. And in January, a 40-foot-tall ice castle will transform a one-acre parking lot into a frozen Camelot, complete with throne rooms that will effectively chill your buns.
The destination mall attracts about 40 million visitors a year, including 220,000 on Black Friday. The elf working the Santa station told me that over Thanksgiving weekend, little ones waited for up to three hours to sit on St. Nick’s lap. On a colorless Wednesday, however, I walked right up to his red-clothed knee and took a seat.
Santa and I chitchatted for a while before I presented my wish. He told me that he only works one day out of the year and compared himself to a FedEx truck. We discussed Mrs. Claus (she waits for him at home) and his busy schedule, which leaves him no time to drop into the bar for drinks with the fellas.
Finally, I had to stop delaying the inevitable. There was a kid waiting in the wings, and Santa probably needed to restore the feeling in his leg before his next guest. Under pressure, I stammered out some ideas, finally blurting out a grandiose wish about making the world a better, more compassionate place. He looked at me with caring blue eyes and said, “Don’t you want an iPad? It’s a little easier to deliver.”
If I discover a flat box with an Apple insignia under my tree, I’ll know that Santa really does exist, and that he doesn’t take instructions very well.
“Willkommen,” read the sign along the main road leading into New Ulm. More cheery banners followed. By the time I’d reached the historic downtown, I was fluent in German welcoming.
After the artificiality of the Mall of America, I embraced the genuineness of the German town 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. Fresh garlands hung like silly mustaches across Minnesota Avenue, the main drag. Christmas trees girly with red velvet bows lined up along the sidewalks as if awaiting a parade. The air was filled with the piped-in sounds of polka, oompah and other Germans-in-lederhosen music.
“New Ulm is echt. A lot of what you see is falsch,” said local historian George Glotzbach, using the German words for “authentic” and “fake.”
The town was founded by Turners, Free Thinkers from Ulm, Germany, who landed in Cincinnati and Chicago in the mid-1800s. They migrated northwest to establish New Ulm, the “perfect socialist society in the wilds of the West,” said George. A few years later, a wave of Bohemian-Germans arrived, sticking their flag on the banks of the Minnesota River in the neighborhood of Goosetown, named after the feathery honkers.
When I met George at the Brown County Historical Society, inside a German Renaissance baroque-style building, I asked him how German New Ulm is. Extremely, he replied: With more than 65 percent of its residents claiming Germanic ancestry, New Ulm purports to be the most German town in the United States. Moreover, it is even more German than Germany. The New World destination was established in 1854, 17 years before the creation of the country known as Deutschland.
George took me straight to the epicenter of New Ulm, the B&L Bar. On a midday Friday, a smattering of men were sipping brews beneath the nearly 120-year-old stamped tin ceiling. The local beer, Schell’s, flowed from 11 taps.
To celebrate the holiday, the bar will host the Concord Singers, a German men’s choir, on Christmas Eve. The cocktail of the night is obvious: Schell’s limited-edition holiday beer. This year, the special flavor is Biere de Noel. The light amber beer has a French connection, but remember, Christmas is the time to let go of centuries-old grudges and, as the German drinking song goes, “Zicke zacke zicke zacke heu heu heu!”
In Germanic communities on this and the other side of the Atlantic, Christmas celebrations start early (on St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6) and power through the New Year, wrapping up on Three Kings Day on Jan. 6.
“We don’t celebrate Christmas like the Americans,” said Marlene Domeier, owner of Domeier’s German Store, “who, the day after Christmas, toss the tree out the door.”
The shop, which Marlene’s mother opened in 1934, crams German gifts and treats onto every flat surface. Spotting Marlene among the cuckoo clocks, Advent calendars, beer steins, glass-blown ornaments and nutcrackers is harder than finding Waldo in a busy streetscape.
I asked Marlene for help in arranging a German Christmas at my apartment. She led me directly to the cookie aisle, pulling out anise-flavored pfeffernusse; the gingerbread-like lebkuchen; spekulatius, a spicy butter cookie with pressed images; and, of course, stollen, which is served for breakfast and with afternoon coffee. By happenstance, I was at Domeier’s when the clocks started cuckooing at 3 p.m., kaffeetrinken time. Marlene, the perfect German American hostess, set the table with instant coffee and stollen. After she cleared the plates, I shared an American tradition with her: a bearhug of gratitude.
When the Swiss settlers arrived in New Glarus in 1845, their eyes popped at the familiar landscape of rolling hills and deep valleys. They must have been exhausted after their long trip, because compared with the Swiss Alps, the Wisconsin area’s earthen bumps are like lumps of sugar.
“They settled here. They thrived here,” said Beth Zurbuchen, president of the Swiss Center of North America in New Glarus. “They made it Switzerland.”
The sylvan town, about 30 miles south of Madison, looks the part, even during a freak December rainstorm. The shops, hotels and restaurants snuggle inside chalet-style buildings with gabled roofs, painted floral ornamentation and balconies that hold flower boxes in sunnier weather. Retail signs lasso people indoors with promises of cheese, chocolate, raclette and fondue. Whimsical painted statues of Swiss cows add an agrarian accent to the town, without the mess.
For more than 15 years, the Swiss United Church of Christ has honored calories and Christmas with a holiday bake sale. You don’t want to sleep in on this day. I arrived 10 minutes before noon and the pickings were slim: a few bags of bratzeli; a loaf of zopf, Swiss braided bread; two zueri bieter, small logs stuffed with minced dried fruit.
The New Glarus Bakery, however, can fill any holes in your holiday cookie tray. Owner Angela Neff, who’s continuing a baking legacy from 1910, stuffs the cases with jewel-like cookies of Swiss granny provenance. Her recipe for stollen comes from Lucerne, as does the labor-intensive birnbrot, Swiss pear bread (price tag: $14.50) that you might want to squirrel away in your own stocking.
Esther Zgraggen, the Swiss-born owner of Esther’s European Imports, covers the gift-giving category. She sells raclette and fondue sets, Swiss Army knives, straw ornaments and wood-carved cows, a popular toy in Swiss children’s playrooms. To be completely authentic, however, Esther would have to stock peanuts, apples and tangerines, the presents she often found in the shoes she left outside as a child for St. Nick’s delivery drops.
Puempel’s Olde Tavern, built by new arrivals Joe and Berta Puempel, has celebrated nearly 120 Christmases. The couple ran a boardinghouse, providing room and board for 60 cents at the turn of the 20th century. One guest, Albert Struebin, couldn’t gin up the change and painted four murals as payment. Though bar smoke and general life have darkened the paint, the images are still vivid enough to crawl into.
Today, pocket change still goes far. The ceiling is covered in crumpled dollar bills that resemble a swarm of origami birds with bad navigational skills. The party trick is to pierce a dollar with a thumbtack, fold in a half-dollar (for ballast), then toss it 18 feet up, hoping that it sticks. I watched pro dollar tosser and tavern owner Chuck Bigler chuck the buck up. He nailed it on his third try.
When it was my turn, I lofted it once and missed. On the second attempt, the pin reversed course and slammed into the floor. I had to pry it out with my fingernail. I failed two more times.
I asked Chuck when it was time to surrender. He told me that the Swiss are stubborn; they never quit. So I mustered up all my Swissness and tossed the dollar hard and high. It stuck.
“This is more Swedish than Sweden,” said Bonnie Olson, a volunteer at the Gammelgarden Museum in Scandia, about 40 miles northeast of Minneapolis.
Please, go on.
“We really get into our heritage,” she added. Swedes “probably don’t go back and learn about their heritage and their ancestors.”
And now for the closing argument.
“They don’t eat lutfisk.”
Swedish Americans, however, can’t get enough of the stinky rehydrated cod.
In the Swedish immigrant towns of Scandia and Lindstrom, the holiday dish appears at church Christmas dinners. Lois Barott, whose grandparents hail from the Scandinavian country, tries to hit at least five lutfisk events during the season; she’s off to a slow chew this year, with only one dinner under her belt so far.
A Swedish thread runs through eight towns that Lois’s daughter, Sally, has organized as the Swedish Circle Tour. The tour pays homage to Vilhelm Moberg’s literary series, “The Emigrants,” which tells the fictional tale of Swedish farmers and families who settled these real Minnesota towns. The route can also be adapted to a Christmas theme.
The Gammelgarden Museum, an open-air cultural center with preserved buildings from the early settler years, assuages any guilt over shopping. Consider this: By scooping up stuffed Tomtes (the elfin mischief maker), Sankta Lucia dolls (a replica of the star of the Dec. 13 feast day), Dala horses (traditionally carved by woodsmen during recess at the lumber camps) and towheaded lad and lass ornaments, you’re helping preserve Swedish traditions. You can also practice your altruism at Designs of Sweden, a shop that Swede Martin Hallkvist and his wife opened this summer.
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.