Gammelgaard, where my grandmother and then my mother, ran the household and where I grew up. (Father's side)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Childhood Christmas Eve in Denmark. Min Jule-aften i Danmark, som barn.

      Time stands still. This is quite tangible to my brothers and I. The concept of time has changed today and is quite possibly going backwards. Although we would embrace the possibility of time travel, it is the forward motion kind, as opposed to the backwards motion, that we are interested in right now.

       It is four o'clock in the afternoon, already getting dark outside. The horses have been fed; my rider friends and I have spent a considerable amount of time this afternoon hollowing out sugar beets and filling them with layers of the horses' favorite treats: dry crumbled up rye-bread, sugar-cubes (it IS a special occasion) carrot pieces for color and apple pieces for sweetness. I am bathed, my brothers have showered, and we are now sitting damp-haired and finely clothed in the darkening sitting room. Our backs are to the tall windows so we may better utilize the quickly fading light.  Reading being our feeble attempt to make time go in it's normal direction. Finally we hear the clank-clank-clank of my mothers nice heels rapidly crossing the floor in the hall before she opens the door to the sitting room and rushes through, while waving her newly polished nails in the air. She is headed for the kitchen where we hear her open and close the oven door, set a timer, tick-tick-tick and re-adjust a lid on a pot; she sticks her head through the door to the sitting room and instructs us to put our nice coats on, and go wait in the car. Never before have children behaved so rapidly obedient, we even help each other.

       Waiting in the car is less comfortable than waiting in the living room, but at least it brings us one step closer and proves, that in spite of our suspicion of the opposite, time is actually moving forward. The car seat is cold through my nylon stockings and my new nice shoes are so new, that they slide on every surface, I will have to be careful not to slip on the shiny stone floor in church; it isn't easy to walk in them to begin with, as they were sensibly purchased a bit too big; so they would last at least through Easter as well.
Ryde Kirke

small wax candle in holder

      We go to church quite regularly as a family: once a year exactly!

       It is a small church. All churches in Denmark are now owned by the state, but this church, Ryde Kirke, used to belong to our farm. It is very old. The church is filled with people and very inviting with the two Christmas trees up front. My brothers and I don't find it odd now, but will later in life, that the front row is always empty waiting for our family; so we never have to make up our minds about where to sit. It is a small local community, all familiar faces, that embrace traditions.

       The best part about church on Christmas Eve is, that we know all the songs; we have learned the lyrics in school as far back as kindergarten. I count each song as we go, because I can see on the board on the wall how many songs we are supposed to go through; when we get to the crack in the board, we are half way through.
candy-filled cone
        I like these songs and I know the story about baby Jesus being born, the star that led the wise men and all that. I always wonder if it was normal back then, to ride around on donkeys, it makes me think about my pony, I wonder if she enjoyed her gourmet sugar beet and I wonder if she will be able to see the stars through the stable window this evening. I shuffle my shoes a bit on the floor during the second to last song, to scuff them up a little, and lessen the risk of slipping on my way out. They really are nice shoes, they are white patent leather and have a strap that goes over the arch of my foot. I wonder if everybody else is thinking about other things while the priest talks; it probably isn't nice to do. I look over at Frode, he works for my dad on the farm, he also worked for my grandfather, when he was alive and ran the farm. Frode is really nice, and I already know, what he is thinking of, because he told me earlier in the day, that he will be thinking of the gravy and the potatoes, while in church. He winks at me. Just like me, my brothers are willing time to move; shifting from one foot to the other when standing and dangling legs back and forth when sitting. My mother looks at her watch, I know she is thinking about the timing of her cooking; and my grandmother and my is hard to tell, but I think they both just like knowing the songs and the story, like I do; they seem happy and in agreement with the events. Finally we are at the last verse of the last song, and the church bell starts ringing, I wonder if the nisse that lives in the church bell tower is deaf or wears earpugs, because it must be very loud up there. We leave the church, greet the priest on the way out, and wish other neighbors, some of my school teachers and friends a Merry Christmas. My brothers and I are very excited now, because as far as we are concerned, Christmas Eve just kicked into high gear.

       At home, mother rushes to the kitchen, grandmother goes to powder her nose, while my dad starts lighting candles. He begins with the big advent wreath in the hall. It is a big entrance hall with tall ceilings and an old black and white checkered marble floor. The large room looks magical when only illuminated by the four big candles in the wreath that hangs from the ceiling by four long wide red silk ribbons. The walls are covered with deer trophies that my grandfather once shot and they all have little shadows in the candlelight. To the left of where the wreath hangs are tall french doors. You can't see through the glass these days because our parents have draped a large wool blanket behind the glass doors. During the daytime my brothers and I tried to peek through some of the holes in the blanket, but the holes were too small to really get a look. We know the Christmas tree is in there, we are just not allowed to see it, until after dinner this evening.

       Mom and dad decorated it last night. The only thing we were allowed to do with grandmother's help, was fill the many candleholders for the branches with candles, and fill the cones with candy; grandmother said we had to whistle while we were doing it, because  you can't whistle while you have candy in your mouth. But she did allow us to have some candies though. When we were done, our parents took candles and candy-filled cones to the tree. We had helped pick out the tree earlier in the day, yesterday, when we all went out to the big forest; I suspect my father already had his eyes on this tree, but he still made it look like we had a say in it too. After this point, we were strictly forbidden to peak into the Ballroom. Part of me was curious and wanted to, but a greater part of me didn't want to spoil the big revelation that were to come, when my father would later show us the tree, magnificently decorated and with all it's flickering wax-candles.

       Our other grandparents arrive, they went to church at their own church, but will join us this year at our house for the festivities, along with my aunt who really is so young that she doesn't want us to call her aunt; she is ten years older than me, which is a lot, but not enough to be an "aunt", which is understandable.

       Finally it is time to go into the dining room. We usually eat in the kitchen, but on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve we eat in the big dining room, even though we aren't enough people to fill the whole big table. The dinning room looks positively magical. The long shiny mahogany table is decorated with a whole forest of little golden Christmas trees, that my mother made from floral foam, fir tree twigs and lots of gold spray. It is a very simple and elegant decoration; little candles in star-shaped holders are strewn down the middle and make the trees sparkle and shine. From the crystal chandelier hangs very old silver and golden glass balls; the candles reflect in those as well. Reflections and shine is everywhere you look; from the crystal-sconces on the walls with their real candles, to the flickering real candles in the big crystal chandelier. The many tall windows of the room have darkness on the other side so all the candle lights are reflected back with a warm glow. But we are not here to admire the scenery, we are here to get through dinner so we can finally get to the tree!

       We start with  some seafood, perhaps shrimp, and lettuce on a halved avocado, smoked salmon on a slice of buttered crusty bread; we then proceed to the more traditional part, which in Denmark will be either duck, goose or roast pig with cracklings. There are potatoes (many people have caramelized potatoes), warm pickled red cabbage; if we are having duck, there will most likely be a Waldorf salad; in either event there will be a delicious sauce or gravy. We then move on to dessert which in accordance with tradition is "Ris a la Mande", which means rice pudding with chopped almonds, whipped cream and vanilla, served with a bright red cherry sauce with whole cherries that have imbibed a bit in port.

       Before the dessert is served, one brother gets to chose one perfect whole almond while the other gets to drop that one into the dessert and watch while my mother stirs it into the mix. We have now all witnessed the fact that there is only one whole almond in the mix, and we know that the person who gets it will get a prize. Traditionally the prize is a marzipan pig, but none of us care too much for that, so there is a small wrapped gift on the sidetable as an alternative. The grown-ups like to play games, and secretly pass the almond to each other; make someone turn their head and deftly drop the whole almond onto their plate. We children never understood this ....why would you want to give up the prize if you were lucky enough to get it to begin with?...Sometimes grown-ups are just incomprehensible. When we were very little, my mother would have pre-plated our servings...."to keep them cool", she said, but really I know it was to make sure we each got a whole almond, so we each could get a prize; too bad we are not that little anymore! My brother gets the prize...again! He is just so very lucky! He doesn't even like rice pudding! He got it last year too!

      My grandfather has been complaining about how stuffed and full he feels, that everything tasted wonderful, but that he really over-ate. It sounds like something he has said before, but now we get busy helping mom clear the table and get the coffee-tray ready with freshly baked cookies and assorted Christmas candies; while dad disappears into the ballroom to light the many many tiny candles on the big tree. We are now so close to, what we have been waiting for all month, and there is no longer need for a time machine to move us forward; we are exactly where we want to be.

Old photo from Danmark's Radio
       We line up in the Library, which is the room between the Dinning room and the Ball room. We line up in front of the big double doors, smallest person first, then the next smallest, etc ending with the tallest one in back, so that everyone gets the full view of the "WOW-moment". My father asks through the doors if everyone is ready, we answer in the affirmative, and everyone is now completely silenced as he opens up the tall double doors and reveals the most magnificent vision: An enormous Christmas tree that reaches all the way to the tall ceiling, with the star on top nearly touching the ceiling. The entire great room is lighted only by the flickering candles on the tree; placed carefully, so as not to catch fire on anything.  There are hearts and stars, candy-filled cones, old and new decorations, some we have made in school, and of course, beneath the tree are impressive layers of gifts. We "ooh" and "aah" while we walk into the room to truly and respectfully admire the greatness from all angles. Then we take each others' hands and form a circle around the tree. Slowly we walk around the tree like this, while singing carols, changing direction every other song, so as not to get dizzy; all the while admiring the beautiful sight. I think this moment is my favorite moment, even more than opening the gifts; although I have been eying some of them while dancing around the tree, and noticed that a couple of them, at least, had my name on them.

       Suddenly there is tapping on the french doors that lead out to the terrace. It surprises me completely at first, but then I look around the room to see, where grandpa grandma sees me and answers before I can ask:" Morfar had to go to the bathroom, his stomach wasn't so well". My dad breaks our circle of hand-holding to open the door and in comes "Julemanden" (Santa!).

"Julemanden" with my brothers and my mother
       Morfar enjoys this more than we can imagine. We know it is him, I think we have always known it is him, probably because he wears a mask; but we have always played along; it's a fun game and who would want to hurt morfar's feeling anyway? Perhaps we didn't realize it was a mask, when we were babies, but I don't remember that. The mask itself could probably be in a museum, I think it has been in the family for generations. It is easy to see his real skin under the edges of the mask, and the beard is made of a cotton ball material, only in a sheet; but all this goes away when he starts to talk; he is very engaging; just like he is in his story telling, and before you know it, everybody is enthralled by this fun make-believe. He hands us gifts, one by one, we thank him, as he leaves yelling "Glaedelig Jul allesammen" ("Merry Christmas everybody").

       A short while later, morfar comes into the room asks where we got those gifts from, and is then visibly upset, that he yet again missed Santa Claus! We open gifts one by one, also the ones from under the tree, while we enjoy the candies, the cookies and coffee for the grown-ups. We each get to chose the one candle we think will outlast all the others. There is no prize for this little game; it is just fun to be right. As the candles burn down, we light a few lamps but the room remains cozy with a nice fire in the fireplace. My brothers and I each have a designated corner of the room in which we keep our gifts. Tomorrow morning, when the grown-ups are still sleeping and the whole house is deeply silent, comes my absolutely most favorite part of Christmas, when my brothers and I come down in our pjs and new bathrobes, playing quietly with our new toys for hours. Later we will meet more family at another Christmas lunch. Christmas in Denmark lasts for many days, there is Little Christmas Eve, Christmas Eve, 1st Christmas Day, 2nd Christmas Day, 3rd Christmas Day and 4th Christmas Day. Many many lunches, dinners and hunts can be arranged during this time and then comes New Years all in all a very festive time of the year.

       This is a compilation of Christmas Eves remembered and seen with my eyes as a child. There may not have been a single one Christmas Eve that went this way, but in my memory there is. Growing up in a large historical house certainly played well into making Christmas beautiful, but really no more or no less than in any other home, as that feeling comes from the people in it.

       They were all magical Christmas Eve's, some more than others; and some just went wrong, because life cannot possibly always live up to our great expectations. The important thing to remember is, that those that stay with us, are the fond memories and THOSE we can build on, and create images of for our loved ones. We all miss people when the holidays come around, and we all may miss aspects from those innocent childhood times or even miss the traditions as our lives change and take on new form all the time; but we can keep sharing the good moments, and we can keep creating new good moments. Start a tradition today. Glaedelig Jul, Merry Christmas!