A Tale of Two Christmases

A stark contrast to Christmas in Ireland. Growing up in post-war Finland and Sweden, Ireland-based writer ARJA KAJERMO recalls a snowy, Spartan season …

People who have read the bit about Christmas in my book The Iron Age sometimes express pity for the terrible poverty they think I describe. Imagine only getting a pencil for Christmas! How wrong they are. It was fantastic to be a child at Christmas time in Finland in those days. The Christmas tree with real candles that lit up the room was exotic beyond belief in a house without electricity, where usually the only light to lift the gloom was a little paraffin lamp that flickered and struggled to dispel the shadows. 

Santa came in person in a sleigh with jingle bells pulled by reindeers from a mountain in Lapland to visit you. And as if that wasn’t enough, to have Santa coming into your house stamping his boots clear of the snow in the porch (while your father was outside holding the reindeers), you also got a lead pencil handed to you by the real living Santa himself. Magic!

And the landscape outside was a fairy tale. The snow lay deep and was lit up by the moon that made the snow glisten. It was uncannily bright at night time. Only very rarely were there northern lights, the Aurora Borealis, in the sky. We called the lights “foxfires” and ran out of the house to look at them. Apart from my father taking my grandmother to church in the good sleigh to an early six-in-the morning service on Christmas Day, there was no mention of baby Jesus or anything Christian that I can recall. Our Santa was not called after Saint Nicholas of Myra but was called joulupukki, the Yule Goat, a heathen creature that was not entirely benevolent. He could bring a gift but could also dole out a punishment, such as a good birching, if you had not been a good child in the past year. 

The Christmas dinner was an ordeal for children who weren’t allowed to speak at table unless spoken to, and laughing or squabbling was strictly forbidden as well as elbows on the table since it showed disrespect for the God-given food. (Finally a mention of the Christian deity! But this was not because it was Christmas, it was the same every day.) The Christmas fare was rice porridge or any porridge if rice wasn’t available. This was followed by a fish dish, a see-through gelatinous, foul-smelling thing made with reconstituted dried, salted fish that children didn’t like but had to eat anyway. Just a little. It was like being made to eat vomit, a little was as bad as a lot.

Then there was the turnip bake and ham from the pig that had been killed in early December. We would have liked to gorge ourselves on delicious turnip bake and ham. But being stuffed with porridge and our appetites ruined by the smelly fish, we just poked at it. And then finally we got buns and ginger bread which meant that we could leave the table and I could play with my new pencil. 

When we arrived in Sweden there was more of everything and they celebrated Christmas for the whole month of December, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent. That was the day when all the shops put their Christmas displays in their windows. And people had Advent candlesticks with four candles and lit one candle at a time every Sunday until they had all four lit. And they put up a paper star, the Advent star, in the window. Father went and bought a candlestick, four candles and an Advent star so that we wouldn’t stand out. When we put up the paper star in the window it seemed duller than the ones the neighbours had. We found out later that you were supposed to have a light bulb inside it. 

On the 13th of December, people celebrated St Lucia’s day. The paper mill where father worked had a big party for all the workers and their families. The prettiest and blondest girl got to be Lucia and dressed in a long white night gown with a cummerbund of red silk. She wore a wreath made with green lingonberry sprigs and candles balanced precariously on her head. An engineer’s wife stood by with a wet towel in case Lucia went on fire like the real Saint Lucia of Syracuse. Lucia’s entourage of girls had their gowns tied at the waist with tinsel and each carried a candle. The boys, Lucia’s star boys, had long white nightshirts and paper cones on their heads and held stars on sticks. They all sang Sankta Lucia and ballads about St Stephen and Silent Night and Hosianna, David’s Son. All the adults, the fond parents, said it was wonderful and wiped away a tear. And then everyone ate saffron buns and gingerbread and the adults drank sickly sweet mulled wine called glögg, with almonds and raisins, out of tiny cups. 

On Christmas Eve, our dinner was the same as in Finland with the smelly fish that had to be eaten, the ham with turnip bake and the buns and the gingerbread. Swedes had more dishes, starting with dipping bread in the juices the ham had been cooked in, followed by lutfisk with white sauce and herring with potatoes and then meatballs and various sausages and ham and cabbage and then the sweets. My mother wondered how did they fit it all into their stomachs. Then a Santa (or jultomte, another heathen creature) came with wrapped toys. I knew that father had paid one of his work mates to dress up for the role and I was disappointed that he wasn’t real. Swedish Santa wore a mask over his face with holes for his eyes and you could see the elastic at the back of his head.

Christmas Day was always uneventful. We didn’t go to the early Christmas church service at dawn to listen to the Gospel according to Luke, but stayed at home and fretted over the lack of batteries for the toys we had been given. It was an oversight that seemed to happen every Christmas when the shops were closed for three days. 

My brothers and I were not really any happier getting these toys but now that we had arrived I would have been very disappointed had I got only a lead pencil for Christmas.

The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo, €10, Tramp Press. Kajermo’s work will be featured in a forthcoming Faber anthology: Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Lucy Caldwell. 

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