This post originally appeared in Nordstjernan.
For decades, my family has celebrated Christmas the same way, every year. I grew up listening to my grandmother tell me, “This is how the Swedes do it, how your relatives did it. So this is how we do it.” It didn’t really matter to me that my grandmother is actually a second-generation Swedish-American and not truly Swedish. (In fact, my closest relative to celebrate a legitimate Swedish Christmas would be my great-great-grandparents, who came to America in the late 1800s.) What mattered was the fact that we were replicating the traditions and customs of my ancestors, my roots, my people.
This is how my family celebrates Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we have dinner, complete with Swedish meatballs, lingonberry preserves, ham and Swedish prayer followed by an evening service at my grandparents’ Lutheran church. On Christmas morning we open presents from Santa, and eat a Swedish brunch of potatiskorv (potato sausage) and äggröra (egg gravy).
It’s all very proper, and I dare say a Christmas that deviates from this tradition wouldn’t seem like Christmas at all. I always felt I celebrated in a way that honored my ancestors, those Swedish immigrants who left their homeland over a century ago for better lives in hope-filled America.
Or so I thought.
In 2005, I eagerly invited my then-Swedish boyfriend, Erik, to partake in my family’s Christmas. I expected him to be impressed, to be moved by how we kept up authentic Swedish traditions. Most of all, I expected him to feel at home.
But things quickly went awry at the Christmas Eve table when my grandmother proudly shared with him the family’s traditional Swedish prayer. We would finally hear a real Swede read the words we’d only imagined we pronounced correctly for years. Erik took one look at the prayer and sheepishly said, “This isn’t Swedish; it’s Norwegian.”
We were stunned. Of course, looking at the words now, it is easy to see the Norwegian vowel ø, a vowel that doesn’t exist in the Swedish language. How had none of us spotted it before? My mother and I had both even lived and studied in Sweden.
“I can still read it if you’d like,” he offered meekly, but it was too late. Swedish Tradition #1 — The family prayer: ruined.
Later, when we pulled into the church parking lot, Erik was visibly uncomfortable. He shifted awkwardly in his seat and tapped his knees with his palms.
“Is everything OK?” I asked. “Are you worried the service won’t be in Swedish?”
“You know,” he whispered, “Swedes don’t really go to church.”
“I know they don’t go much during the year, but surely, on Christmas …” I responded.
“No, not then either,” he answered.
“But how do you celebrate the birth of Jesus?” I questioned.
“With Donald Duck,” he replied matter-of-factly.
While I sat in the car, mouth agape, Erik explained to me, in detail, how Swedes everywhere gather around the television on Christmas Eve for an annual showing of "Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul" (Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas). And they’ve been doing so since 1959. Young and old watch the cartoon together in a moment of familial togetherness. In a very real way, watching Kalle Anka on Christmas Eve is as much a Christmas expectation for Swedish people as is attending church for Americans. Swedish Tradition #2 — Lutheran church service: crushed.
The next morning, after exchanging gifts — which Erik informed me happens on Christmas Eve in Sweden (Swedish Tradition #3 — gifts on Christmas morning: poof) — my family prepared our cherished Swedish Christmas brunch. It involves boiling the potato sausage before browning it in the skillet and carefully stirring the eggs and milk to cook the gravy slowly. The process of cooking the meal is as meaningful as sitting down to eat it.
“We order the sausage special from Minnesota,” I declared smugly to my boyfriend as he swallowed his first bite. The casing crackled as he cut off another slice. “Does it taste like the kind you have at home? And the äggröra? It’s so tricky to make sure the egg doesn’t separate, right?”
“I’ve never had it before,” he said in between forkfuls.
“Huh?” For me, this plate of food was the most important meal of the entire year. I love this dish so much, that should I ever find myself on death row, potatiskorv and äggröra would be my last meal. My family reserves these recipes for the most holy day of the year — preparing this meal on any day other than Christmas would be sacrilegious.
“It tastes good, but, you know, this is a typical meal for poor Swedes from the old days. Pork is more expensive than potato, so long ago Swedes used to add potato to the sausage to extend the pork. It’s all filler,” Erik continued. “And the äggröra is mostly milk, not eggs. Eggs were hard to come by, so they did what they could to spread them out.”
And there it was. My Christmas brunch, a meal I believed was suited for royalty, was nothing but a poor man’s breakfast. Swedish Tradition #4 — potato sausage and egg gravy" annihilated.
There was nothing left.
But here’s the thing. After getting over the shock that my Swedish Christmas traditions were a sham, I surprised myself. I found I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed of what Erik had taught me. Instead, I became more proud of my family’s holiday. Sometime, somewhere over the years and years celebrating Christmas, my family’s traditions changed from the original Swedish customs. I now understood how it’s not about celebrating Christmas the Swedish way, but celebrating Christmas our way. After all, we’re not authentic Swedes; we’re Swedish-Americans. And for what we are and what we’ve become, I think my great-great-grandparents would be proud. God jul!