I love Christmas music. Don't you? Doesn't everyone?
I love the carols and the service at our church on Christmas Eve that is filled with the singing of as many of the beautiful carols as the Minister and Organist and the choir too -can possibly fit into the service. The beauty of the words and music seem to cast a spell of peace, calm and serenity over me -no matter how much I had planned to do for Christmas each year and usually fell quite short of accomplishing those goals too, hearing the music just really does fill my soul in a way that no other service, no other time seems to bring to me.
At the onset of our Christmas Eve service though is the part that really stirs up my nostalgic side though. That's when the lights are dimmed and the choir gathers in the narthex and they sing an old favorite Christmas song that I especially love. The name of this song is "Lyssna, Lyssna" and it is sung in four-part harmony with no organ or piano accompaniment. Since it is an old Swedish Christmas Carol, it is also sung in Swedish too.
Not that there are lots and lots of members of our parish who still speak the Swedish language and the neat thing about this song being sung by our choir is that very few of the members of our church choir these days even have an ounce of Swedish blood in their ancestral line, but you see, the roots of those people who founded our parish back in the late 1880s were primarily from Sweden and so, even today with many of our members stemming from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, our church still celebrates the holidays by inserting many of the old Swedish traditions in whenever and wherever it can be done.
I love this song! I really and truly do. It brings back so many wonderful memories of my Grandfather singing it -with me listening to him and his beautiful bass voice as he would sing the harmony parts to this song -even after his own memory had run away from home, so to speak, he would remember the lyrics and the melody and sing it loud and clearly. It was one of his most favorite pieces of music and one that he in turn, taught me to love it too. I didn't learn the words to this song until probably two, maybe three years after my Grandpa died, but once I learned them, and the music, I've never forgotten it.
I have so many memories of Christmas and the majority of them are all good ones too. Oh, a few here and there that maybe didn't quite measure up to par but those were generally due to not having the best things going on in the background now and again during the years when I was married.
But as a child, the things I remember remain as a very strong part of me and what I think of around Christmas.
I remember vividly the smells in this old house of my Grandmother and Mom baking all kinds of wonderful things -from several kinds of breads (Swedish Limpa Rye, Grandma's regular white bread, special rolls, cinnamon buns, and braids), cookies of several varieties with Grandma's favorite being Fruit and Nut Cookies, made with fruit cocktail and chopped nuts in them.
And I remember too in the weeks preceding the holiday an aroma that, if a friend of mine happened to come home with me and who wasn't of the Swedish ethnicity, this particular smell might make that person cringe just a bit.
Anyone who has ever grown up in a household where the family partakes of dried salted cod fish will know that odor stems from all the soaking of the fish in a lye solution for about two weeks or so before it is ready to be cooked.
Known as Lutfisk, it was our main staple for our meal on Christmas Eve.
According to my Grandmother, the tradition was to have this fish -boiled -and served with plain boiled potatoes and creamed peas and with a cream gravy over the fish and potatoes. Very bland in color was how the early evening meal on Christmas Eve was supposed to be and boy, my Grandma did her darnedest too, every year, to follow that tradition right down the nth degree.
I think another reason we always at the Lutfisk early in the evening in our house too was because my aunts, uncle and cousins would generally start arriving between 8:30 and 10 p.m. and I don't think any of them happened to care that much for this particular meal, for the Lutfisk, except for my Grandparents, my Mom and me.
We always went to the very late service back then when I was a kid too -at 11 p.m. and after church, our neighbors across the street would always come in and join us for a very festive after-midnight snack which consisted primarily of breads and cheeses, pickled herring and another Swedish dish that I can't spell but the translation of this dish is jellied veal, served with a couple drops of vinegar on top of this concoction.
My Mom and Grandma would shop for a really nice piece of veal, preferably a knuckle joint with enough meat on it to cook off and lots of potential too, for the juices around the joint to cook down and create a gelatin-like dish. The meat would be ground up fine along with onions and peppercorns and some other spices and then, the juice/broth poured over it and it would be chilled into this meat jello. I finally found a recipe for this dish about 25 years or so ago and made it for Christmas for my kids and me but my son was the only one -besides myself -who would even taste it. What's sad -to me -is when I tried to make it that one time, it actually turned out very good and I wish my girls had at least just tried a little bit of it instead of turning up their noses at it. But then, that's what comes I suppose of not following traditions like we had when I was young each and every year and therefore, when I did spring this on my kids, they had definite ideas by that time of what they would and absolutely would not even try to eat.
I remember from about 8-8:30 on Christmas Eve, how I would wait and watch for cars coming down our street and hoping and praying with each little bit of traffic that came by that the vehicle would pull over in front of our house and my aunt and uncle from Pittsburgh and their five children would arrive and the house would begin to fill, not just with people but more so, with the noises associated with the first arrival of the family. Then, my two younger cousins, Ray and Dave and I would begin waiting and watching together for our uncle, aunt and cousin from Maryland to finally get here. Grandma would begin her pacing then too as she tried to stay calm but you know -or at least we knew -that she would always be worrying about this son and his family and their drive up here, over the Tuscarora Mountains of Southern Pennsylvania -which back then could prove to be a rather wicked trip for the vehicles of that era. Because that uncle had his own business and sometimes couldn't get away from their place in a more timely fashion than my other uncle and his family, it would often be right up to the wire to get to church on time from waiting, watching -and yes, worrying -about RW and his wife and daughter to get here.
Once Uncle Ralph arrived though, everyone could relax a bit and enjoy the raucous laughter that always ensued when he entered this old house. He was the tease! Always laughing and joking with Grandma and with the kids in the house too.
After church, and after our midnight meal, the business -the REAL business of the night took place as the Christmas presents were passed out. That was the time my cousins and I had really been waiting for the permission from our parents to "dig in!"
I remember too my Mom, kind of circling the living room as we would start ripping into packages and she would nudge me and my cousins, urging us to be careful please as we tore the wrappings off so she could go behind us and begin to gather up as many big pieces of wrapping papers as she could possibly retrieve and begin to try to neatly fold these pieces up to save for the next year. She and my Grandmother too would both do this and the following year, they would take the box they had stored those wrapping pieces in and get them out and begin to iron each and every piece, neatly, so it could then be reused the following year -thus saving them the expense of purchasing more gift wrapping paper. (They also tried to salvage every box that had held some gift in it too for reuse the following year as well.)
After the general hubbub of unwrapping gifts had finally died down and the grownups had then also had a little toast with some Mogan David wine, we kids would usually crash on the living room floor while Mom and Grandma would issue instructions to my aunts and uncle as to who would sleep in which bedroom and who would go across the road and sleep at the neighbor's house that night.
Once most everyone was in bed, that usually left my Mom and my Aunt Nellie to begin the preparations then for our Christmas Day meal -either a big turkey or a ham. So while the rest of the family had pretty much settled in to sleep, they would be busy out in the kitchen till around 5 a.m. before they would finally call it a day.
These things though are all memories I hold near and dear in my heart and every year, about this time, they surface as I think of how wonderful those holidays always were and always will be in my heart.
And that brings me to the secular song, "I'll be home for Christmas" which I also really love. And when I sing that song along with a cd of Christmas music, when I get to the line, "If only in my dreams" it always makes me tear up.
I am always here -HOME -for Christmas and have been now for well over three, almost four decades now but with the passage of time, beginning in 1958, with our first Christmas after Grandpa died and the first Christmas too without three of my cousins being present as well, the holiday, as I knew it, had begun to change. Within ten years, my Grandma died as well as my oldest uncle and my aunts and uncles and cousins had stopped coming "home" for the holiday. I wasn't even here then for about eight years as my Mom, older daughter and I were living in the D.C. area and we would drive up from D.C. to my uncle's place in Hagerstown so we could at least be with part of our family then, you see.
But Christmas -here -has never been quite the same for me.
I guess because I'm a good bit like my older uncle who had built his family a beautiful two-story brick home outside of Pittsburgh which he always referred to as his "house" but when he used the word "home" everyone knew he was referring to this old house here, that today is mine and my children's home. I can understand his differentiation in those two words completely because anytime I lived away from here, home was always meant to be this old house, this homestead, this place with all the voices and memories of the people I loved who made it home for me.
So you see, this year at Christmas, yes I'll be here at home but really it will be "only in my dreams!"