Tag Archives: Norwegian

Norwegian for the Holidays

My sister says I get “Norwegian-y” around the holidays. She means I go a little overboard with my Norwegian sweaters and “prairie tree” made by my father from dowels to imitate the twig Christmas trees of early Norwegian immigrants. I unwrap the Norwegian Nisse doll knitted and felted by a newfound Nordic cousin. John and I fire up the Norwegian woodstove in the milkhouse sauna for chilly winter nights. We even make lefse—a thin Norwegian potato pancake–for Christmas eve dinner using my Grandma and Grandpa Short’s lefse griddle and fancy rolling pins. My holidays wouldn’t feel complete without these Nordic customs.

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This year I’m feeling even more Norwegian-y because I’ve been researching my father’s Nordic heritage on my grandmother’s side. Her father—my great-grandfather Martin Jacobson—came from Oslo as a young child in 1883. Her mother—my great-grandmother Jossie Dokken Jacobson—was a first-generation American daughter born to Norwegian immigrant parents. It’s these great-great-grandparents for whom I’ve been searching recently, aided by Jean, an expert genealogist who keeps me pointed in the right direction with her generous guidance and lightning-fast retrieval of archival information; Janet, my dad’s cousin-in-law who shares her own valuable discoveries; and a handful of Minnesota historical librarians and genealogists. With their help, I’ve reconstructed a good bit of information about these ancestors.

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Genealogical research is one part methodical fact-finding (pouring through census and other records; checking and rechecking names, dates, and places), two parts sleuthing (following up leads, pursuing hunches) and three parts serendipity. Jean reminds me that some of the best clues are found in places where we aren’t even intentionally looking for them. I enjoy this meticulous kind of work, and the connection to my own family makes it even more satisfying.

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Searching for Norwegian ancestors in the winter makes a certain kind of sense because Norwegian immigrants settled first in the colder mid-Northern areas of the United States. Norwegian immigration is really two movements: emigration from Norway, where economic opportunity was limited by lack of land for the growing population, and immigration to the United States, where land was becoming available as states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa “opened” (a euphemism for claimed and taken by settlement and force from Native people) for white, European homesteaders.

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Norwegians immigrated to the rural northern climate to continue the agricultural work they’d known back home. Garrison Keillor jokes that Norwegians came to the US to try horizontal farming, meaning they were leaving the mountains of Norway behind. These immigrants weren’t daunted by the cold winters of the mid-Northern states. In his 1909 study Norwegian Immigration to the United States, scholar George T. Flom remarked on the affinity of Norwegian immigrants to colder climates: “Even Kansas is too far south for the Norwegian.”

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My great-great-grandfather Ole Olson Dokken came to the United States in the late 1860s or early 1870s with his older brother Arne. Census records show two different entry years for Ole—1868 and 1872. Census records are notorious for imprecision and error, but at least we have a range of dates from which to work.

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We have yet to find the entry year for my great-great-grandmother Anna Engebretson Dokken and we may never find it. Women in those days weren’t usually asked for such details on the census since the husband was considered the head of household whose information was most important. I’m still searching for Anna’s death record. My great-grandmother Jossie—Anna’s daughter–noted on the back of her own wedding license that Anna died at age 50 in Swift Falls, but research there has yet to turn up anything with Anna’s name. The last official document we have for Anna is the 1895 Minnesota state census in which her name appears with her husband and children. By 1900, she was gone and Ole was remarried to Karen Thompson, another Norwegian immigrant.

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I may never know much about my great-great-grandmother Anna but I’m willing to keep looking until the all leads are spent. Finding connections between the women in my family helps me understand my own life better. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote of how my Great-Grandma Flora Hunsley Smith’s teaching and farming life was passed down to me. I hope to find a similar resonance with Great-Great-Grandmother Anna. After all, she came to a new country as a young, unmarried woman and raised her seven children on a farm. She must have valued education since her daughter Jossie went to school through eighth grade, which was equivalent to high school in those days. I imagine she made the most with what she had without complaining because that’s the ethic I observed in the Norwegian family and community of my youth.

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I’m further south than my Norwegian ancestors, but it still gets cold here on Colorado’s Front Range. If I feel like whining about the frigid, snowy weather that occasionally descends on these dark winter days, I remind myself that I come from hardy Norwegian stock. When the snow’s falling and the days are short, I can put on a Norwegian sweater and stoke up the Norwegian woodstove.  I can get “Norwegian-y” for a while and warm myself with the customs passed down to me from ancestors who took a long ship’s ride across an ocean to reach new land where they could make a home.

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Coming on Christmas

It’s coming on Christmas/ They’re cutting down trees/ They’re putting up reindeer/ And singing songs of joy and peace

Joni Mitchell, “River,” Songs of a Prairie Girl

This year’s winter solstice turned with a lunar eclipse on a cloudy night as the earth’s shadow spread across a full and luminous moon. Now that we’ve passed the turnaround time, we move forward to our Christmas celebrations with family.

John and I don’t have a Christmas tree this year, or at least not a pine-boughed tree with a star on top. We haven’t had a tree for the last three years because we’ve been travelling at Christmas.

When we have had a tree, it’s come from our own farm, one planted by nature that’s managed to grow without irrigation or human tending. Our Christmas trees are Charlie Brown trees, lopsided and thinly branched but still fragrant and fresh.

One year we cut our tree at Thanksgiving so our little nephews could help. We loaded the kids in the wagon and pulled them to the place along the irrigation ditch where our chosen tree was leaning over the bank. When our brother-in-law saw the much-anticipated tree, he suggested we could cut it down with a nail clipper.

I like a real tree in the house with our handmade and childhood ornaments, but this year seemed to call for a simpler plan, so I put up three smaller trees instead.

The first is a metal tree on the desk with antique glass ornaments, many of them found on the landing of a friend’s New York brownstone years ago. His elderly neighbor had died and her family had left boxes of interesting items for the other tenants to inherit. I was visiting that June and no one else wanted the old ornaments, so I shipped them home. They remind me that life is transitory and that things are meant to pass on, even if you don’t know where they’ll end up next.

The second tree, a gift from my sister, is a Scandinavian candelabra covered in paper greenery and decorated with simple wooden ornaments. It’s flanked by mushrooms of various sorts, symbols of good luck according to German tradition. I like the idea of mushrooms at this time of year, woodsy and brightly capped in the forest, marking a season that seems to call for luck.

The third tree sits on our oak sideboard and, like the second tree, celebrates my Norwegian heritage. My father made it decades ago from blocks of wood and dowels painted green to imitate the prairie trees of branches or tumbleweeds gathered by Scandinavian homesteaders to decorate their sod homes or cabins, real trees being hard to come by on the prairie and too precious to chop down for holiday cheer.

Mine is filled with painted wooden ornaments from Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Russia, and others made by my grandmothers from woven straw or silvered nut shells or colorful candies melted in the small tin molds used to bake the Norwegian butter and almond cookies called sanbakkels. These precious ornaments remind me of my grandmothers, who always made the most of the little they had on the North Dakota prairies during the Depression. And at the top of the tree hang my childhood mittens, one for me (the other lost) and a pair for my doll.

When my daughter was in elementary school, she was asked to bring an example of a family holiday tradition, so she took the prairie tree, which is as close to an ethnic heritage as we can get on my side of the family, not counting our ubiquitous English side that’s reflected in this country’s language and laws. Like many families of mixed immigrant backgrounds in the US, our customs are practiced most consciously at holidays, especially regarding food. The aforementioned sanbakkels filled with lingonberry jam is one; making lefse, the thin potato pancakes of Norway, is another.

John and I took on this tradition several years ago when our friend Julie shared her lefse recipe with me. Rather than start with whole potatoes, this recipe uses natural instant potatoes, saving hours of labor peeling, boiling, and mashing potatoes for the dough. Tonight we’ll mix the dough and tomorrow we’ll roll and cook the lefse to take to my sister’s for dinner.

I’ve inherited my Norwegian grandmother’s wide, round lefse griddle, fancy rolling pins, and flat stick that slides under the lefse to flip onto the other side. My grandfather made that stick from a yard-long ruler, undoubtedly one given away by the local lumber yard, which he had whittled to a point on one end, but I’ve since bought a thinner stick that makes the job a little easier. Even with instant potatoes, lefse-making is a big job, but you can’t buy lefse as good as homemade. We’ll spread it with butter, brown sugar, or jam for our Christmas eve meal.

A simple tree of sticks; old ornaments that are still treasured; a treat of potatoes and butter from our family’s past. These holiday traditions seem right for our lives on the farm. They remind us that we come from hearty stock, from people who made the best with what they had, as we celebrate in these last, short days of December before we snuggle in to January’s frosty blows.

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