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.