Hello Everyone, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
I wanted to take my time today to share some of the interesting Christmas traditions which pop up around the Midwest. Since this is an area settled overwhelmingly by Scandinavians and Germans in relatively large, and often isolated, communities many old traditions have survived into the current generation that might otherwise have disappeared in the melting pot of America. This creates a very vibrant and unique season to the upper Midwest which I wanted to share with you all.
First I’ll tell you about some of the traditions which come from the Swedish and Norwegian immigrants, which make up part of my personal ethnic background as well. As with any good holiday tradition these mostly revolve around food and the making/giving of traditional Christmas baked goods. No Christmas dinner would be complete without a smorgasbord containing at bare minimum some lutefisk (jellied whitefish preserved in lye), lefse (a thin potato based pancake often rolled with butter and sugar), and of course Swedish meatballs. As you can probably guess some of these are there because they’re beloved and some appear because tradition sometimes dictates communal suffering…
The cookies and baked goods which are shared and gifted during the Christmas season however are without exception phenomenal. Sandbakkel, krumkake, and pepperkakor are staples and eagerly awaited every year.
Those with German heritage, the other puzzle piece of my personal background, also have traditions which revolve around food however many also revolve around decorations. You may know that Christmas trees were a tradition in Germany and spread through the west by German immigrants or, famously, the British royal family in the 1800s. One such decorating tradition of supposed German origin, no one is able to actually confirm or deny it, is the hiding of a small pickle ornament within the Christmas tree. Tradition dictates that the first child to find the pickle on Christmas gets an extra small present to open. Mistletoe is also much in evidence throughout Germanic households as it is another Christmas decorating tradition with its origins in German mythos.
But, let us not overlook the german traditional foods. While Germany is not often held up as a paragon of the culinary arts their Christmas baking is second to none. Whether it be springerle (pillowy cookies flavoured with anise seed), lebkuchen, pfeffernus, or the ubiquitous gingerbread these Christmas baked goods make the season for me.
The most fascinating traditions to my mind within the Midwest however, come from those enclaves of immigrants from Denmark; especially those found within Southwest Minnesota. These communities are still mostly purely Danish and their traditions reflect this continuity of identity. Whereas other traditions may be modernized versions of food or decorating the Danish community traditions are about events, mostly on the family level.
When my sister married a man from a Danish family it was the first I’d heard of these wonderful traditions and I’d love to share my favorite. This is Jula Butiker (pronounced yoo-luh buh-tick-er) a celebration in early December after the erection and decoration of the Christmas tree. This celebration seems like something from Dr. Seuss in which the whole family gathers around the tree, holding hands, and sings carols to the tree.
And if you hadn’t guessed, no discussion of traditions would be complete without a mention of the wonderful foods made in celebration of the season. While the Danes share many traditional foods with the rest of Scandinavia, although they usually wisely avoid lutefisk, they do have one extra special dish. Æbleskiver are made when the whole family gathers as a family event and are small pancaky doughballs with bits of seasoned apple inside. You may have even seen them attempt to make these on Bake Off with varying success although any Danish grandma would have put them all to shame. These warm soft treats truly have the taste of the holidays.
Every culture and area in the world has their own special traditions for any holidays they observe but I find it fascinating the blending of traditions which we are seeing in my home area. The combination of what were even 20-30 years ago largely individual ethnic enclaves means many families get to take the best of everything and create their own traditions for the generations to come.
Thanks for reading! Share some of your own holiday traditions below and keep the spirit going.