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Archive for the tag “Christmas”

Happy Christmas!

jul medieval_christmas

In difference to preceding generations, we live in the age of globalisation. Most of us have gadgets in our homes produced on the other side of the world, we wear clothes made in India or Bangladesh, we eat fruit and vegetable and fish that has been transported from very, very far away. That’s how we can eat tomatoes in winter, avocado all year round and munch our way through a bowl of scampi.

Globalisation also impacts our cultures. I recall the first time I travelled to China on business. The adverts that stared down at me from various billboards promoted stuff I’d never heard of before. (And in Chinese characters, which sort of added to the exoticism) Western food chain eateries were few on the ground and the music blaring from the radio was in Chinese, however modern the beat.

Some years later, and the adverts were for Gillette, McDonald’s, KFC, BMW. The music playing on the radio was no longer exclusively Chinese. In fact, most of it was in English. Not necessarily a bad thing, but how does this affect the local culture? Actually, how does it affect culture, full stop?

Sometimes, I fear we’re mistaking consumerism for culture. Take Valentine’s Day, until recently not much of a thing in Europe. Now we are bombarded with adverts suggesting we buy gifts and flowers and chocolate (yes please) for our loved ones on February 14. But in those countries where Valentine’s is an imported holiday there are no cultural roots to link all these gifts to, no traditions of homemade Valentine cards to somehow mitigate the “buy, buy, buy her stuff if you love her” message.

In Sweden, we’ve seen an upsurge in Halloween celebrations in the last decade. We’ve never celebrated Halloween. We’ve celebrated All Saints, a religious holiday when we’ve visited the graves of our dead and lit a candle for them. These days, we don’t do that anymore. We carve pumpkins into toothy grins and embrace artificial spiderwebs (and spiders), decorating our homes in orange and black. Not because it is part of our cultural identity, but because it is part of the new “global” culture, disseminated through various shows/movies & social media and eagerly spurred on by all those who make money on selling us yet another celebration.

These days, we even have a major Black Friday craze here in Europe. Not because we’ve suddenly started celebrating Thanksgiving, but because the commercial powers that are recognise yet another opportunity to make money. And we, dumb consumers that we are, fall for all those special offers, buying stuff we probably don’t need or much want. Most of us have too much stuff and too little content in our lives.

jul 640px-Giorgione_014_crop

Tomorrow it is Christmas Eve, and for the last four weeks or so, we’ve been in the grip of Christmas shopping. From every store blares Christmas music, most of it of the Anglo-Saxon kind. Very little of it is traditional – rarely does one hear Oh Come All ye Faithful, while José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad seems to be on constant repeat. I suspect up-beat music stresses us into buying more stuff, the spiritual message of Christmas (God sending us his Son to deliver us all from evil) submerged by the “All I Want for Christmas” varieties which focuses on the presents. As I write this, the television in the background is informing me I can still buy my Christmas presents—at a bargain price, as this particular store has already started its After Xmas sale. (Most illogical: if it is an After Xmas sale, then how can it start before Christmas?)

It seems to me we’ve lost our way, somehow. For me, the weeks before Christmas should be about lighting candles to brighten the winter gloom while preparing for those few days when our family is reunited. Do I buy presents? Of course I do. But they’re not central to my Christmas and I rarely have a wish-list of my own. After all, I don’t need more things.

For me, the high point of our Christmas celebration is early on the morning of December 24 (In Sweden, Christmas Eve is the thing) All our children lie sleeping and hubby and I tip-toe around, lighting candles and preparing hot cocoa. We whip cream to go with the cocoa, heat the mandatory saffron buns and then, once we’re done, we crank up the volume so that the whole house echoes with “Hosanna, David’s son, blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord” (One of my favourite X-mas psalms). One by one, our children emerge, sleepy-eyed and tousled. And while they are all taller than me, all of them adults, in that precise moment they are all still my babies, for all that they have to bend down for me to kiss them Happy Christmas.

jul Carl_Larsson_Brita_as_IdunaI hope you all have someone to kiss this Christmas. I hope there are moments when you sit in the glow of candles and enjoy the peace and quiet of the winter night, a little bubble of golden light in a world that sometimes feels very scary and dark. With that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Or just Happy Holidays and a fabulous New Year. And when life gets confusing and difficult, may you all have a star to guide you, a little beacon to light your way!

On the day before the day


Carl Larsson: Christmas Eve

Us Swedes are an impatient people. Or maybe it’s the proximity to the North Pole that does it – after all, Santa has to start somewhere, and so he starts with us. On Christmas Eve. While in other parts of the Christian world it is Christmas Day that is the big thing, for us northerners the 25th is a recuperative day, spent mostly in pyjamas and with a restorative at hand. I must also hasten to add that I use “Christian world” from a cultural, rather than religious, perspective. Swedes are essentially religious only once a year, on the first Sunday of Advent, when churches throughout the land are thronged. Mostly because we all like singing the hymns we’ve been singing for hundreds of years.

Anyway: back to Christmas Eve. Many, many Swedish families have built their traditions round the hour of Disney cartoons that are shown at three in the afternoon. That’s the way it’s been since back in the sixties, and originally this was the only time of the year Swedish Television showed Disney cartoons. Back then, starry-eyes tots with water-combed hair sat and stared at Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse while the adults drank mulled wine and nibbled gingerbread biscuits. These days, the young adults & children couldn’t care less about the Disney hour: they want to see Disney, they just go to the Disney Channel. But their parents go all nostalgic, recalling their own Christmases, which is why most Swedish families start off their celebrations watching Jiminy Cricket sing “When you wish upon a star.”

Once the “cultural” aspect is over and done with, it’s time for food. Swedish has contributed a couple of words to the global community: one of these words is smorgasbord, i.e. a HUGE buffet, containing everything from pickled herring to glazed ham and meatballs. In between, you’ll find such oddities as a “salad” consisting of herring, apples, onions and beets (served with cream), various types of cabbage – “brown cabbage” fried in sugar, “long cabbage” which is kale fried with sugar and boiled in cream – and lutfisk (dried fish which is soaked in lye prior to being boiled). Obviously, very few Swedish families do the whole spread.


John Bauer – the Yule Goat

And then, after all that food, comes Santa. Well, traditionally, we don’t have a Santa. We have a Yule Goat, and originally someone would dress up as a goat to give out gifts. Plus we have our tomte, a greyer and somewhat more solemn version of the Christmas elf.
If we start with the goat, there are some that say this very old symbol for midwinter celebrations harkens back to Viking days and the god Thor. This god of thunder not only had an awesome hammer, he had two goats which pulled his chariot. Somewhere along the line, Thor’s goats transformed into the yule goat.

Hmm. I’d say the root to the goat lies in the medieval tradition of mumming. In medieval Sweden, the Hanseatic League had considerable influence, and they brought with them German Christmas traditions, one of which was for young men (apprentices) to dress up and go from house to house performing little musical plays, often centred round the nativity. Tradition had it that one of the young men should always be dressed as a goat, representing Krampus.


Krampus in good old form

Krampus? I see you rolling your eyes and thinking this is getting complicated. Not my fault, okay? Krampus is a recurring figure in the European December traditions. Originally, he was a personification of the devil, the black to St Nicolaus’ white, if you will. Where St Nicolaus would present good children with gifts, Krampus threatened the naughty ones with spanking, and even had a big sack slung over his shoulder in which to carry off the seriously disobedient kids.

The Swedish Krampus began as a figure with birch switches and a sack, but over the centuries he switched into the giver of gifts rather than spankings. That sack of his was no longer used to carry bad children away, instead it was filled with gifts for the children, and hey presto, the Swedish Yule Goat was born, a benign creature sporting a sheepskin coat and a bulging sack.

These days, very few Swedish homes are visited by the Yule Goat. I guess we fell for peer pressure and Santa. Somewhat ironically, Santa is a modern representation of St Nicolaus, so one could say we’ve upgraded from celebrating with St Nicolaus’ devil creature to the saint himself.


A tomte

Long before we had Santa (in Swedish Jultomte) we had the tomte. This ancient being has accompanied the Swedes through century after century, a little thing that watches us on the sly. The tomte is often tied to a place, and tradition has it that every old farm in Sweden has a tomte, a lurking little shadow who ensures the cows give milk, the hens lay, the crops are generous and the children don’t die. Well, assuming the tomte’s host is respectful and recognises his presence. An angered tomte will lead the children to drown in the icy stream, strike the cows with disease and spread rot over the harvest. All in all, a dangerous creature to rile.

Fortunately, the tomte doesn’t ask for much. All he wants for Christmas is a bowl of rice porridge, with plenty of cinnamon and sugar on top. Seems a very fair price, IMO. And just in case, many of us Swedish mothers and housewives will set out a bowl come Christmas Eve. For the tomte, or the elves, or whatever other being might be out there, watching over us.

Today, December 23rd, is the day we call “the day before the day”. Here I am, writing a blog post when the salmon needs curing, the ham must be glazed, the meatballs rolled, the herring pickled, the kale fried, the bread baked.


But I will find the time on Christmas Eve to step outside into the dark with my bowl of rice porridge. Some steps from the house, and I’ll be swallowed in darkness, making my way slowly towards the barn. When I set down the bowl, it steams in the cold, and I’ll lift my eyes to the sky, to the stars that were there long, long before man first trod the Earth, that will be there long, long after we’re gone. And there, to the east, shines a bright, bright star. A star of hope in the midst of the dark, a ray of light into hearts that feel lonely and cold.

Happy Holidays to all of you. Whether Christian or not, take a moment in the winter darkness to consider the truly important things in life. Family. Friends. May you all be fortunate enough to be with those you truly care for, and may there be some moments at least of peace and quiet.

As we say in Swedish: GOD JUL!

A light in the dark

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17They say life may be possible on other planets. There is water on Mars, even on the moon, and as long as there’s water, life as we know it has a fighting chance. Or so they say. The future of humanity may lie beyond our galaxy, as intrepid colonists of other worlds, so distant the going will take generations.

Somewhere in space, there may be another planet with the perfect balance of land and water. A beautiful, pristine place, where forests stretch endless from coast to coast, and life forms so exotic we can’t even imagine them call and hoot, graze and hunt. It seems to me we would be doing this untouched Eden a major disfavour by releasing mankind to wreak havoc on it. What right do we have to populate elsewhere, when we seem incapable of caring for the world that is our own?

At present, I am sitting looking out over our lake. It is over ten degrees outside, the sun is shining and it is as warm today as it was at midsummer. Very weird. Even weirder, the other day we sat outside to eat lunch – in December. A consequence of climate change? The effect of human life, human development, human never-ending appetite for more and more and more? Whatever the case, at our latitudes December should mean frozen lakes, frost if not snow on the ground, and definitely not invite us to sit outside while munching on a hot dog.

20151223_122603On the upside, my hellebore thrives, the huge fig we have planted by our door (and which rarely gives us figs due to the cold climate) is setting new vibrant green shoots, all of it dotted with miniature figs. Soon enough, they say, we will be able to grow grapes outside – even olives. Well, that sounds great for us, but what does it mean further south on our planet? And anyway, what happens if the Gulf Stream up and dies due to the present lack of cold water in the Greenland area?

Solnedgång 2This is when the “life on other planets” becomes a viable discussion. For some. Me, I have no inclination to leave. This is my planet, these are my trees, my birds, my flowers, my bugs. I have no desire to colonise a new world, I want to remain here, where the sun sets in fiery gold and oranges and rises haloed in the softest of pinks and greys. This is home. Out there, it mostly looks dark and cold. “Here be dragons” as they say…

Tomorrow it is Christmas Eve. We call it JULAFTON, and originally we celebrated other things than the birth of Christ. Come to think of it, we still do. Very few of the Swedish populace will think of Jesus and his manger tomorrow, it is more about herring and ham and smorgasbords in general and opening presents (yes, we do all that on Christmas Eve. Christmas day is spent in a food-induced coma).

IMG_0093But maybe we should take a moment and think: of the people we love, of the planet we live on and the future of mankind in general. 2015 has not been a good year for humanity. Horrifying terror attacks, fanatic religious armies breaking every moral law – in whatever holy book you may cite – as they claim supremacy over yet another piece of the planet. Some weeks later, and they’re pushed back, and the ground they’ve trod on is thick with blood and gore. Holy warriors, it seems, take the right to extinguish the holiest gift of all: life.

Atrocities are committed in the name of God, and God, dear people, weeps. He sits in a corner and watches as we tear each other apart and wonders where His design went wrong. All that free will – intended as a divine gift – has swelled into something self-serving and dangerous.

starry-night-over-the-rhone-vincent-van-goghBut tomorrow is Christmas. Tomorrow is the day when, so the Bible tells us, a star was lit, a child was born. A child to bring hope. A child to promise a better tomorrow. God’s ultimate gift to mankind, His son who would live – and die – for us. Thing is, it doesn’t help if Jesus died for us – not unless we ourselves take responsibility for making this world of ours a little bit better, a little bit kinder.

And it doesn’t really matter if we believe in God or not: if we, as humans, want to gift our children and grandchildren with a better world, it is up to us to act. That refugee who has nothing but the shoes he walks in, he needs a helping hand. The child who starves in Africa must have help to survive. Little girls in Afghanistan need schools, young men in Iraq need peace. Those that walk in the darkness need the rest of us to light up their way, and all of us need a hand to hold on to, someone who cares.

As to our poor planet, it is gasping. The climate is changing, and most of us still haven’t woken up to the fact that the tipping point may have come and gone, spelling future ruin for us all.

Fortunately, there is still hope – and it starts with us. In moments of absolute despair, humans throughout the ages have shown great resilience and a capacity to rise to the challenge. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. So how about we light a candle while making a silent promise to do something – anything – to make the world a better place?

722px-DiwaliOilLampCropTomorrow is Christmas Eve. May millions upon millions of candles light up the night, a beacon of hope in the darkness, a promise to ourselves that we will try. We must try – for us, for our children, for all the generations that come after.

May your holidays be filled with peace. May you be granted the joy of celebrating with those you love. And why not take a moment when you consider the miracle of life – and our common responsibility to keep that fragile flame alive.

Midwinter is a dangerous time…

all-aboard-with-medallionAll December, IndieBrag has been hosting a blog hop in which various authors have shared this and that about their holiday traditions. As you may know, IndieBrag promotes quality Indie books by awarding BRAG Medallions to those books that lie up to their exacting standards. (see this post)I am the proud winner of eight such medallions, all of the books in The Graham Saga having been so honoured. *puffs up a bit* Anyway, enough about stuff like that, instead, let us leap straight into the holiday fun.

It’s not that long ago since midwinter equalled a close to impenetrable darkness – no electric light, nothing but the odd tallow candle. In countries such as mine, so far north as to stretch beyond the Arctic Circle, winter is one long, uninterrupted night. It was also a time fraught with other dangers: too long or too cold a winter, and people would starve or freeze to death (or both). No wonder those long-gone ancestors of ours did their very best to placate the gods and ensure the return of the sun, celebrating the Midwinter solstice with sacrifices – a midvinterblot.


Carl Larsson – Midvinterblot (a rather romaticised version)

The Vikings were big on celebrations – especially during this the dreariest part of the year – so their midvinterblot became one very wet, very long party, as various animals were sacrificed to the gods. Always male animals. And every ninth year there was an even bigger party, in which nine of each animal was sacrificed. Sometimes men were among the sacrificial lambs – or so the Christian apostles would have us believe.

Anyway: in the 11th century or so, my pagan forebears became Christian, and the ancient festivities of the midvinterblot were appropiated as part of the Christmas celebration – minus the sacrifices. Some generations on, and all those gods of old, all that folklore was bundled together as being heathen rubbish – something good Christian people did not associate with. Except for the tomte, of course.

20151215_092712Here is a tomte, drawn by yours truly. A precursor of the Christmas elves, this tomte is an old, old being. And grey. No red cap, no jolly “ho ho ho”. Every farm had their own tomte, a sentinel spirit that kept an eye on the beasts and the humans, keeping them safe from the evil that lived in the woods and the dark winter nights. The tomte kept the fairies away, stopped the trolls from doing their changeling thing, ensured the cow gave good milk and the hens laid eggs – assuming of course, that the humans kept their part of the bargain.

An irate tomte was a dangerous tomte. Children would sicken and die. St Anthony’s fire would ravage the crops. The cows would go crazy and kick the farmer’s wife to death. The farmer would disappear into a sinkhole. You get the picture, right?

Our tomte is called Olsson. He is not a particularly nice or sociable creature. Only rarely have I seen him, a shadow hastening by along the wall of the barn. But I know he is there – watching over us. At times I hear his clogs clip-clopping over the ancient floorboards in our barn. When the moon is high, chances are I’ll see him, a small little thing standing in the middle of the yard, bowing to the lady moon. Or I won’t – Olsson prefers to keep below the radar. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he mutters, giving me a beady look that makes it abundantly clear I would be a fool indeed to forget his presence – or my duty to him, the guardian spirit of our home.

So, every Christmas Eve I do what housewives in Sweden have done since ages back. I make rice porridge – rice boiled in milk and sugar, with a cinnamon stick or two. Why rice? because once this was a delicacy, the most expensive type of porridge available. Once it is done, I set out a large bowl for the tomte. That is all he expects – a plate of rice porridge once a year. Well, and some respect, of course. In return, he’ll be around to keep an eye on the future generations as well – not a bad trade, all in all.

A5 Mailer-FrontIn my series, The Graham Saga, half-Swedish time traveller Alex Lind keeps the tradition of rice porridge alive – just in case there is a tomte about keeping an eye on her family. In the below excerpt, Alex has had a harrowing morning. One of her sons has been forcibly carried off to grow up with a neighbouring Indian tribe, and just that morning she saw him, on the other side of the river. What was she to do but try and swim across to reach her son?

She dressed, pulled on an extra pair of stockings to warm her ice-cold feet, and went in search of her family. It was Christmas Eve, and she had tons of things to do before tomorrow. The saffron buns she had baked yesterday, the ham was also done, but the pies and the fowl, the trout she was curing, and the bread…!
Someone was taking care of that at least, she sniffed as she came down the stairs. From the parlour came a steady hum of male voices, while from the kitchen came sounds that indicated all the Graham women were there. Her stomach growled, and Alex decided sustenance was her first priority.
“Better?” Mrs Parson bustled towards her, dragging her to sit as close as possible to the kitchen hearth.
“I haven’t exactly been ill.”
“Nay, you just nearly drowned,” Mrs Parson said. “A normal wee thing, no?”
“I didn’t nearly drown,” Alex said. “I’m a very good swimmer.”
“David said how you were well under, and then the Indians pulled you out.”
“I would have made it across on my own,” Alex said with far more conviction than she felt.
Mrs Parson snorted, obviously not believing her. She served Alex a bowl of hot chicken soup, complete with leeks and carrots, and sat down opposite her. “Did you see him, then?”
Alex nodded, her eyes swimming with tears. “At least he knew who I was.”
“Of course he did,” Mrs Parson said, smiling at her. “And now he knows you for a daftie as well, no?”
“A daftie?” Alex’s voice squeaked with indignation.
“Aye. Throw yourself in the river like that!”
“You could have died,” Betty remonstrated, setting Timothy down in Alex’s lap.
“I just had to. He was so close.” She bent her face to Timothy’s bright corkscrews.
“At least he knows for certain just how much you love him and miss him,” Naomi said in a soft voice, “and that must be a great comfort to him.”
“You think?” Alex gave her a grateful look.
“If my mother had done something like that…” Naomi came over from where she was making pie, and holding her flour-covered hands aloft pecked Alex on the cheek. “I would have been so proud of her.”
Alex stayed in the kitchen, comfortable in the warmth and the industrious activity. She helped Ruth with the four chickens, setting them to simmer in a heavy broth, complete with wine, prunes, winter apples and finely diced salted pork. Alex made approving noises at Sarah’s squash soup, and had her fingers rapped when she tried to steal a piece of honey cake from under Mrs Parson’s nose. By the hearth, Agnes was minding the rice porridge, a staple of Graham Christmas Eves.
“Swedish tradition,” Alex said as she always did, ignoring the amused look that flew between her daughters. “You boil the rice slowly in milk and cinnamon, and then you make sure you set a dish outside the door for the little folk.”
“The little folk?” Mrs Parson laughed. “I’ve told you, no? The little folk live in the Old World, not here.”
“How would you know? Spoken to any recently?”
“No, on account of them being there, not here,” Mrs Parson replied with irrefutable logic.
“Hmph,” Alex said, “you never know, do you?”

20151216_122527I hope you’ve enjoyed this Holiday-inspired post. I urge you to continue following the IndieBrag blog hop, the next stop is with Janet Leigh. And, just to be on the safe side, why not set out a dish of rice porridge for the little folk. After all, as Alex says, one never knows, does one?


Wishing upon a star


Happy! The days are getting longer

Today is a good day. Since the longest night of the year (Sunday to Monday), the day has increased with two minutes. Now why do i hear some of you laughing out loud? Two minutes is two minutes – enough to read your horoscope in, to solve three crossword clues or finalise the Sudoku – without having to turn on the lights.

By New Year’s Eve, the day will have increased by nine minutes. By the end of January, we’re talking one hour and thirty minutes – and even then, the sun still sets at four thirty in the afternoon…

Anyway, besides the lengthening days, today is also a good day because its the day before Christmas. For us Swedes, it’s Christmas Eve that is THE day – we’re an impatient lot that just can’t sit around waiting for Christmas Day. Tomorrow, Swedes all over the country will fall atop the traditional julbord, which is the Christmas version of the classic Swedish smorgasbord. So what’s on this spectacular buffet, you may wonder, and the short answer to that is everything. More or less.

Herring, salmon, eel, mackerel, eggs, meatballs, sausages of various types, ham, ribs, trotters, smoked lamb, various types of patés, red cabbage, brown cabbage (which is normal cabbage cooked with so much sugar/syrup it turns brown) kale cooked in cream, brussel sprouts, potatoes, cheese, bread of various types, mustard, rice porridge, gingerbread cookies, candies, whipped cream, cloudberry jam, almond cakes to go with the cream and jam,It takes a committed eater to survive that table let me tell you, and most of us don’t even try: we zero in on a couple of favourites and skip the rest.


A little Christmas Maid

The reason Christmas is so much about food comes down to the historical fact that not so long ago people didn’t eat all that well. Up here in the north, 90% of the population lived on cabbage and barley  gruel. All year round. There’d be an occasional salted herring to liven things up, but meat was something to dream about. Yes, pigs were raised, but keeping the piglets alive and happy required substantial effort, and even so, one could not eat them until they were well and truly dead, and the little piggies did not go to piggie heaven until late autumn, when they were at their fattest.

Most of the pigs raised by the farmers were sold  to the well-off 10%. But many farmers could afford to keep one pig back, and so the household prepared for a major pig-feast, in which every part of the pig was somehow cooked and served. That’s why it’s ham and sausages and trotters and jellied pork brisket  and ribs at Christmas. For three days, there was no barley gruel, no over cooked cabbage. For three days, people ate pork meat in whatever form it came – including the boiled head. And then the pig was gone and it was back to gruel, to days spent dreaming about NEXT Christmas and all that wonderful, delicious food.

These days, we don’t exactly revert to living off gruel and cabbage after the holidays. Major problem from a waistline perspective (those historical ancestors of ours probably didn’t worry all that much about being overweight – or how they’d look in a bikini) On the other hand, few of us risk starvation in the months of March and April, traditionally the months when food supplies were at their lowest.


Tradition has it gifts are distributed by a goat…

We don’t do the buffet thing in my home. It requires much more time for preparations than I have, and besides, we’re more into salads than cabbage. But we do go a bit wild and crazy with cakes and homemade candy – which is why we always need to take a very long walk before dinner. Truth be told, we’d need that same walk after dinner as well, but by then we’re too tired – and full. Besides, at three o’clock on Christmas Eve, we have that most hallowed of Swedish Christmas traditions (and I can hear you holding your breath, so excited are you at finding out what this might be. Do we dance around the traditional Christmas Goat? Do we drink huge amounts of beer and stand on our heads while yodeling? Of course not, yodeling is not a Swedish tradition!) No, dear people, at three o’clock, Swedish families across the country collect before the TV to watch… taa-daa… an hour of Disney cartoons. Yup, you heard me: the biggest moment in our Christmas celebration is when Jiminy Cricket sings “When you wish upon a star”.


These days, the goat is made of straw – and sometimes set alight

Now, so as not to leave you thinking we are somewhat ga-ga up here in the dark north, it may be appropriate to point out that this fixation with Disney cartoons stems from a time when we didn’t have any cartoons – at all. Think 1970s, think a Sweden where the cultural elite sneers at such imbecile tings as cartoons, advocating instead serious, progressive (which for some reason very often is leftist) TV programmes. Thing is, the Swedish people didn’t want serious programmes – at least not always. No, we wanted to see Donald Duck decorate the tree while Chip and Dale made life hell for him. We wanted to see Lady and the Tramp eat spaghetti. We just had to see Ferdinand the bull sit on that bumble bee. So, once a year, Swedish Television fell for the pressure and gave us one  whole hour of cartoons. On Christmas Eve. Go figure – but I suspect the cultural elite preferred cartoons to fairy tales involving a stable, a star, a pregnant Virgin and the miracle of God made man. (The 70s were very anti-religion in our neck of the woods).

Our family doesn’t watch the cartoons. Obviously, we are not your typical Swedish family, seeing as we don’t eat traditional Swedish Christmas fare nor do the traditional Swedish Christmas things involving Donald Duck. Instead, we engage in deadly combat over various board games. In our family, we don’t believe in that drivel about participating being more important than winning. We go for the winning – all of us. We are poor winners (yes, we gloat)  and pretty bad losers (yes, we sulk). But hey, it’s Christmas, and soon we’ll be distributing the presents under the Christmas tree, so the winner gloats less than usual and the losers decide it was pure luck, not skill, that had the winner winning, and so they need sulk no more.

Hubby and I end our Christmas celebration in front of the fire. The kids – however adult they may be – are playing yet another round of board games in the kitchen, and they’re laughing and arguing at the same time, with Only Daughter protesting it isn’t fair when all three of her brothers band together to wipe her off the Risk board. It is nice to hear them squabble, to have them home. It is even nicer to snuggle up close to the man of my life and hear him wish me a Merry Christmas. This, after all, is what Christmas is all about: the people around us, the people we love and care for.

800px-Starry_Night_Over_the_RhoneSo maybe it’s not a bad idea to follow Jiminy Cricket’s advice and wish upon a star. Wish for peace in the year to come, wish for health for your loved ones. Wish for many, many future Christmases we can celebrate together. My family. The single most important thing in my life. God bless them all – God bless you all, and may you have the Christmas of your dreams, no matter where you are.

No rest for the weary

Is it only me, or are more and more of us living lives that balance on a cutting edge? So much to do, so many social media to keep up with, and so very little time … Of course, we have as much time now as people did fifty years ago, or a century ago. Actually, one could argue we have more time today as we live longer. Or? I can hear you falling over laughing – or crying, depending on your mood.

It used to be laundry took a whole day, that cooking was a multihour task, and that each day ended with some hours spent on mending clothes (well, if you were a woman). Today the laundry takes 20 minutes a load, we don’t really need to cook, and as to mending — pfff! We don’t do stuff like that, we buy new instead. And yet the hours, minutes, seconds go up in thin air, and we try to compensate by increasing our pace, rushing through our lives like frantic hamsters in a hamster wheel. So who/what is the time thief? I think the culprit is called EXPECTATIONS. 

In this day and age, we are expected to aspire to being engaged parents, attractive partners, committed colleagues, witty socialites, excellent hosts AND have a couple of interesting hobbies on the side.
“So what do you do in your free time?” someone asks you. (In this case a languid looking man in a black Armani suit and one of those hip leather bracelets who has just bored you to tears telling you about his latest passion, rapelling down sky-scrapers)
Let me tell you the expected answer is not “I don’t have any free time, you moron.” Nope, the answer should be something along the lines “Oh this and that. Some yoga on the side, and then I am presently reading up on the ancient Hittite empire. Did you know that they …” (which is where you launch yourself into a little monologue as to the fascinating Hittites and their iron weapons. The person you’re conversing looks somewhat blank, but hey, what do you care? He asked, and you’re just showcasing how interesting and multidimensional you are.)

Further to all of the above, we must at all times be “connected”. If you get an e-mail related to work on Saturday evening, there is an unspoken expectation that you should reply to it then and there. If you choose not to answer when someone calls you at an ungodly hour (or when you’re doing something else, or don’t want to talk) you’ll earn yourself a snarky comment or two. Sometimes I’m seriously tempted to drop my mobile in the loo and flush it, returning to those golden times when there were days when I was unreachable, simply because “we don’t have a phone in the country cottage” or we were out travelling. Now, of course, if you’re out and about in the world, the least you can do is to keep your FB page updated, so that all your friends can see just how intrepid an adventurer you are.

We ask people what they do for a living, what they do in their (non existent) free time. We rarely ask questions aimed at penetrating who they are – maybe because we can’t be bothered, or maybe because we meet so many people it would be exhausting to truly get to know them all. We have acquaintances en masse, but we no longer have time to cultivate them into friendships. At work, the up and coming people rarely stay in one company for much more than five years, it’s onwards and upwards to greener pastures, more challenging tasks and larger paychecks. More money leads to needing even more attributes to show the world just how succesful you are, and so the rat race goes on and on. Phew. Sometimes I think we’re all being conned, … “Be productive, buy a BMW and seaside property and live happily ever after” – except that we don’t have time to enjoy that life, do we? 

To top the whole thing off, Christmas is approaching. Aha! I see you blanch. Yupp, we’re approaching the yearly orgy of consumerism and … expectations. At Christmas, you see, it is no longer enough to be a good parent, a productive colleague, a sexy partner, a funny host and an erudite socialite with an immensely agile Yoga-toned body. Nope, now we have to go around being HAPPY as well. We must cook tons of traditional foods most of us no longer really like (or can eat as they are too fattening thereby forcing us to do extra sessions at the gym, and we don’t have … wait for it … time for that), our homes must be cleaned and festooned in garlands and mistletoe and garish lights and bows, and then there’s the presents. As if we need any, as if our kids need any. Like suicidal lemmels we throng the shops, returning home with bulging bags full of things chosen in haste rather than with care. Personally, I don’t need more bathsalts, okay? Heck, the only thing I need is TIME. 

This year, I have decided to give myself just that; time. Ultimately we choose our own lifestyles, and we can’t blame others for a problem only we ourselves can solve. Yes, I want to be an engaged parent, I most definitely aspire to being a good and loyal wife. I am conscientious at work, and I do have hobbies – maybe not very exciting ones, but still. But I can opt out of the race for physical perfection, I don’t need to keep updated on fashion, and I definitely don’t want to spend time mingling with vague acquaintances when I could be drinking a cup of tea with one of the people who truly matter to me. And as to Christmas, all I’m going to do this year is light a candle or two. And bake. Maybe cook something nice. Oh, and just a couple of gifts under the tree, and … Sigh. Big sigh. 

Tonight I WILL light that candle. I will disconnect my phone, turn off the computer, cradle my cup of tea in my hands and do absolutely nothing for an hour or two. Why don’t you do the same? Hey, you might even like it!

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