Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Happy New Year's Eve. I hope your home is a cozy haven tonight, with or without a fireplace (ours is without), and that you are lucky enough to have a couple of dogs or kitties to curl up on the hearth or snuggle at your feet.

Several of my posts in the last couple of weeks were about Christmas in Scandinavia, in honor of my Norwegian heritage. By doing this, I wasn't neglecting my Scottish heritage. In point of fact, there is little to discuss when it comes to the subject of Christmas in Scotland.

Christmas had not traditionally been celebrated there because it was banned for nearly 400 years. Celebrating Christmas was considered by the Church of Scotland - the Presbyterian Church - to be a papist practice.

Until recently in Scotland, Christmas was fairly low key. It wasn't even a public holiday until 1958. Up till then, people worked normally on Christmas day, although the children did get presents.

As a result, most if not all Christmas celebrations nowadays have been brought in from other cultures (notable England and the US.)

The real holiday celebrating in Scotland begins tonight - Hogmanay!
Hogmanay (pronounced hɔgməˈne — with the main stress on the last syllable) is the Scots word for the last day of the year. However, tonight is only the start of a celebration which lasts through the night until the morning of January 1 or, in some cases, January 2, which is a Scottish bank holiday.

The roots of Hogmanay perhaps reach back to the celebration of the winter solstice among the Norse, as well as incorporating customs from the Celtic New Year's celebration of Samhain and the ancient Roman Saturnalia.

An old custom in the Highlands, which has survived to a small extent, is to celebrate Hogmanay with the saining - blessing - of the household and livestock. This was done early on New Year's morning by first drinking and then sprinkling 'magic water' in every room, on the beds and all the inhabitants. Then the house was sealed up tight and burning juniper branches were carried through the house and byre.
The smoke was allowed to thoroughly fumigate the buildings until it caused sneezing and coughing among the inhabitants. Then all the doors and windows were flung open to let in the cold, fresh air of the new year. The woman of the house then administered 'a restorative' from the whisky bottle, and the household sat down to their New Year breakfast.

There are many customs associated with Hogmanay. The most widespread national custom is the practice of first footing which starts immediately after midnight. This involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour and often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt (less common today), coal, shortbread, whisky and black bun (a rich fruitcake) intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder. This may go on throughout the early hours of the morning and well into the next day. The first foot is supposed to set the luck for the rest of the year.

My daughter spent Hogmanay in Edinburgh several years ago and reported that it was a night for carousing and drinking in the streets. Revelers included Scotsmen wearing kilts with nothing underneath, not minding (or not feeling) if they froze their arses in the bitter cold! A huge fireworks display is always set off, with Edinburgh Castle in the foreground.

The Hogmanay custom of singing "Auld Lang Syne" has become common in many countries. A traditional poem reinterpreted by Robert Burns, it was later set to music. It is now common for this to be sung in a circle of linked arms that are crossed over one another as the clock strikes midnight for New Year's Day. Certainly, you are familiar with the words and the tune:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne."

Here's another Scots New Year's song that may not be familiar to you (with meanings for the unusual words: Guid - good, ane an' a - one and all, mony - many, baith - both, twa - two, sma' - small, winna- will not, ilka - every, brae - hillside or slope, burnie - small stream, lang - long, hae - have, cot - cottage.

"A guid new year to ane an' a
An' mony may ye see,
An' during a' the years to come,
O happy may ye be.
An' may ye ne'er hae cause to mourn,
To sigh or shed a tear;
To ane an' a baith great an' sma'
A hearty guid new year.

O time flies past, he winna wait,
My friend for you or me,
He works his wonders day by day,
And onward still doth flee.
O wha can tell when ilka ane,
I see sae happy here,
Will meet again and merry be
Anither guid new year.

We twa ha'e baith been happy lang.
We ran about the braes.
In yon wee cot beneath the tree,
We spent our early days.
We ran about the burnie's side,
The spot will aye be dear,
An 'those that used to meet us there,
We'll think on mony a year.

Noo let us hope our years may be
As guid as they ha'e been,
And trust we ne'er again may see,
The sorrows we ha'e seen.
And let us wish that ane an'a'
Our friends baith far an' near,
May aye enjoy in times to come -
A hearty guid new year!"

I hope you have enjoyed these words, along with the images of Scottish Terriers, West Highland Terriers and Corgis sending us their holiday wishes. I leave you with my wish for you tonight, echoed in the words of John Ruskin:

"I wish for you some new love of lovely things,
and some new forgetfulness of the teasing things,
and some higher pride in the praising things,
and some sweeter peace from the hurrying things
and some closer fence from the worrying things.
And longer stay of time when you are happy
and lighter flight of days that are unkind.”
I am heartily ready for 2008 to be over. Let's hoist our cups to 2009 and shout, in our best Scottish Gaelic, "AGUS BLIADHNA MHATH UR"!
This post is written in memory of my friend Jude's great-hearted Westie, McDuff. A couple of months ago, McDuff simply laid down in the grass one morning and never got up, to the great distress of his human parents and siblings and his beloved doggie sibling, Angus, a Scottie. Now, Angus soldiers on alone, but it is my hope that his family will welcome another dog, whether a Westie or another breed entirely.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


It's not fit weather for man or beast here in Bismarck. It's fit only for Golden Retrievers, who love snow. The dog in the above photo is another Bismarck Golden, not my Penny, but it could very well be her, because it looks so much like her. However, Penny would have a red ball in her mouth. But no matter what Golden Retriever you would be looking at, they would be looking back and saying, "What's the matter with you? Why aren't you playing with me???"
A week or so ago, Bismarck broke the record for the most snowfall in December since 1916. Overnight, we broke the record for the most snowfall in ANY MONTH, EVER. As of this morning, we have now received 33 inches of snow this month.
That amount does not include the snow from the blizzard that walloped us in November.
This morning I had to say goodbye to my daughter, who left for balmy (relatively speaking) Washington, DC. She was happy to leave. Not that she didn't have a great time here, but she had enough of our weather before her first full day had ended. It didn't help that I got stuck in my driveway yesterday and she had to help shovel out and push the car.
So she went joyfully home to her boyfriend and her kitties and I am left with the prospects of: missing her, bleak and empty January, Arctic blasts, still more snow, short days and long nights, post-holiday letdown, being broke, high fuel bills, aches and pains, etc. etc. It's a recipe for depression if I've ever seen one.
But I am not going to let myself succumb. Instead, I am going to beat my blues by traveling around the world! In fact, I have already taken a quick trip to the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel. My guides to the island, who introduced me to all the delightful inhabitants, were Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. With their help, I learned all about the members of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society."
Right now I'm in gloriously warm and sunny California. Dean Koontz, bless his heart, treated me to a visit to the home of heart transplant recipient Ryan Perry. I'm helping Ryan solve the mystery of why he's being tormented by nightmares and receiving strange gifts and messages that say "Your Heart Belongs to Me."
After my return from California, I'll be going to Nantucket. I've always wanted to visit this charming island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. However, I'll be there under very strange circumstances indeed. It seems as if a truly odd event has occurred which has propelled the entire world - except the island of Nantucket - into 1250 B.C. The sea captain for this adventure is S. M. Stirling and this voyage to the "Island in the Sea of Time" is the first of three trips I'll be taking with him. My husband is already onboard and he says it is a very exciting, though extremely dangerous ride.
Later, I'll come forward in time to 1930s Manhattan's Upper East Side, where Lily Koppel will introduce me to brilliant, precocious and headstrong teenager Florence Wolfson and her "Red Leather Diary". Later we'll fly to present-day Florida , where Florence now lives.
From Florida I'll be going to rural Wisconsin with David Wroblewski. He'll be taking me to meet a mute boy and his beloved dogs to hear his tale, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle".
To round off my January travels, I'll be doing two things I've never done: visiting Africa and flying in a small plane. I'll be going "West With the Night" with 1930s African bush pilot Beryl Markham. I've been told I'll meet some of the same people I met when I visited Karin Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in Kenya in "Out of Africa."
That should take me into February, and by then we should have longer, warmer, sunnier days here. And if not, then I'm getting into Anne Easter Smith's time machine and going back to the 15th-century court of King Richard III of England to view "A Rose for the Crown".
Added later:
I completely forgot to add that I have also planned a return trip to Norway in January. I'm going back to visit an old friend, "Kristin Lavransdatter". My guide once again to the Gudbrandsdal valley of medieval Norway is Sigrid Undset. This time, she will be taking along my entire book club! I am particularly fond of visiting here, for this is where my grandmother grew up.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


"Christmas Time"
by Susan Dwyer

Between Darkness and Light

It is within the darkness and the silence
That the magic of Christmas starts;
Somewhere between the glimmer of lights
And the first breathless moment
When children come
Stumbling like new-born angels
Into morning light.
Within the darkness and the silence
We sit, watching wonder
Evolve into form; where we
Enter the ringing silence
In which the first bells of Christmas
Sound the music of the soul;
With a single carol
To a half-forgotten tune.
It is here, between the darkness
And the light,
That we wait, uncertain,
Seeking the moment
That challenges us to believe
In a freshly minted miracle
Born every Christmas Day.
By John Matthews

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Illustration by Finnish painter Rudolf Koivu

Today, December 23, is Lille Juleaften, Little Christmas Eve, in Norway. Norwegians take great delight in Christmas, and are only too happy to begin celebrating it early and extend it way beyond Christmas Day. In this post I'm sharing my Norwegian Christmas decorations. Since I do not have a digital camera, and haven't figured out how to use my new scanner, the illustrations you will see here are from the Internet. I will also show some Swedish and Danish decorations. I recently found out I have a Swedish ancestor among many Norwegian ancestors, and my husband, in addition to being half Norwegian, is also of Danish descent.

"Brita Med Juleapplen"
("Brita With Christmas Apples")
Brita (or "Apple Girl" as she is also known) has become a symbol for Scandinavian Christmas. Famed Swedish painter Carl Larsson often used his children as models for his work, and this painting is no exception. He dressed his daughter Brita in this costume for a painting he was doing for the cover of a magazine. I have this painting as a mini flag/wall hanging, and also on mother-daughter aprons for Kristen and me. I got them when she was about five years old. How I wish I had had someone take a picture of us wearing them!

"Lefse Girl" tile by Suzanne Toftey

In the past, I have given my sister and Dan's niece a number of these Norwegian tiles/trivets designed by Suzanne Toftey for Christmas. However, for many years I myself only had one tile. But this year, I gave myself permission to treat myself to at least one tile a year. Each tile in the series features a Norwegian child or children with a Norwegian Christmas delicacy.

Toftey also created a series of plates featuring the nisse, or Norwegian house sprite or gnome. In this plate the Julenisse (Christmas nisse) sets out a juleneg, a Christmas treat for the birds.

It wouldn't be a Norwegian Christmas without the julekirv or Christmas woven heart. It can either be a two-dimensional ornament for the Christmas tree, or made into a three-dimensional basket to contain Christmas goodies. The red and green version you see here is the traditional color combination for Christmas, or it can be red and white or created from the colors of the Norwegian, Swedish or Danish flags.

The Julenisse can also take the form of a Julebukk, or Christmas Goat. This straw goat is beloved of both Norwegians and Swedes, who call it a Julbok.

These angel chimes, a cherished memory of my childhood Christmases, can be purchased very inexpensively. The heat from the candles causes the angels to rotate and strike the chimes to produce a light tinkling sound.

Lovely Danish cutouts like the one above are delicately made and must be handled and stored very carefully from year to year.

To be a true Norwegian, one must have some sort of decoration painted with Norwegian rosemaling, a form of tole painting. The name is derived from the words "rose painting."

The Danish Bing and Grondahl and Royal Copenhagen companies each issue a Christmas plate every year. I have only two, which I purchased the first year we moved into our house 26 years ago. That year, my mother-in-law exclaimed during a visit, "Those are terribly expensive!" For some reason, her comment prevented me from ever purchasing another one. How I rue that decision. I have spent way more money over the years on much more foolish and expensive things than these!

Speaking of expensive decorations, one is the Swedish wooden Dala horse, above.

Another expensive decoration is the Swedish electric candolier, above. Because I only recently learned that I have a smattering of Swedish in me, and because of the price, these two decorations are only on my wish list so far.

Another kind of decoration that can be expensive are these Norwegian figurines. However, I have a similar, knock-off set purchased for very little at Wal-Mart!
Now that these decorations have been placed around the house, let's proceed to the Christmas tree:

All Norwegian Christmas trees MUST have painted red wooden hearts

and woven straw ornaments.

A nice addition to a Norwegian tree is an ornament made from Hardanger, a Norwegian cut-work embroidery.

Other painted wooden ornaments are also a must on the Norwegian Christmas tree.

Finally, a true Norwegian Christmas tree will have real lit candles (or electric in modern times), apple ornaments (I use flocked apples purchased in sets of a dozen) and flag banners. I was told by a Norwegian relative that the flag banners are supposed to go up and down, whereas I had wound my Norwegian flag banner round-and-round like a garland, as shown here. Since this illustration provides me some validation, I'm leaving my banner as is!

All the decorations are set out, the tree is decorated and lit. All that is left is to turn down the lamps and say, "Glaedelig Jul og Godt Nytar" ("Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!")

Sunday, December 21, 2008


"Solstice" by Jane Starr Weils
The winter solstice officially occurred at 12:04 A.M. Universal Time, and here in the central United States, at 6:04 A.M. today. From this, the shortest day of the year, the days will now lengthen. Pagans, druids and others in the pre-Christian world celebrated this day as Yule. It was a celebration of the return of light, and I can imagine just how much more it meant in those dark days than it does in these days of electricity.
Still, even us modern folk yearn for the longer days of spring. And today, the process begins, as the sun tilts on its axis toward the sun.
I celebrate this day with a bunch of images I've pulled from the 'net. I had a feeling that fantasy artists would be drawn to the subject of yule/solstice. And I was right. Here, for your solstice pleasure, are yule and holly kings and queens, fairies and druids, green men and goddesses.

"Yule Holly King" by Wendy Andrew

"Yule Angel" card by Anne Stokes

"Yule Druid" - no attribution given

"Yule Fairy" - no attribution given

"Yule Fairy" - no attribution given

"Yule Queen" by Mary Layton
(Also check out her "Yule Blessings" in my
"I am the Christmas Spirit" post from Dec. 5)

"Winter Solstice" card by Briar

"Yule Queen" by Wendy Andrew

"Spirit of Yule" by Anne Stokes

"Peace at Yule" by Wendy Andrew

"Christmas Light" by Meredith Dillman

"Lady of Lights" card by Briar

"Holly King" - No attribution given

"Bright Blesssings" Yule card by Briar
For a couple more images, here's a link to the Winter Solstice post I wrote last year:
And for some lovely solstice poetry, please check out Leanne's post for today:
Someone asked for a link to the Briar cards, and I am so glad I went to check it out, because I found the artist of two paintings I had no attribution for (Anne Stokes). Following are links to all the artists I mentioned: Briar:; Wendy Andrew:; Anne Stokes:; Meredith Dillman:; Jane Starr Weils:; Mary Layton:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008



I had already been planning a post on Scandinavian Christmas customs this year, since I am one-half Norwegian (minus a small fraction represented by a Swedish great-great-something- grandmother). Also, my husband is part Danish. In searching the Internet for illustrations for this post, I found the Christmas painting, above, by Norwegian artist Lars Jorde.


Imagine, then, my surprise when my Cousin Kevin recently sent me photos of his summer trip to Norway. Can you see the resemblance between the house our Grandma Julia grew up in and the house in the painting? This coincidence, plus photos of the interior of Grandma's house, made me eager to re-explore how my great-grandparents, Ole and Margrete Wangen, and their children - Olaf, Jennie, Julia and Marie - might have celebrated Christmas.


The painting above shows a Norwegian stabbur, or storehouse. Sore Plassen only had a barn and not a stabbur, as far as I can tell, but many, many Norwegian farms did and do have them. On the pole atop of the stabbur you can see a julenek (definition below).


In ancient times, Christmas in Norway was a mid-winter feast - a festival of lights marking the transition from the dark winter to spring and summer. In the 900s King Haakon I decided that the heathen custom of drinking Jul (Yule) was to be moved to December 25th, in honour of the birth of Jesus Christ. Gradually, the pagan feast was Christianized, but the name Jul was retained. Norwegian Christmas is thus a mixture of ancient heathen and Christian traditions.

Our Norwegian ancestors took Advent seriously. They also used that time to do all the Christmas baking, and the brewing of the special Christmas beer, juleol.

On Christmas Eve Day, the tree was decorated by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children were bursting with excitement outside.

It was also usual on Christmas Eve Day to make a trip to the barn with a bowl of porridge for the "nisse", the gnome who -- according to superstition -- was the protector of the farm. Nowadays this ceremony is performed for the benefit of the children, but grandmother might possibly have an uneasy feeling that the little fellow could actually exist. (More about nisse below.)

But the nisse is not the only one to be given a treat; the julenek, a sheaf of oats for the birds, is mounted on a pole, and the farm animals get a special Christmas feed.

In days of old, Christmas Eve began with the ringing of the bells at 5:00 PM. The Christmas story was read from the Bible, then the evening meal was served.

The main dish on Christmas Eve was usually lutefisk - codfish preserved in lye and boiled. Other items on the menu might be potatoes, rutabagas, cabbage, risengrot (rice pudding) or rommegrot (sour cream pudding), gingerbread or julekakke, a sweet Christmas bread filled with raisins, candied peel and cardamom.
"But the children do not usually enjoy the meal very much. Their eyes keep turning to the closed living room door, and they grow more and more impatient with the unbearably slow pace with which their elders finish the meal. It seems to them as if an eternity has passed when the big moment arrives and the door to the living room is thrown open.

The children tumble in, only to stop short, awestruck by the sight of the tree, aglow with the light from real candles, and with the neatly wrapped gifts heaped underneath." (Vera Henriksen, Norway Info)

Then followed a Norwegian ritual known as "circling the Christmas tree". Everybody joined hands to form a ring around the tree, and the family and guests walked around it singing carols.
Finally, the gifts were distributed. Later, they might have one of the traditional seven kinds of Christmas cookies and a cup of glogg, a spicy drink with raisins and chopped almonds. Here is the link my post from last December about Norwegian cookies and pastries:

On Christmas Day, the family went to church. In the afternoon the children went from door to door asking for treats and goodies. This practice was called Julebukking. The traditional Christmas Day meal usually featured pork as the main dish.


It wouldn't be a traditional Scandinavian Christmas without the Norwegian Julenisse or the Swedish Jultomte. Legend has it that nisse and tomte were mischievous domestic sprites who resided in the pantry or barn. They were responsible for the protection and welfare of the farmstead and its animals, especially the horses. The original nisse and tomte were about the size of a young child. They had an enormous capacity for work but would not tolerate anyone's interference. It was believed that a clean and orderly home or farm was an indication that these elfin presences resided there.

(Will the kitty get it instead?)

The present-day version of the Julenisse or Jultomte is very different from the legendary gnome. In modern-day Scandinavia he is more like St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. He is is portrayed as an older, good natured, adult-sized man with a long white beard and a red hat and suit. He carries a sack of toys on his back, visits children in their homes on Christmas Eve and always asks, “Are there any good children here?” ("Er det noen snille barn her?")


Norwegian nisse can also take the form of a Christmas buck, or or Julebukk, which dates back to the Vikings and pagan traditions of worshipping Thor and his goat. In Sweden the Jultomte is accompanied by a Julbok, a Christmas goat who pulls his sleigh as he delivers gifts to the children’s homes.

Scandinavian children today still leave a bowl of porridge (julegrøt) with plenty of butter (nisse are greedy for butter) out in the barn or in the house for the Julenisse or Jultomte on Christmas Eve. It is said that if the nisse is pleased with his gift, he will treat the family well. If not, he will play tricks on them!


Next week I'll do a post on traditional Scandinavian Christmas tree decorations and other holiday decor.

(There's Grandma's house again!)
NOTE ADDED WEDNESDAY NIGHT: My grandmother, who was 17 at the time, and her two sisters and brother emigrated from Norway in 1912 after both their parents died. Sore Plassen, once terribly neglected, has been restored and is now a weekend home. The new owner graciously let my cousin visit the house and take photographs.