December 15, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Remembering Christmas in the good old days

Cynthia DewesIt’s the Ides of December already, and some of us may find this date as ominous as the Ides of March. That is, we might feel this way if metaphorical murder by overeating, overdrinking, overspending and under-sleeping are imminent.

Only 10 days until Christmas, and we haven’t sent that first Christmas card or wrapped that first gift—which, by the way, we haven’t bought yet. Our diet has gone to oblivion as has any hope of getting into that slinky dress we planned to wear on New Year’s Eve.

Interesting, isn’t it, how our Christmas customs sometimes get in the way of really celebrating Christmas? We tend to think that the “good old days” were better, when life was simpler and our Christmas preparations were wholesome and non-stressful.

Well, let’s see. In those good old days, my Grandma, for example, always made a traditional Scandinavian “white dinner” on Christmas Eve before the midnight church service. This included lutefisk, boiled potatoes and turnips, all “whitish” in color in honor of the purity of baby Jesus.

Lutefisk is codfish preserved in a lye solution. It must be soaked in water for several hours before being drained and cooked in boiling water. Of course, the water Grandma used had to be brought into the kitchen in buckets earlier in the day and deposited in a tank under the sink and its hand pump.

Some days before, Grandma had baked many traditional goodies as well: fattigman, krumkake, jule kage and, this being Wisconsin, Jello, both as a salad and a dessert. She cooked everything on a wood-fired stove, for which firewood must be constantly cut and hauled inside the house.

Previously, the house had been cleaned thoroughly and the dinner linens washed, starched and ironed, all without the use of electricity, running water, machines or almost any equipment other than a broom and some rags.

By Christmas Eve, it must’ve been a physical relief to sit through a church service. I’m sure that other ethnic groups in those “good old days,” the Irish and the Poles and the Germans, were equally involved in labor-intensive, time-consuming hard work in preparation for Jesus’ birth.

Still, despite all the effort involved in Christmas preparations in those days, they probably were less stressful than the days leading up to Christmas today. Maybe that’s because the stress we feel comes from the quality of our expectations rather than from the actual needs of the occasion.

Maybe we’re feeling stressed because we’re emphasizing the wrong things.

Grandma and her peers worked to emphasize the special joy and glory of Christ’s birth. Everything was focused on the religious meaning of the big day. Maybe we’ve lost sight of that goal in some of the ways we prepare today.

Perhaps we don’t need to send Christmas cards to every last person we ever knew or worked with. People tend to know if we’re interested in them without seasonal reminders.

Maybe we don’t need to exchange elaborate gifts with people we love. The cost or importance of a gift is not a true indication of the value we place on a person.

True gifts involve no expectation of a return. After all, God sends us a priceless gift in the birth of his Son just because he loves us.

We can do the same, and we won’t even need to wrap it.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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