Born & Bread in the Old Country
December 15, 1997
"Hey, what kind of language is that for a nice old lady to be using? And at Christmas too? For shame..." I poked my head around the corner and found my mother struggling to disentangle a clutch of Christmas baubles. Another soft muttering of Danish assaulted my ears and I grinned and came further into the room. "Here, let me help."
Ma startled a bit and peered uncertainly in my direction. "Who is it? Oh, Ellen. Yes, please, these darn things won't do as I will."
I untwisted several of the little wire hangers, hung the dear old decorations on her small tree, and carefully added a handful of icicles, one by one by one. "There." I stood back and viewed the result. "Looks good." I looked around her apartment. "You've done a whole bunch of work, it's all looking nice, very Christmas-y."
"Yes, I think Jo said she was coming by for lunch..."
"No," I said, raising my voice a little. "I didn't ask about lunch, I said you'd done a lot of work, that it's looking very festive...."
It was, too.
With my final lily-gilding, the little tree, strung with coloured lights and strings of tiny Danish flags, was looking pretty complete. Colourful glass dishes of candy and trays of cookies had been set around within easy reach of a questing hand. A red and green chenille mat greeted visitors by the door. Bowls of decorated evergreens sat on white crocheted doilies on every table and chest. A framed but faded snapshot of Dad putting candles on a tree hung on the wall and ninety-five years accumulation of Christmas mementos had been added to the familiar knick knacks and dust-collectors that had turned my mother's bare new apartment in Closleigh Manor into a cosy home.
I gazed at my mother as she fussed with the placement of another ornament that "would not do as she would" and not for the first time felt admiration, bordering on awe, for the indomitable spirit that inhabits that frail and failing body. Nearly blind, painfully hard of hearing, and in constant discomfort from broken hips that have never healed properly, she just keeps on keeping on with her life.
"Of COURSE I have to put my stockings on, a lady does not go barelegged. Of COURSE I have to make a little lunch when company drops in unexpectedly. Of COURSE I have to tidy all my drawers and linen cupboards once a month and change the perfumed liners twice a year. Of COURSE you will come to me for smorgasbord on Christmas day."
And of COURSE we will. Because as long as she can muster the strength and determination to make her special brand of Christmas, we will gladly and thankfully partake of the customs that have so enriched our lives.
My mother, Elly Rothe-Hansen, was born in Denmark in 1903, the second child of a gentleman farmer and his aristocratic wife, the great- granddaughter of Baroness Wedel-Jarlsberg, if you don't mind! My grandfather was quite wealthy and it tickles me exceedingly to hear my down-to-earth mother speak of servants with no apparent sense of any- thing out of the ordinary.
"Servants!" I exclaim. "You mean like upstairs and downstairs and in My Lady's chambers, sort of thing?"
"Yes. Except there was no 'My Lady' and the maids were more the older daughters of friends, hired to lend a hand with the cleaning and the children," Ma explains matter-of-factly.
It was simple. The house was large and my grandmother, preoccupied with the production of ten or so small Rothe-Hansens, needed help and that translated into Cook and the maids. "They were just like family.
Mother was very good to them and they stayed with us for a long time."
The Rothe-Hansen household was a pleasant place to grow up and Ma's penchant for "making nice" for holidays - and indeed, everyday - sprang from her early memories of a gracious and happy childhood. Ma loves to regale us with stories from that distant time.
"My parents spared no effort to make our Christmases lovely. They decorated the entire house, filling every nook and cranny with symbols of the season. There were lots of presents. And yes, always a big tree." My mother pauses, remembering. "One year, Father brought home a big one whose branches stood straight up. No matter what he did, they wouldn't come down."
My grandfather was not without resources. After trying in vain to coax the recalcitrant evergreen into a more acceptable shape, he put on his coat and drove with horse and carriage into town. Within the hour he was back with a large bag of oranges, each of which he wrapped with twine and tied on the tree.
The limbs came down and decoration proceeded as usual.
At four in the afternoon on Christmas Eve day, the entire family trundled off to church, returning to a Christmas dinner lovingly prepared by Cook and served by the young maids, all of whom then joined the family at the table.
The meal began, simply enough, with a porridge of rice.
Cooked gently in milk until creamy and soft, the rice, sparkling with sugar and cinnamon and served with butter and more milk, was a common dish, served often throughout the year for breakfast or as a first course at dinner. At Christmas, with the addition of one whole almond, the humble porridge took on an exotic difference.
The single nut, resting in solitary splendour in a small dish, was taken around the table to be admired for its pale purity of form and colour as well as for the reassurance of its very presence. Having been viewed by all present, it was then ostentatiously stirred into the porridge.
Bowls were filled and handed around at random. Spoons were taken up and there was some surreptitious prodding and testing, the prodders and testers all receiving matriarchal glances of reproval. There was laughter and teasing, as well as many false alarms, but sooner or later, there would be a cry of discovery and the almond would be flourished aloft, its finder not only the recipient of the Almond Present, but also the promise of great good luck for the coming year.
After the opening and admiring of the Almond Present, supper resumed with the advent of the roast leg of pork, bristling with golden brown cracklings, The pork, or sometimes a plump roasted goose stuffed to bursting with apples, and the candied potatoes and pickled red cabbage and all the trimmings, composed an elegant repast indeed, but an ordinary one for all of that, when measured against the joyful sym- bolism of the homely dish that had preceded it.
After the leisurely and bountiful feast, there was singing at the piano, followed by the somewhat pagan ritual of joining hands and dancing around the tree, all the while breathlessly chanting "Hojt paa traens gron top..." - a spirited exhortation to dance and sing but don't you dare touch nuthin'! Or Danish words to that effect.
"Oh, it was so nice..." Ma's blue eyes gaze dreamily over the span of ninety years, remembering the frolicking as it segued into the serious business of unwrapping and admiring gifts, followed by another little round of sups and sip, a flurry of bringing the lovely disorder to a new tidiness, and so to bed.
"The next day, we would all go in to town for church, then home to read and play and, of course, to eat and eat. I used to worry that we would all become as stout as barrels!"
Eventually, the young Elly grew up and married Bob Porsild, a good- looking young Danish botanist, who had already moved to Canada. To- gether, they made homes and children and Christmases in many different places in the North. In a small house on the barren Mackenzie delta, with a "tree" made of dowling and wrapped with moss and tissue paper. A log cabin on the Sixtymile river. In Dawson, in Whitehorse, in a big, rambling tourist lodge on the Alaska Highway, and then again in Whitehorse, in their comfortable little home in on Cook street. The location, circumstances and menu sometimes differed but the warmth and joy and familiar customs remained the same.
Today, several generations down the road, we still start our celebra- tion on Christmas Eve, beginning with ritual of the Rice Porridge and presided over by our own diminutive matriarch, reproving glances and all. We no longer join hands and dance around the tree but we sing lustily and exchange our gifts and we read and play and, of course, we eat and eat.
And to eat and eat is exactly what we will be expected to do when we "come to her" for smorgasbord on Christmas day. And though some of us are already as stout as the barrels she worried about, we will partake lavishly of her good pickled herring and salads and cold cuts and delicate Danish butter cookies and excuse our over-indulgence with the familiar excuse, "But it's Christmas!"
Life is filled with change. People, customs, habits, come and go, adding to and subtracting from the variety of our existence, leaving us, in the end, the sum of all we have experienced.
I look at my mother as she struggles with the exact placement of a bit of tinsel and see pain and loss written on her face. I see weary im- patience as she struggles with the minutiae of her daily routine. I see reproof, as I prod at the pudding of my life, looking for the elusive prize. I see humour and I see joy and pride and fulfillment. But most of all, in the lines and wrinkles of her dear face, I see the evidence of life well and truly lived.Merry Christmas, Ma.
And God bless us everyone.