Remembering a Christmas in Denmark
December 9, 2005
The Nevada Appeal’s tradition of publishing Holiday Memories written by our readers resumes today and will continue through Christmas. Thanks to all those who took time to share their stories.
– Editor Barry Smith
By Ragnhild M. Bjerke
The year was 1947, and winter started early. It had been a good harvest and the farmers did not complain, though God forbid they should say it had been a good year. There was superstition enough among them to suggest that would have changed their good fortune.
Except Ana’s father had said that after a good harvest, Mother should have a new tablecloth, and this year he had brought her a beautiful long white damask cloth and 12 napkins.
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A couple of weeks before Christmas, a large pig was slaughtered on the farm. It squealed in protest while it was guided and pushed into the scullery where everything was ready for the slaughter. Ana heard the commotion while she was helping Mother get ready in the kitchen. All through her childhood she had often been present when poultry, pigs, sheep and calves were slaughtered. That was part of life in the country.
And when the men had finished the job, had scalded and scraped the pig and hanged it up on hooks from the ceiling to cool off, Mother and the maids were already busy preparing the meat, cleaning the intestines and making blood sausage.
There was always a festive mood in the house when slaughtering. It meant fresh meat and a lot of it to prepare. Liver pate, salami and special sausages by the yards and tenderloins and ribs, fried liver and onions and heart stuffed with parsley and pigs’ feet in jelly. There was no end to the good food being made.
When Ana was a child, she had just looked on. She had seen how a sheep was knocked unconscious with a big sledgehammer before it was killed with a knife. She had watched the pig’s neck being shaved before the long knife cut it open while one of the maids held a large pail underneath it to save every drop of blood. She had held the chickens by their legs till Father was ready to put them on the block and chop their heads off, and she had seen them run around without their heads when dropped to the ground. Now she was 15 and no longer a child. Now she had to help in the kitchen. She watched when Father cut down the pig, and he explained to her what the different parts were called as he cut them out with knife and meat saw.
Ana had never wondered if the animals were afraid before they were killed. Perhaps because they were so well looked after until the day they died. No one could be more gentle toward a baby animal than Father, and they all loved them. The little piglets were so cute, the calves so sweet when they sucked one’s fingers. And who could resist the little yellow chicks and the ducklings and the lambs when they were given a bottle.
And then one day the animals had grown big and some of them were slaughtered and that was just the way it was. The large pigs would squeal all the way to the scullery before being slaughtered, but they would squeal just as much while the farmhand was feeding them until they could get their snouts into the feed. The stables were always nice and clean. People could have slept in the hay there and been comfortable. Ana loved to put her arms around the neck of a cow and sniff in the milk smell. The farmers and the animals were friends, but the farmers also survived by them.
That first week after the pig was slaughtered there was wonderful blood sausage to be had. The blood was mixed with barley, ryemeal, sugar, milk, lard and cinnamon and cloves and raisins and poured into the cleaned intestines. Then they were boiled in water, sliced and fried in butter in the frying pan and served with syrup and sugar and cinnamon. The liver for pate was ground and mixed with milk, flour, eggs, onion, spices and a little sherry. Few things were more tasty than warm liver pate on ryebread, and of course with pickled beets from the vegetable garden.
When the slaughtering was finished there came days of baking. One big jar after another was filled with cookies. Most farms would have at least six different kinds. The housewives were in covert competition with each other. Mother would place the jars, well sealed, on the top shelves in the larder, so the cookies would not disappear before the holidays.
Soon it would be time to prepare the guestrooms for the three unmarried aunts who would spend Christmas with them. Ana and her sister would go out with a big basket and find moss, twigs, cones and greens to decorate the house. They would put a twig of spruce behind every picture frame on the walls and arrange for platters with moss and twigs to look like little landscapes with red hatted gnomes and candles in them. Father would dig up a small birch tree, put it in a large pot and place it in the foyer, and Mother would every year hang the same beautiful and precious little gold ornaments on it. It would stay in the foyer till Easter, when its leaves had come out green. Then it would be planted outside again.
Two days before Christmas, there were snowflakes in the air and Father said it was time to go cut down the tree. The children had bugged him about it for a week, but he wanted it to be as fresh and green as possible for Christmas Eve. He walked with the four children in tow toward the little grove of trees where he knew there were some nice spruces.
It took half an hour to decide which one to cut down, for each child ran from one to another and each found a favorite. Father finally made his own decision and they came home in triumph to Mother who every year said the same thing: “That is a very big tree. Is it not too big, do you think?” And all the children cried “No,” and Father carried it into the scullery where he got it ready to be moved into the large living room.
The next day no one was allowed into the living room except Mother and Father. The tree had been carried in and so had various packages. The three aunts were picked up at the station. The black locomotive stopped with screeching brakes and a lot of steam puffing up in the cold air. They were there, aunt Laura, aunt Hannah and aunt Eve. Now it was Christmas, once the guests were there. They were loaded with all their stuff and bags into the carriage, the coachman cracked his whip and the horses took off down through Main Street, which was paved with cobblestones. If anyone was taking a nap in one of the houses along their route, the noise from the horses hoofs and the carriage was sure to wake them up.
On the 24th there was a wonderful spread for lunch. All the good things from the slaughtering were on the table and cookies were served with the coffee. Then Mother declared that there would be no afternoon tea today because there was church service at 4 o’clock and when everybody came home from church they were not to spoil their appetites. Christmas dinner would be a 6 o’clock.
Everything was building up to a wonderful evening. The children sat with big eyes and watched the many candles on the Christmas trees in church and joined in the singing of the well-known carols, but during the sermon they started to wiggle in their seats. They wanted to get home to dinner and then to their own Christmas tree and the presents.
Finally they were all seated around dining table and Father said grace. Then the roast goose was served with potatoes and red cabbage and wonderful gravy and pickled cucumbers and sweet jelly. And after that the rice pudding came in with an almond hidden in it. Whoever was the lucky one to find the almond in his portion would get the prize, a marzipan pig. There was tension around the table until someone triumphantly took the almond out of his mouth and shouted: “I got it!”
After dinner aunt Hannah gathered the children around her and read the story about A Boy’s Christmas, the same story every year. Meanwhile Father and Mother were lighting all the candles on the tree, and finally the big moment came when the doors to the living room were opened wide, and there was the tree in all its glory with lots of presents underneath. It was the best evening of the entire year. They danced around the tree, they sang their favorite hymns, Father read the Christmas gospel, they all got their presents and sweets and fruits and there was peace and goodwill among them all night.
— Ragnhild Bjerke is from Gardnerville.