by Dr. Marshall Lysne

As I write this, it is the beginning of the second week in November. There is a nip of frost in the air that paints frosty fringes on the yet-to-fall leaves on the mighty oaks in the front yard. The grass is remarkably green, most likely due to the abundant rain and above normal temperatures of the past couple of weeks. Most of the harvest of the garden has been processed and is safely stored in the cupboards or the freezers. The outdoor furniture has been put away and the water hoses drained and hung up. There is still some yard work to finish, such as spreading winter fertilizer and cleaning up some of the last remnants of a couple of very enthusiastic apple trees.

Apart from that, the homestead is pretty much set for the coming winter and holiday season.

I love this time of year. There is a sort of sense of finality to the work and activities of the past several months, and now it is time to rest for a moment or two and take stock of where we have been and where we are going. There is a lot to be thankful for and a lot to look forward to. December, snow, parties, concerts, gatherings of friends and family, shopping, Christmas, and New Year’s. That’s a lot to cram into one month. But no matter what else is going on, Christmas is the focal point; everything else is either prepatory to, the result of, or complementary in some way.

When I was growing up, preparing for Christmas was a big deal. It started early, usually in late August or early September with the arrival of the Sears Christmas Wish Book. While that was interesting at the time, we still had a lot of other things to draw our attention. School had just started for the fall session, the school carnival happened almost immediately (we didn’t have a football team, so no Homecoming activities), and there were fall sports — baseball, track, and later, basketball. But as the fall moved on, there was more and more interest in the coming Christmas season. Actual physical shopping trips were things that seldom or ever happened, so the Wish Book was the standard source of things to put on our Christmas lists.

As the first weeks of December arrived, there was increased interest in finding a Christmas tree. At the time, there were few, if any, Christmas tree lots, at least not near us, and even if there were, for my parents and grandparents, having lived through the Depression of the 1930s, nothing was purchased that couldn’t be found at home. And we had trees, mostly cedars where we lived, but there were stands of spruce and balsams surrounding the cedar swamps. So off to the woods in search of a tree we went. Even though there were many trees in the woods, one that was just right was a little more of a problem. My aunt was a stickler for getting the right tree, and on more than one occasion, a much too large tree was cut down only to have the top six feet cut off as it was the “perfect” shape for our tree.

Once the tree was home and being set up in the house, only then were minor flaws detected. Occasionally, a gap in the symmetry of the perfect tree had to be filled by removing a branch from one side of the tree and a hole drilled in the trunk and the harvested branch inserted.

Once the tree was of the proper shape, it was time to do the decorations. Decoration was the exclusive purview of my aunt, so the rest of us quietly exited the area and let the artist work.

In the meantime, my grandmother was baking various Norwegian pastries including sandbakels, rosettes, krumkake, and, of course, lefse. In a week or two, she would get the Christmas lutefisk from the store. At that time, the lutefisk came packed in barrels bathed in a slight lye solution. Although the original reason for soaking the fish in lye was probably more of an accident than doing it on purpose, it was discovered that it created a unique flavor and texture that became ingrained in the Scandinavian culture as a Christmastime meal since the 1500s. Once the fish was brought home, it had to be rinsed for two or three days in a clear water bath to remove the lye solution. It was then ready for either boiling or baking depending on the preference of the cook or hostess.

Of course, while food, trees, gifts, and parties were and are a large part of the Christmas celebration, at least for those of us that were brought up in the Christian faith, the reason for the season is still the miracle of birth that occurred more than 2,000 years ago, the birth of the Christ child. Sometimes it is hard to separate the hoopla of merchandise sales, the swirl of parties, parades, and other related activities, and focus on why all this is happening. Many times, especially as of late, when we look at national and world events, the hope of peace on earth and to love one another seems forgotten or somehow relegated to a lower order of importance than what the original message intended. Perhaps if each of us can separate ourselves, even for just a moment or two, from the whirlwind of life and think about what that original message meant, this world might just turn out to be a little better than it is now.

Well, with all these memories of Christmas, I guess I had better go out into the barn and find and clean up the staging we use for assembling the several dozen Christmas village shops and houses that will fill our living room this season. It takes a while to get that show on the road.

Have a good holiday season.

A portion of the Lysne family’s holiday village decorations.

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