Turkeyfest in Texas. Solstice celebrations. Christmas Eve snow crab feast. Snowshoes and sleds. Swedish lignonberries. New Year’s Eve southern camping trips. Martin Luther King Jr. march. Roe v Wade anniversary. Dolly Parton roller skating party.
During this time of year, I know to enjoy festivity after festivity that comes my way. I choose to bring as much light as possible into the dark. It’s in my blood to make the most out of this season and ramp up Holiday Spirit to the max.
In my northern Minnesota home, it’s easy for folx to become unbalanced with sixteen hours of dark daily and near or below zero temperatures. I’m committed to creating the perfect ratio of people, solitude, exercise, creativity, fun, wildness, pleasure and satisfying work. I hive away in my house- create, write, paint, read, cook- and jump at many fine, fun evening engagements or outdoor adventures. When I travel for the holidays, I strive to maintain that balance on the road as well.
I find myself floating back to childhood, celebrations with many Scandinavian family members tucked neatly into every corner of my grandparent’s modest western New York house. I loved our distinct, joy-filled Swedish annual Christmas Eve traditions. Notably, every thanksgiving we’d make our family recipe of Korv, a Swedish sausage that came over with my great grandparents, and serve it on December 24th. The ethnic ritual was stuffed with beauty, beef, pork, and love.
Now as an adult, I’m creating new traditions. I no longer want to be crowded into a house with my extended family. I love each one dearly and get to enjoy them all in the summer at our cottage when we spread ourselves over lawn and lake.
Spaciousness is an important part of my life. In all relationships- work, friend, romantic and familial- I infuse time with loved ones with time apart. Maintaining yin and yang of intimacy and distance keeps the mystery, appreciation, and love I feel for these folx alive.
That said, as Swedes, I believe my extended maternal family has superpowers that allow us to be together in small spaces, maintain a caring demeanor and not erupt into conflict on holidays- except for once. The memory of a fiery fight across immediate family lines is standout. It was Christmas Eve 1996. A sophomore at the University of Vermont, I’d flown home to Texas from campus end of semester one week prior and then had to turn around and fly north again with my Mom and sister to see the family.
I was in the process of finding my voice and politicizing myself- at school as an environmental justice major and womxn’s studies minor- at the table as a vegan. I’d also just come out of the closet as queer . While radical in my created families and academic community, with family I reverted to my Scandinavian roots and avoided conflict at all costs. Swedes often choose to be “nice” before truthful. The evolution of this trait has been traced back hundreds of years. My people intimately knew closed quarters for long winters and needed to get along with those they lived with for continued existence. Saying nothing or the nice thing was and sometimes still is part of our survival.
Present generation, there are strong opinions expressed about politics and public personalities within the context of my extended family yet we historically hold a high level of respect for who we all are as people. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
That year however, underlying emotions were elevated. It was only the second Christmas since my grandma had died in January of 1994. She was our north star. Our traditions were hers. It felt empty and strange without Ruth Swan Mohney. In addition, I was intensely aware of the contradictions in my home and school worlds. I went from saying everything to saying nothing.
As the korv, pickled herring, mashed potatoes, lingon, green peas, cranberry sauce and vorte limpa circled the table that Christmas Eve, the conversation veered to the rare emotional red zone. My uncle John, the smart outspoken physicist son-of-a-dairy-farmer libertarian atheist of the group, shared that he’d recently gifted his son, my youngest cousin Matthew, a paint ball gun- and was encouraging him to shoot the deer that wandered through their suburban yard outside of Rochester, New York.
My oldest cousin MaryBeth, whose hummus and soy milk loving son sat at the table not quite two years old, was appalled. She too is intelligent and outspoken. MB stopped conversation and sustenance in their tracks. “John, you’re encouraging your son to shoot deer with paint pellets?”
“Yeah.” Snicker snicker snicker. John smiled into the reproach. “There are too many of ‘em in the first place. Goddamn they’re all over. Matt’s doing something good for the neighborhood. For all of us.”
MB countered, “You’re encouraging your fourteen year old son to shoot deer with a high speed gun, the deer will live, may be harmed physically, and will be covered in toxic materials if they do. That’s completely irresponsible.”
“MaryBeth. Calm down. It’s just a deer.” John sighed and took up more space at the table.
MaryBeth lobbed back, “Yes it’s about the deer John. They are feeling and living beings. But more importantly it’s about the message you’re sending your son.”
At that point, the korv and pickled herring (Scandinavian in nature remember!) wanted to excuse themselves from the table- as did several of the other sixteen human Swedes sitting in chairs between the two adversaries.
Not related by blood, my cousin MB is my mom’s oldest sister Pat’s daughter. John is the husband of my mom’s youngest sister Margaret. Their values and voting records are as different as broccoli and beer. MB cooks the former with every dinner, John consumes half a case of the latter on the daily. Until this moment, differences were accepted, maybe even appreciated, between the two most vocal members of my family.
As MaryBeth continued forward with her allegations of parental ineptness and animal cruelty, John mounted a stronger defense of anti-regulation and manliness. Dessert was the furthest thing from their minds, yet the Gift of the Gods cake sat on the credenza ready to be knighted with brandy and served flaming.
Things were already on fire though, and as emotions flared, my grandpa intervened from the end of the table, “MaryBeth if you don’t shut up right now you have to leave my house.”
The lignonberries withered, the cranberries winced, the candles went out.
My Aunt Pat slammed down her salad fork and said, “If my daughter leaves, then I will depart too.”
I’d celebrated every one of my nineteen Christmas eves in that house with those people. Never before had we come close to an impasse where love and long-term relationships might be severed by words and actions. We all stood looking over a cliff, conflict dangled us by the necks, we were scared.
MB got up from the table after my grandpa’s declaration and left the room. Aunt Pat followed her. The peas pretended being green was the best they could do. We sat still, uncomfortable. My grandpa’s eyes were indignant and my Uncle John looked sad.
“Ray this is just a small argument. Everyone can stay. MB and I disagree on a lot of things. I shouldn’t have let this get so heated.” John put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, my cousin Erika sat as still as I did across from her. My sixteen year old sister next to me, the third most likely family member to offer unedited speech, was in fact speechless. She and my uncle John had battled it out since she was four. With little in common, they avoided engagement and remained pleasant.
My Uncle Jim, married to my older aunt, both of them professional ceramics artists, excused himself to go check on Pat.
“I don’t want that kind of behavior in my house,” my grandpa said sternly. “MaryBeth was just too much.”
“Ray, it was me too. I was right there provoking her.” John again owned his actions. “We’ll all be okay. Why don’t you go talk to MB and tell her you didn’t mean what you said?”
“But I did mean it. She doesn’t need to act that way in my house.”
“Dad, MB has a right to her opinions.” My mom, the middle of my grandpa’s three daughters, interjected.
“Well…”, my crotchety Grandpa was losing grip on his staff, and his steam.
Water was passed around the table and we shifted again in our seats. After twenty minutes, the charge had dissipated. MB and Pat decided to stay and open presents- Christmas Eve’s main event in the eyes of the younger cousins.
While the conflict was palpable for the rest of the holiday and laughable for years to come, revisiting it now, I realize the weight of the ritual of sitting down for dinner every year with loved ones who don’t live with you or your values. We stepped across a line that night probably drawn well before any of us were ever conscious of it. And with the help of Swedish sustenance, balance, and wisdom walked forward together.