Friday, December 23, 2016

Silly Swedish Solstice


Each year the approach of the winter solstice brings out a peculiar form of silliness. Days are short, Christmas is nearing, yet many of us feel the urge to have a nocturnal celebration that has nothing to do with consumerism or religion. Hence the appeal of the solstice celebration.

It can be as simple as pulling the firepit out from under the deck, lighting a fire in it, and standing around with a glass of wine or brandy, admiring the stars or talking about how cold it is.

But the other night a friend from Texas was visiting and we decided to drive down to the slightly more elaborate celebration being held at the American Swedish Institute. The drive itself was splendid, along the west bank of the Mississippi in the dark, with the bright red lettering of PILLSBURY'S BEST FLOUR shining in the distance across the river. South on Portland Avenue, we were soon passing the looming, evil presence of the new death star football stadium.

A few minutes later we were pulling into the lot of the Swedish Institute—then pulling out again. It was full. But parking a block away made it possible for us to get a nice sweeping view of the old/new institution as we approached.

We were waiting in line in the lobby to pay the entry fee when I overheard a tall, blond, thirtyish woman say to a female friend, "My mother always told me I could many a person of any creed or race, but I could never marry a Swede."


Our first stop was for a glass of glüg at the bar on the second floor, where they were also distributing elaborate smores to the kids. (My dad—100% Swedish—used to make glug every year; I think I still have the recipe somewhere. But he was a chemist, and some of the ingredients he used came directly from the lab.)

Our next stop was to the firepits outside. I had imagined there would be a single big blaze somewhere, maybe ten feet high, but the fires were modest, if not actually anemic. All the same, it's fun to mill around in the dark with a bunch of strangers whose faces are lit only by firelight.


A forest of tiny balsam firs had been set up nearby and decked with white lights, in the midst of which sat an antique Volvo driven by two or three stuffed tomtens.

We went into the Turnblad mansion to check out the period rooms, which had been decorated for the season and set with distinctive dishes and glassware from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and even Finland.


Hilary (who spent a year in Denmark during her college years) almost gasped when she saw the Danish Christmas tree. "That's what they look like," she said. "The candles, the paper hearts in red and white. There was a lot of singing and dancing around the tree."

Up on the third floor a nyckelharpa concert was about to commence. The elderly woman standing in front of me had an accent, and I asked her if she was from Sweden.

"Yes. But I came here many, many years ago."

"What part?" I asked.

"Dalarna ... but not where they make the horses," she said. "It's in the south."

"My people come from Smaland," I said. "Where the poor people come from."

"That's even farther south," she said. "The soil isn't much good down there."

While we were waiting for the band to take the stage, I heard a woman in conversation with a friend. "Last year they had a big bonfire in the courtyard. It was very congested. They decided to spread things out this year."


Before the band got going I saw several elderly people enter the room, and I vacated my seat. There was quite a bit of tuning up, last-minute advice flowing back and forth, before the band finally launched into a pleasant medium-tempo tune. Then they played another one in exactly the same vein.

"It sounds like the last tune, only played in reverse," my friend said under his breath.

"And if you listen carefully, you can hear the words 'Paul is dead,'" I replied.

There was a certain ambient appeal to the music, but perhaps no need to actually sit and watch the performance--though I was a little worried that one of the women in the front row was going to nick herself in the throat with her free-swinging bow. The music would undoubtedly sound just as good from a distance, lending atmosphere to the halls and rooms downstairs and throughout the mansion.

Back on the first floor I struck up a conversation with a woodcarver who happened to be sitting there with a piece of wood and a short knife. He uses birch, he told me, and keeps it moist by cutting down a tree and burying it in the snow. Depending on the diameter, you can get from four to twelve spoons out of a section, he told me.

"Do you always harvest your own trees?" I asked.

"No. I have some reliable sources. But deer hunting season is a good time to get wood, and I'm a hunter. And there's no shortage of birch trees in northern Minnesota." He smiled.

He had an array of spoons sitting on a shelf beside him, all of them different in shape or size.

"How long would it take you to make a spoon like this?" I asked, picking up a specimen with a rib running up the back.


"Maybe three hours," he said. "You've got to cut away quite a bit of wood to get to the spoon."

"Do you have a shop somewhere?"

"No," he replied. "I sell a few things on-line." He paused for an instant, and then added: " People from all over the world buy and sell spoons on-line."

Then he smiled ingenuously, and I got the feeling he didn't much care if anyone bought his spoons or not. Perhaps the market was secure, or maybe he had a day job at a hedge fund? It was obvious, in any case, that he enjoyed making spoons. How much do they cost? I have no idea.

Back at the institute's modern addition, we wandered the gift shop looking at knit caps with flaps, attractive pieces of blown glass from Boda and Orrefers, and dish towels decorated in garish greens and oranges.   

Then it was back to the car. Avoiding the major thoroughfares once again, we took 28th Street west all the way to Lake of the Isles and then circled the lake on our way to Wirth Parkway. Quite a few of the mansions on the lake were decked with lights, as usual, but the effect was more subdued than I remember from previous years. The predominate color was white.

When we got back to the house I pulled a bottle of aquavit out of the liquor cabinet, and we had some fun trying to figure out how many times it had crossed the equator on a ship. If you look through the bottle you can see the back side of the front label, where the dates when the booze was loaded onto and off of the ship have been recorded.

"It tastes like pine trees," I said.

"I don't really care for it," my friend said. You can have mine.  

1 comment:

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i love sweden because of all the great things it has to offer! and i enjoyed reading your content today. took me a while though, im old and grumpy but this made me smile.