"laestadian, apostolic, gay, lgbtq, ex-oalc, ex-llc, llc, oalc, bunner" LEARNING TO LIVE FREE: Laestadian Christmas Memories

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Laestadian Christmas Memories

Christmas can bring up feelings of loss for former Laestadians, no matter how long we've been gone. Until I met my husband, I was either solo at Christmas, or an awkward, grateful guest at a friend's house. Whether I was dining on Chinese or Thai food, or sitting in quiet admiration of my friend's tight-knit families and unfamiliar traditions, I was unsteadied by grief, and couldn't wait for the new year to begin.

Christmas is all about family, and I didn't have one. Not one that wanted me, at any rate.

Growing up in the OALC, Christmas season meant church and gatherings, baking and cleaning, a long break from school, snow if we were lucky, new sweaters, jigsaw puzzles, the Sears Wish Book, and interminable stretches of boredom. There was no Santa, no festive tree or lights, no concerts or Nutcracker ballets, no crêches or pageants with children in halos and scratchy burlap robes, no Hallelujah chorus, no Advent wreaths or calendars. No "Toys for Tots" or "Giving Trees" or delivering hams or socks to the shelter. (No electronics, either, which in retrospect was a blessing.)

Even so, within the constraints of her faith, our mother made Christmas as wondrous as possible. She baked up a fragrant, floury storm: cardamom-scented braids of pulla, sweet white divinity and dark fudge, pecan tassies, Finnish prune tarts, delicate fattigman and rosettes. Rice pudding with raisins and cinnamon. On Christmas morning, cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven.

She made the house lovely with fir branches and candles, special linens, and cut-glass dishes filled with delightful ribbon candies (that stuck together after a few days) and nuts still in their shells. Despite the OALC attitude toward him, she put up a Santa-shaped "card pocket" that I made in grade school. We cut paper snowflakes for the windows. Mom wrote, in her beautiful hand, card after card after card. I loved looking at the ones we received, and rated them on whether they included my name instead of the typical "and family," "and children," or as one relative always wrote, "and kyds" (I hated that.) My little brother and I jousted over who got to light the little cones of fir incense in the miniature log cabin, a tradition my own children hold dear.

Christmas stockings were apparently verboten but Mom indulged us. I still have the red felt stocking of my girlhood, although my name (in gold glitter on glue), has crumbled. If we had visitors over the holiday, the stockings were not on display—they might give offense—but instead, hooked over our bedposts on Christmas Eve, and the first magic we woke to in the morning. Inside were tiny wrapped candies and always, a tangerine in the toe.

While presents were few and modest (and often disappointing), a few were memorable, and I have them still: a thick red Reader's Digest Book of Children's Stories, a Crissy doll (whose auburn tresses could be shortened with a twist of a knob on her belly), and my first teddy bear, from a friend in high school who was shocked that I had grown up without one. My favorite present, at eight years old, was a paper bag full of craft supplies from a beloved older sister. My least favorite was a toy vacuum cleaner that my little brother promptly broke.

On Christmas morning, we would open our stockings, exchange gifts, sing songs—every tedious verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem—and listen to Dad read from the Gospel (for this we females put scarves on our heads, even if we were still in our nightgowns). None of the boys liked to sing, but in the years before my sisters grew up and moved out, we would harmonize to Silent Night, and I would get shivers of delight. Sometimes, on the long drive to church, dad would let us listen to carols on the radio. We learned all the words to "Silver Bells" this way, and years later, I would experience the magic of Christmastime in the city, with "children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile." (Ironically, this very urban song sends me back to a white station wagon scooting through the countryside, snow flakes whirling in the windshield.)

Christmas with my first baby banished the old griefs. My husband and I began many of our family "traditions" that year, but each year we add new ones, tweak old ones, and make the most of the season's magic, both spiritual and secular. This year we are celebrating Hanukah as well. It is incredibly moving to consider that Jesus celebrated this ancient holiday, expressing gratitude for light. I made my first rugelach, and ate my first latke.

This season is all about gratitude for the light, and hope for its return.

And there is so much to explore in the history! You might enjoy reading about the pagan sources of many Scandinavian traditions.
Inspired by a newfound Swedish cousin, I had Swedish lussebulle for the first time this year. Tonight we'll put up the Christmas tree and decorate it while listening to Handel's Messiah. On Saturday, I'll have dinner with my parents and siblings (maybe I'll bring lussebulle), and next week, we'll drink Jule Ale at a Solstice celebration, the original "reason for the season." On Christmas Day we'll have ham for dinner, and the night before, bread and broth, according to the ancient Swedish tradition of "Dopparedan." It refers to Christmas Eve and means "dip early." My cousin tells me it dates from when Sweden was still Catholic (prior to 1523) and holiday fasting meant no meat before midnight. Instead, you dipped bread in the tasty broth of the Christmas ham that was cooking. (Certainly a light meal is all that is needed!)

There is much to be grateful for. I wish I could go back in time and give my 20-year old self a hug, and tell her "hang in there, it will get better."

She did, and it did.


  1. Thanks for sharing your feelings and memories along with your new ways of celebrating Christmas. It does take awhile to make a new normal. You are re-setting a new pattern, one that will reflect a bit of the old and more of what you feel is are your values.

    It is definitely hard coming from a big family and large gatherings, where you were part of the group, to being on the outside. To start from scratch.

    But, it would have been harder to remain, than it was to go.

    Mostly, Christmas for me has changed to be quieter, more peaceful, less hectic, and more special and even less special. Meaning the reason for the season is with me all year. It is less religious and more spiritual and more personal and meaningful.

    The christmas songs touch me more deeply, for I feel deeper and love more fully.

    Each year less lonely, more at peace with being estranged.

    Time doesn't heal, but we fill the void with what we love.

    Thanks again for sharing,

  2. Thank you for reading, Beth. (If you didn't click on the "Crissy" link, you should. It's a vintage TV ad that shows both sister and brother admiring the doll!)

    Yes, we fill the void with what we love, and before you know it, our cup runneth over.

  3. Interesting to read about the way your OALC family celebrated Christmas and how you do it yourself now. I think many OALC families in Europe celebrate it in a very similar way as your family did, but there's a lot of variation between the families, and there is also more variation in how strong the OALC affiliation is (it's not as much an ON/OFF thing as in America). When I was very young it seems like my family (this was in Finland) was going through an oalcification process (especially my father's side had a very weak OALC connection and they were used to a very mainstream way of celebrating Christmas). There were two Christmas trees: fir and juniper. The fir tree was considered more sin than the juniper one, so at some point during my earliest childhood (I don't really remember it myself, so it must have been very early), it had to move out of the house, but it was still allowed to stay on the porch, and there was a big window there, so it didn't really make suh a big difference if it was outside or inside because you could see it anyway. This one was was decorated with electric candles. The second Christmas tree, the juniper one, got to stay inside also after the fir tree needed to move outside, because juniper was considered less sin than fir. The Christmas juniper was decorated with red wooden berries. Occasionally some very strict OALC people would come for a visit during Christmas and they could be offended also by the Christmas juniper but I think most of them were ok with that, as long as the fir tree stayed outside (in my late childhood, some years it was allowed inside again, but not every year). There were also other Christmas decorations, I don't think there was any difference to an average Finnish non-OALC family in this regard, there were paper angels and snow flakes, colorful balls hanging in front of the windows, decorations made of straw hanging from the ceiling, straw goats, Christmas flowers (hyacinths and poinsettias). In my early childhood we even had santas and elves as decorations, but they eventually had to go because they were considered too "pagan". We also had nativity scenes with the holy family, sheperds etc, either pictures or small figures. We also had seven branched electric Christmas candelabras on the window sills, and a gold colored Christmas star with an electric lamp inside hanging in front of the window. We sang Christmans songs, also secular ones, and we also listened to them on the radio and on tapes. We had big family meals. In my earliest childhood I don't have any memories of church being part of our Christmas, but when we visited some relatives they were listening to Christmas meetings from Gellivare (phone patch). Later, listening to the meetings became also part of Christmas in my family. Sometimes we would go to the "state church" Christmas services, more so in my late childhood than in my early childhood. We always read the Christmas gospel at home on Christmas Eve.

  4. I am completely amazed that one tree of nature is more 'sinful' than the other. Wow. It is amazing what a mind can believe. And how it changed throughout the years.

    It is unbelievable what religion can make you believe...and how the mind can actually come to firmly believe what it is told in so much as you will not let a tree in your home...or decide what it can have on it for decorations....etc.

    It all shows the value or the lack of value much of religion is based upon.

    When you actually set apart the things that are called sins, they in and of themselves are really value less, until you designate them as 'wrong'.

    Like a fir tree would have less value or be more sinful. Like how???

    I am being educated on christmas traditions.

    Beth Jukuri