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posted: 12/20/2013 11:30 AM

Keeping Swedish Christmas traditions alive

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  • Daily Herald columnist Sammi King, at center in front of Birgit Ridderstedt, appeared with other local children in 1957 on a WTTW special on Swedish Christmas customs.

      Daily Herald columnist Sammi King, at center in front of Birgit Ridderstedt, appeared with other local children in 1957 on a WTTW special on Swedish Christmas customs.
    Courtesy of Sammi King

  • Pepparkakor, or ginger cookies, are among the traditional Swedish cookies baked at Christmastime.

      Pepparkakor, or ginger cookies, are among the traditional Swedish cookies baked at Christmastime.
    Daily Herald File Photo


Some Christmas traditions stink. One tradition of my childhood was smellier than three-day-old fish. In fact, it was three-day-old fish.

My grandmother was Swedish, and lutefisk was a part of her Christmas tradition. She would soak the cod in lye and let it sit on the back porch. Then she would rinse it and start the process all over again.

If I gulped a big breath of fresh air before entering the porch, I could hold both my nose and my breath and make it into her kitchen without expiring.

Alongside the lutefisk on the porch were such delicacies as homemade blod polse (blood sausage), and sylte (head cheese).

However, smelly old lutefisk has been banished from my smorgasbord forever.

The Christmas festivities would start on Dec. 13 with the Santa Lucia festival. Birgit Ridderstedt, a talented woman who celebrated all things Swedish, once had me wear her crown and dress for the morning. The candles of the Lucia crown are slow burning, but I was terrified that my hair would go up in flames and I would be bald for life.

In 1957, Mrs. Ridderstedt took a group of Batavia kids to Chicago to be on WTTW for a special program about Swedish customs. We dressed in Swedish costumes and all the kids danced while I sang Santa Lucia. It really made me proud of my Swedish heritage.

By the time Christmas comes I will have made dozens of Swedish cookies, nine loaves of Swedish rye bread, two cardamom coffee cakes, 144 Swedish pancakes and 15 pounds of korv, or Swedish potato sausage.

There will be rice pudding with an almond in it for luck. Some Swedes say the almond will bring a marriage or a new baby.

Our Christmas starts with Dopp i Gryta, or the "The dipping of the bread in the broth," at noon on Christmas Day. The tradition started hundreds of years ago. The farmers would come in from the field expecting a noonday meal, but the women would be too busy preparing for the Christmas Eve smorgasbord. So the farmers were instructed to take some of the fresh bread and dip it in the broth of the meat simmering on the stove for the evening meal.

Our tradition included sitting down for a full luncheon with the korv, pot roast, Bond Ost cheese and lots of Christmas cookies. This gave us the energy to get back in the kitchen and start working on the recipes for the Christmas Eve smorgasbord.

After the evening meal, we headed to church for the telling of the Christmas story. The next morning it was back to church for the traditional Julotta service at 6 a.m.

In those days, the entire service was done in Swedish. Even though I didn't speak Swedish, there was something beautiful about entering the church in darkness with just candles lighting the sanctuary. And there was joy in leaving the church in the light of Christmas morning.

Anne Ingold, daughter of the late Pastor Winfred Johanson, remembers those early Julotta services.

"Geneva Lutheran didn't have a Julotta service, so we would head to Batavia and attend theirs," said Ingold. "In those days it was done entirely in Swedish. Now it has both English and Swedish."

Ingold is one of the Swedish women organizing the annual event at Bethany Lutheran.

"After the service we have a hearty breakfast," she added. "I think it's the only Julotta service in the entire Chicagoland area,"

Being the daughter of a pastor, Ingold had some Swedish traditions of her own. Since she was the oldest daughter, she always had to dress up as Santa Lucia and serve the traditional coffee and Lucia buns to her neighbors.

"And on the 23rd, we had 'Little Christmas,' she said. "During Advent we would make homemade gifts, and then on the 23rd we would draw names and share our gifts.

"My dad would have us learn a new Advent carol each year. When we did a good deed, my mom would give us straw to put in the manger to make it more comfortable for the baby Jesus."

Ingold believes it is important to keep the Swedish traditions alive.

"It is a blessing, to have the opportunity to rejoice in the heritage that we share," she added.

Ingold will be up early on Christmas morning preparing the Julotta breakfast with other Swedish women at Bethany Lutheran, 8 S. Lincoln, Batavia. There will be fruit soup, cardamom breads, cheeses, coffee and, thankfully, no lutefisk. It starts at 8 a.m. and the public is invited.


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