["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Dec. 5, 2013] © 2013
One problem with being a multi-ethnic household this time
of year is that I’m always afraid the Menorah will set fire to the Nativity scene.
Actually, the even more flammable risk on our mantle is our Swedish julbock, or Yule goat, a straw-constructed
figure of pagan origins who was credited with bringing gifts to sleeping
children before getting the boot from Santa.
Still a universal symbol of
Christmas in Scandinavian countries, life-size or even mega-sized straw julbockar are erected in the town
squares of many communities in Sweden. The
town of Gavle, unwisely boasting the tallest
one (41 feet), has inspired a
quaint Swedish tradition involving attempts by neighboring towns to torch the
Gavle Yule goat in the dead of night. They’ve
been successful some 28 times.
Over time, the holiday season in our house has
evolved into a multi-cultural multi-belief food fest that has incorporated the
Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other inclinations of the extended assemblage.
For a while, one family member embraced Festivus,
the Seinfeld-inspired alternate holiday celebrated on December 23 that rebels
against the commercialism of the holiday season and features a plain aluminum "Festivus pole.”
According to Wikipedia, the holiday also features “the labeling of easily explainable events as ‘Festivus
miracles’." I have to say,
you do a lot less wrapping.
holiday celebrations were always a part of my upbringing, and not just because
my own parents were of different religions.
My mother taught ESL (English as a Second Language) so we always had a
house full of recently-arrived immigrants who my mother was tutoring on her own
time, helping them get better jobs, driver’s licenses
etc. She would also teach her students to drive in our car. I swear
she could yell “STOP!” in 15 languages.
In gratitude, her
students often bought us wonderful dishes from their native countries,
particularly at Christmas, along with tales of their country’s Yule traditions. I was fascinated from an early age at the variety
of ways that people of different lands celebrated the same holiday. But I was equally fascinated by holidays that
weren’t celebrated in my house at all.
Fortunately, I was able to be included in some of
those holidays as I got older. Jumping
at the chance to spend my senior year of high school as an exchange student in
Brazil, I was surprised to find a far different and more relaxed version of
Catholicism than I’d been exposed to in the States. Stuff you went straight to hell for in my home town was
given a free pass in my host country, a serious dilemma given the six-week turnaround
time on mail (no international phone service), leaving me to grapple on my own
as to whether sin was location-related. I
also took part in Brazil’s decadent pre-Lenten Carnaval extravaganza and even
attended a few macumbas (black magic
festivals) out in the jungle. Definitely
not in Kansas anymore, Toto, I said to myself at the latter.
In my first marriage, I had the opportunity to experience
the rich oral history of Judaism in which stories are passed down from generation
to generation, always accompanied by lots of good food. I learned to make rugelach, kugel, tzimmes, knishes,
latkes, and brisket, and for many years cooked a Seder (Passover)
dinner for 20. At my first one, I temporarily forgot why only unleavened bread
(matzo) is served and put out a basket of rolls. (Rookie goy mistake.)
Olof’s first wife, meanwhile, was foreign-born and
exposed him to exotic foods and traditions that he’d never experienced before
either. Olof also had the opportunity to
fly around the world as an Air Force pilot and visit many locales large and
small (Kwajalein, anyone?).
While our first
marriages ended, we look back on the intercultural parts with great fondness
and have continued to incorporate those traditions into our current holiday
celebrations. If you can cook it, we’ll
I’ll have to admit that there were a few tough
holiday seasons in there, especially after my first husband and I
divorced. The kids were little and
honestly not interested in a lot of exotic holiday fare. Since it was just the three of us, I let them
choose the menu for our holiday meal which for several years consisted, in its
entirety, of chocolate mousse and bacon.
By the third one, I determined that cabernet went better with the bacon
but chardonnay was definitely preferable with the mousse.
This year Hanukkah was early (November 27-December
5) in the holiday season, encompassing Thanksgiving. Our Christmas decorations aren’t even up
yet. But the straw julbock lives on our mantle year round (we’re just fond of him). Lighting up the Yule goat is one Swedish
tradition we have no desire to emulate as it would likely burn our house down
as well. So he’s just going to stay on his
side of the mantle. Waaay on his side of
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