Faith, food, and festivities . . . .
Holidays are filled with tradition, in our families and our faith communities, with Christmas being a hallmark of Christianity. Our faith is strengthened as we journey through the Advent season in anticipation of the Birth of Jesus. Hearing the tender melody of “Away in a Manger” immediately brings me back to my early childhood, envisioning the lights on the Christmas tree, and the nervous anticipation of the Sunday school program for which I stepped up to a microphone and recited a Bible verse from memory!
In my Scandinavian/Norwegian heritage, the Christmas traditions included endless cookies, the base of which was always a pound of butter. We also served krumkake, rommegrot, lefse, and even lutefisk, which I do enjoy once a year.
Since I have set the stage to equate faith and food in the creation of Christmas tradition, I have asked our own Ann Burckhardt to share in this blog some of her writing about Norwegian holiday traditions. She is Good Shepherd's resident food expert, thanks to your 24 years on the Taste section of the StarTribune Newspaper and, before that, seven years as a cookbook editor at Betty Crocker Kitchens. Thank you, Ann, for your contributions here:
Jeg er sa glad hver julekveld,
For da ble Jesus fodt;
Da lyste stjernene som en sol,
Og engler sang sa sott.
I am so glad each Christmas Eve,
The night of Jesus’ birth;
The star shone radiant as the sun,
And angels sang on earth.
Our choir at First Lutheran in Clarion, Iowa, sang this beloved Christmas hymn each year when I was a teenager—we learned the Norwegian phonetically. Years later, it was a thrill to hear the renowned St. Olaf College choir perform it at Christmas Festival in Northfield.
This happy combination of festive music and traditional food continues every year at St. Olaf. Typically, Christmas Festival is the first weekend of December, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon. The 500 performers are St. Olaf students, nearly one-sixth of the student body in five choirs and an orchestra. As I watched the singers, I let my eyes roam from face to face, taking pleasure in their faith and fervor.
A Venerable Tradition
The St. Olaf Christmas Festival is one of the oldest musical celebrations of Christmas in the United States. It was started in 1912 by F. Melius Christiansen, founder of the St. Olaf College Music Department, who arranged many of the compositions for the concerts, including “Jeg er sa glad.”
Going to the traditional buffet and then the concert is a wonderful way to open the holiday season. The theme this year is The World Renewed by Love Divine. Sale of concert tickets began October 27 via the college’s web site.
“Three thousand people attend each concert,” the St. Olaf director of stewardship told me when I visited St. Olaf to research the essay I was writing about the Christmas Festival for my 2003 book, “A Cook’s Tour of Minnesota” (Minnesota Historical Society Press).
“With four concerts, that’s 12,000 people to park, feed, seat and inspire.” The music can be counted on for the inspiration; the rest is up to a whole corps of workers.
Many Menu Choices
The Christmas buffet menu that year featured lutefisk, meatballs, carved ham, boiled potatoes, peas and carrots, lefse and julekake. Dessert at the time I attended was rommegrot, a cream pudding usually served with melted butter on top; rice pudding; fruit soup and butter cookies. Lutefisk, meatballs and ham were served at the first such buffet in 1940, I learned.
“While lutefisk is the butt of many a Minnesota jest (for its pungent aroma and being cod soaked in lye), it has grown in popularity in Norway, according to Solveig Tweet Zempel, professor of Norwegian emerita at the college and a frequent traveler to Norway. Though lutefisk had fallen out of favor in the old country, interest has revived. Now the humble fish is served at all the trendy restaurants in Oslo, she said. Incidentally, Solveig has a familial link to St. Olaf: her grandfather was novelist O. E. Rolvaag, author of the classic “Giants in the Earth,” and a longtime St. Olaf professor.
Goodies and Game
Solveig grew up in the Norwegian community of Roseau, Minnesota. “My mother (Ella Rolvaag Tweet) served what she called immigrant/peasant food. Very plain food.” But Christmas baking was important. “We made fattigmann, rosettes and krumkake. (Fattigmann is a deep-fried, intricately shaped cookie; rosettes are crisp fanciful shapes, also deep-fried, then sugar-coated; and krumkake are rolled or curled (like a cone) after being baked on a special iron.) My grandmother always put two tablespoons of brandy into the fattigmann dough, which made the cookies crisper.”
Game is another thing that Norwegians enjoy, both here and in the old country. “My cousin shares venison and moose with my family,” said Solveig.
“We serve it with a wonderful game gravy enriched with gjetost.” In Norway, gjetost, a slightly sweet caramel-colored Norse cheese, is typically served at breakfast atop dense, flavorful whole grain breads.
Here in the Twin Cities, Ingebretsen’s market at 1601 E. Lake St. is the go-to place for meatball mix, lefse, lutefisk and all manner of Scandinavian specialties. This unique store also gifts, cards, books, even jewelry from Scandinavia.
We hope that Ann's descriptions of some wonderful Minnesota traditions of the Christmas season have brought to mind those that are dear to your heart, as well. The gathering of friends and family, the the meals shared, are treasured memories of our traditions, including our faith traditions. In this journey of Advent may you be blessed in the awe of anticipation as we await the celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus, the Light of the World.