My dad, Hall Leiren, died this fall and this will be our family’s first holiday season without him. I wanted to share a story about our first holiday season with him…
It was going to be my dad’s first Christmas away from his kids and he was in a funk. My little brother, David, and I didn’t call him “dad” yet. He was still just “my mom’s boyfriend” or “Mr. Leiren,” but we were hoping he’d soon be more than that.
Mr. Leiren has four daughters and, like most divorced dads, he had to figure out how to schedule his holiday season. Mom asked Mr. Leiren how we could help him have a happy Christmas. He explained that his tradition as a Canadian parent was to open presents Christmas morning and have a family dinner that night. But he was born and raised in a small town in Norway with a name that’s pretty much impossible to pronounce unless you’re Scandinavian. Mr. Leiren explained that in Norway they opened presents and had the festive feast on Christmas Eve. So mom offered to create a traditional Norwegian Christmas Eve. Then, the next day, he’d join his kids — which must have been magical since his youngest daughter was still at the right age to believe that Santa might show up.
David was also young enough to be at the Santa stage, but we weren’t on first name terms with the jolly red elf because he didn’t traditionally stop for milk and cookies at homes displaying Menorahs. Like most North American Jewish kids, our Chanukah wish was to celebrate Christmas. And like most North American Jewish kids we had to settle for dreidels, latkes and eight days of candles. But my mom wanted to help Mr. Leiren enjoy his holiday, so she asked what one served for a traditional Norwegian Christmas meal.
The feast started with lutefisk – dried cod fish treated with lye. The main course was a rack of lamb accompanied by Raspekake — huge grey potato balls, which were pretty much the anti-latke. This was served with lots of smør – my favorite Norwegian word. Butter.
Desert consisted of Krumkakers – thin, crispy, pastry horns stuffed with whipped cream mixed with cloudberry jam. My mom had to search everywhere in the city and the suburbs to find a proper Norwegian “Krumkake iron.”
Mom made the lamb and the desert. Mr. Leiren cooked the fish and potatoes. And our traditional Christmas feast was delicious – except for the lutefisk, which was an acquired taste you apparently needed to be born in Norway to acquire.
My mom completed the festivities by putting up a small tree and that year Chanukah presents became Christmas presents.
Mr. Leiren spent the night smiling, laughing and telling us how this was the perfect Norwegian Christmas. From that year on every Christmas Eve mom and dad would prepare the traditional Norwegian Christmas delicacies (minus the lutefisk).
After my first year of university my friend, Bob and I went backpacking through Europe and one of our stops was Stamneshella, the village where dad grew up. I met his relatives and we swapped stories about dad, Canada, Norway and the correct way to pronounce “Leiren” as everyone served Bob and I platters overflowing with Norwegian treats.
One afternoon dad’s cousin – I don’t recall her name, but we’ll call her Inger since almost every woman I met was named Inger – arrived with a plate of Krumkakers. Inger was delighted and shocked that I not only knew what these were, but pronounced the name – not quite correctly, but close enough to be recognizable as Norsk.
She wanted to know how I knew the word. I explained that I knew the names of all the foods that were part of a traditional Norwegian Christmas feast. She looked puzzled and asked me to tell her about the rest of the meal. The more I told Inger, the more confused she looked until, finally, she started to laugh. “That’s not a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner,” she said. “Those are just your dad’s favorite foods.”
I thought about whether I should ask Dad about this, or at least mention it to my mom. But as I finished the last of the whipped cream from my Krumkaker, I realized something with perfect clarity.
My dad’s cousin didn’t know anything about Norwegian Christmas traditions.