Celebrations from Up North
Treats from Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands spice up the holidays in three Westchester households
By Peter G. Rose
Photographs by Michael Nelson
In the little Westchester hamlet of South Salem, in what would be a city block, three of us Northern Europeans have found our home. Holger Nissen came from Denmark in the 1950s. Reidun Rafoss emigrated from Norway to the U.S. in the 1960s. I arrived from the Netherlands, also in the 1960s. In spite of the fact that we have been in this country for more than 40 years, all three of us have kept our native traditions and celebrate the holidays with foods and customs we brought from our homelands.
Â¡Â°If you donÂ¡Â¯t keep your traditions, you lose part of yourself,Â¡Â± says Reidun Rafoss. So every Christmas Eve Â¡Âª when Norwegians celebrate the holidays with gifts and a big dinner Â¡Âª she makes the customary Ris Krem og Rod saus for dessert and hides a blanched almond in this creamy rice pudding served with a red berry sauce. The person who finds the almond gets a pink marzipan pig and the promise of good luck for the year.
For the dinner, Rafoss traditionally serves whole pork belly with ribs (cut into two-inch squares for easier eating), boiled potatoes, sur kaal (homemade sauerkraut), carrots, and peas. Â¡Â°To eat, we wrap a riblet, some potato, and vegetables in a wedge of lefse [a 20- to 24-inch pancake made from ground boiled potatoes mixed with flour and butter], and dip the package in the porkÂ¡Â¯s hot fat. We drink Aquavit and beer with it Â¡Âª to cut the fat, as they say.Â¡Â±
Baking Christmas cookies is as integral a part of the Norwegian holidays as it is in this country. Â¡Â°Most Norwegians make seven to 10 kinds of cookies,Â¡Â± she says, Â¡Â°but nowadays I just make the ones I like best.Â¡Â± Here, she offers her recipe for butter wreaths. Â¡Â°Most years, I have to bake them three times, because they are eaten before I can put some away for the holiday,Â¡Â± she says with a laugh.
Baking and decorating the house with greens, red flowers, and her traditional troll-like Santa Clauses, which she has brought from her homeland over the years, signify the start of the holidays for Rafoss. Trolls are mischievous elves, and the most beloved is the Christmas elf with its red cap, called the nisse. Â¡Â°They are ugly, but so friendly,Â¡Â± says Rafoss. Â¡Â°I love them. When I unwrap them and place them around the house, I know Christmas is coming.Â¡Â±
In our neighborhood, Holger Nissen is known for his aebleskiver, which he makes according to tradition on Â¡Â°Little Christmas Eve.Â¡Â± These light, puffy yeast pancakes are prepared in a pan with seven deep wells, which aid in creating the traditional ball shape. Aebleskiver literally means Â¡Â°apple slice, or disc.Â¡Â± Â¡Â°It is a strange name,Â¡Â± says Nissen, Â¡Â°because there are no apples involved and the dough is ball-shaped.Â¡Â± He traditionally fills them with strawberry or raspberry jam, or with orange marmalade, and rolls them in confectionersÂ¡Â¯ sugar. He also makes a few without filling Â¡Â°just to fool people.Â¡Â± He says Â¡Â°the first batch usually does not turn out too well, so you eat those yourself first and serve the next batch to your guests.Â¡Â±
Â¡Â°Little ChristmasÂ¡Â± is celebrated on December 23. In times gone by, family members would gather the day before Christmas Eve (the present-giving occasion) at the house of NissenÂ¡Â¯s grandmother. The serving of the aebleskiver indicated the beginning of the holiday. On Christmas Eve, the table would be set with a white cloth and gleaming silver, and everyone would dress up for the occasion. Goose with all the trimmings would be part of the menu. After dinner, the father of the household would go in a separate room where the tree was set up, light the candles, and invite everyone to come in. Nissen remembers with glee how excited he was at the sight of the beautiful tree surrounded by its presents. The youngest child able to read would distribute everyoneÂ¡Â¯s gifts, and the family would take turns opening them.
Why has he retained his Danish customs even after so many years? Â¡Â°When my children were young, I wanted them to have that same exciting experience, and now they are doing the same for their children,Â¡Â± he says. Noting the contrast between the more formal Danish customs and the American habit of opening gifts on Christmas morning, he says, Â¡Â°I prefer our way; when you spend all that effort and money, you do not want to open gifts when you may be unwashed and in your pajamas.Â¡Â±
Preparing holiday treats is part of the Danish tradition, and because the aebleskiver require a special pan (which is available from Williams-Sonoma), Nissen also shares a recipe for a holiday cookie topped with tangy currants.
In the Netherlands, the gift-giving occasion is not at Christmastime, but on Saint Nicholas Eve, December 5. On that evening, I usually make a little buffet of a mixed cooked vegetable salad Â¡Âª my fatherÂ¡Â¯s recipe Â¡Âª with assorted breads, shrimp, cold cuts, deviled eggs, and stuffed cherry tomatoes, along with trays full of the traditional sweets (some homemade, some store-bought) for dessert. There will be almond paste wrapped in puff pastry, molded spice cookies, molded sugar animals, lots of marzipan in all sorts of shapes, and chocolate letters in the first letter of everyoneÂ¡Â¯s name.
Virtually nothing is certain about the real St. Nicholas; his legend may have grown from the lives of several bishops by that name. According to tradition, he was a fourth-century bishop of Myra who became associated with anonymous gift-giving. He was a patron saint of sailors, who brought his cult via the sea routes from Eastern to Western Europe. Celebrated in the Low Countries, he was often the main character of miracle plays performed in town centers. This made him less a venerated saint and more a popular folk hero. By now, the non-religious celebration is an integral part of Dutch family life.
In the 17th century, the celebration was a kinderfeest, a gift-giving occasion for children only. They would place their shoe or sock (stocking) by the chimney at night and find it filled with toys and candy in the morning. That was for good children; the naughty ones got a roe, a bunch of twigs used for spanking. It is this celebration whose traditions have been absorbed most into the American Christmas season. Author Washington Irving took the tall, stern, but just Saint Nicholas and turned him into the jolly, round Santa Claus.
In the ensuing centuries, the celebration in the Netherlands has changed. Now, adults get presents as well, but the gifts are generally smaller than American Christmas gifts and every package needs to be accompanied by a poem.
It is the cleverness of the poem Â¡Âª and the creative wrapping Â¡Âª that counts the most. For example, a cheese knife might be wrapped inside a cardboard cheese fashioned by the giver. Another form of gift wrapping is the doorgeefpakket, a package wrapped in multiple layers of paper with a different name label for each layer. It is passed from person to person until it finally reaches the intended recipient.
The pedagogical aspect of Saint NicholasÂ¡Â¯s giving has been retained by making this an occasion where one may Â¡Âª in rhyme form Â¡Âª tell about the recipientÂ¡Â¯s foibles. An irritating or funny habit might be the subject of a long poem, in which the author will end by hoping it will be corrected next year, or else… To some, the rhyming seems a daunting task, while others make light of it. We were fortunate when our son-in-law immediately grasped the concept at his first celebration and wrote a poem for a liquid soap dispenser. It has become a classic in our family:
Dirty little fingers can mess up the house.
Dirty little fingers, like feet prints from a mouse.
Dirty little fingers leaving spots on the walls,
Leaving marks on the banister, and streaks in the halls.
With dirty little fingers, important papers get a smudge
After eating special treats of rich chocolate fudge.
Now there is only one solution to this dirty little sin:
That is to have one of these near every room youÂ¡Â¯re in.
Then your dirty little fingers can be clean and pure and nice,
And you can leave the nasty smudging to those rude and thoughtless mice.
Â¡Âª Saint Nicholas
We generally start our celebration at about six in the evening, but reading each poem Â¡Âª and often rereading it Â¡Âª and unwrapping the present and passing it around takes time. It is usually late before all is finished and we jointly call out: Â¡Â°Thank you, Saint Nicholas!Â¡Â±
For all of us, whether you celebrate on Saint Nicholas Eve, Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or any other time, these special occasions bring the moments of love and laughter that create the cherished memories of a lifetime. Happy Holidays! Â¡Ã¶
Peter G. Rose is the author of Foods of the Hudson (Overlook Press) and Matters of Taste: Food and Drink in Dutch 17th-Century Art and Life (Syracuse University Press). Visit her Web site at www.peterrose.com