It’s Christmas Eve and mentally I usually go for a walk back in time.
Many years have come and gone since those pre-adolescent years when, after I’d completed my farm chores, I’d whistle up Buddy, our Great Pyrenees farm dog to go for a walk away from the farm buildings.
Rural areas were a lot darker back then, before every farm would have a mercury vapor light blazing away through the night. On a dark, moonless night, such as this year’s Christmas Eve, we might see a glow of light from the windows of neighboring farmhouses; perhaps some colored lights from a Christmas tree. If skies were clear, however, the snowy landscape would be plainly visible by starlight.
On those clear evenings, I’d be looking to find that big star in the sky that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem. I’m afraid I never found that star, though I’d easily find my talisman, the constellation of Orion the Hunter.
The walk doesn’t last long, as I have to get to the house and get ready for dinner. Our Christmas Eve gatherings usually included my maternal grandmother and my bachelor uncle Harold, and my other uncle, Reuben, and his wife and son. These Christmas Eve gatherings rotated among the three homes. As these things sometimes work, these Christmas Eve gatherings never included my dad’s sister and brother and their families, who had also immigrated from Norway and lived relatively nearby.
Our Christmas Eve dinners always included lutefisk, that Scandinavian delicacy, the aroma of which filled the house, competing with the equally pungent aroma of manure-splattered overalls hanging on a hook in a corner of the kitchen. Fortunately, there were always other dishes, such as meatballs or roast beef, to go with the lutefisk. I always declined the lutefisk course, agreeing with my uncle Harold, who always proclaimed, “Anything that turns silverware green cannot possibly be fit to eat.”
Before the dishes were passed, however, my grandmother would read the Christmas gospel from Luke. In her Norwegian accent, the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus were “clotes.”
With the advent of home freezers, some exotic items occasionally made their way into the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, such as corn on the cob, or strawberries for dessert, both from the bounty of the summer garden.
Eventually, with dinner dishes done and put away, everybody ended up in the living room where gifts were piled under the Christmas tree. I recall some gifts being somewhat utilitarian, such as the year my dad gave uncle Harold a small sack of alfalfa seed that he’d harvested from our farm.
Later, gifts unwrapped, the company would go home, and after the wreckage of gift wrap and boxes was cleared away we’d be ready to for that “long winter’s nap” as Clement Moore’s poem called it. Dad liked to have a snack before bedtime, his favorite being leftover cold lutefisk, which he’d wrap in a piece of lefse. With fish juices from his lutefisk burrito dripping down on his pajama shirt, he was a happy man.
Returning to the present, I remind myself that aside, from my brother and a cousin, everybody that gathered for those family Christmas Eve dinners is long gone.
I’ll still take a Christmas walk, though it’s in an urban neighborhood. My companion is a Labrador retriever, the fifth in a line of Labs going back almost 50 years. Our Christmas Eve dinners definitely don’t include lutefisk. My wife recalls her childhood Christmas Eve dinners also featured lutefisk until, one year, her father suggested that maybe they didn’t need lutefisk this time. My wife adds that oyster stew was also a tradition in her family until the Christmas when an oyster went rolling down his tie.
Some things stay the same. If Christmas falls near a full moon, Clement Moore’s poem still rings true, “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, Gave a luster of midday to objects below.”
After all these years, I still love the beauty of a winter night, with a full moon giving that “luster of midday to objects below,” and on dark nights, I still get my bearings from Orion the Hunter.