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God Jul: A Scandinavian Christmas

Grade school to high school students wait to begin singing a song about Saint Lucia at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. The girls wearing tinsel as belts and crowns are Lucia's attendants and those wearing cone hats and carrying staffs are "star boys." Rachel Fergus / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Yule Goats abound at the American Swedish Institute during the holiday season. This goat, made from the traditional straw and red ribbon, sits in a corner on the second floor of the mansion. Rachel Fergus / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Minnesotans and Wisconsinites are often reminded of their Scandinavian heritage: cross-country skiers and skijorers rolling through town and down trails, stores with names like Uffda, a professional football team named the Vikings, and friends and family from out of state who giggle when people in Minnesota pronounce such words as "boat," "Fargo," "Minnesota" or anything else with the long "o" sound.

The holidays seem to bring out the Scandinavian in residents, even those who don't spend time hanging out in saunas, eating blood pudding or fishing for the singular almond in the rice pudding that is supposed to bring a year's worth of good luck. Below are some of the traditions that many will recognize and have fond memories of. Others not familiar with Scandinavian holiday traditions may still be baffled by the fact that people willingly sit in steam rooms before jumping in a frozen lake and eat a dish that has the name "blood" in it.

Sankta Lucia

At some point in history the Swedes adopted St. Lucia, an Italian saint, as a cultural icon. This adoption evolved into the tradition of children dressing in long, white robes, wearing crowns of lighted candles and passing out baked goods. While the tradition lives on, most girls playing Sankta Lucias now wear battery-powered candles (thankfully).

On the morning of Dec. 13, the eldest daughter of Swedish families dresses in a white robe and ties a red ribbon around her waist. She wears a evergreen wreath with candles as a crown. The younger girls, also in white robes, wear belts and crowns of tinsel. Boys in robes wear long cone hats and carry staffs with stars on the end. These "starboy" costumes can cause some chaos as the points of cones are prone to poking those standing behind a starboy.

On Saturday, Dec. 8, the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis hosted a Sankta Lucia event. Dozens of children from grade school to high school walked through the center singing a Swedish song about Lucia while dressed in the traditional garb. More than once parents and volunteers reprimanded boys for using their starry staffs as lightsabers and poking devices.

The lights, children's voices and the pastries (called "lussekatter") can create a serene and pleasant scene that, for many, marks the beginning of the Christmas season. However, the legend of Lucia is not serene. At all.

Ingebretsen's is a store in Minneapolis that was founded by a Norwegian immigrant over 90 years ago. The store is the go-to place for lefse and Swedish sausage. It is also filled with history and traditional artifacts and decor. Buried on the store's website is a popular version the legend of the much-loved Italian saint: Many believe that Lucia refused to renounce her religion and gave everything she owned to the poor. Her husband to-be was not pleased by this and put her on trial. Lucia was found guilty of being a witch and was sentenced to be burned at the stake. However, no one was able to light the fire to burn her, so Lucia was stabbed instead. What a holly-jolly, uplifting story. Want some lutefisk on the side?

This tradition is most common in Sweden but is also prevalent in Norway, Denmark and parts of Finland.

Yule Goat

Scandinavia and descendants of Scandinavians around the world pull-out "yule goats" for the holidays. These goats, usually made from straw and red ribbon, come from traditions and legends that predate the religious holiday of Christmas.

According to a 2017 story by National Geographic, the tradition was that men would dress as goats and give gifts to children who were good — very similar to the idea of Santa Claus (if Santa was a goat and not a man with a red suit and white beard). More recent traditions and lore include creating these goats and leaving them on neighbor's doorsteps and the idea that gnomes are aided by goats to deliver packages during the Christmas season.

Some believe that the Yule Goat evolved into Santa in Finland. However, be careful if asserting that Santa is from Finland or, even more divisive, that he lives there. For years Scandinavians and other northern European cultures have argued over where the modern Mr. Claus came from and where he lives. The internet is filled with blogs, posts, articles, studies and pointed words about where the magical workshop really is. This debate is heated enough to melt snow on the coldest of Midwest mornings.

Lutefisk

Lutefisk haunts the dreams of many young children in Scandinavian families. While this dish is not as common in northern European countries as it once was (cooking technology has, after all, vastly improved in the last few centuries) it is a staple in many Minnesota holiday traditions. Chances are good that at least one Lutheran church in each of the state's 87 counties will have a lutefisk dinner in its basement this season.

This "delicacy" has a variety of steps before it is served to brave dinner guests. The white fish was dried and treated with lye before modern-day storage methods, so it was soaked in cold water for at least three days before preparation. Recipes vary on how to season the fish, what texture is perfect and what should be served on the side. However, the end result is always a dish that has a gelatinous texture. At least lutefisk is usually served with potatoes, vegetables and other side dishes.

Scandinavia and Scandinavians have a plethora of traditions that are revisited this time of year. Whether it's by dusting off an old cookbook, pulling a Yule Goat out of the attic or dressing like an Italian saint, there are dozens of ways for area residents reconnect to their Scandinavian roots or learn about strange, yet common, customs.

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