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Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land Paperback – October 1, 2001
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If you read it for the Christmas traditions and history you'll not be disappointed. Everything is discussed and put into historical and cultural context. I grew up in a Norwegian American community. I thought I knew a lot of this stuff. Boy, was I wrong. I know it now...in glorious detail after reading this book. I doubt anyone out-celebrated the Norwegians at Christmas over the years with the possible exception of the Germans. They have wrung every last drop of meaning and fun out of the holiday.
The bonus part of this book is how it effortlessly weaves in history and cultural evolution into the Christmas traditions. From finding comfort from old, familiar traditions in a new land, to the overriding need to assimilate, and to a reawakening of pride in heritage, Kathleen Stokker masterfully shows us how all this played out...and continues to play out.
This is an excellent book. You will not be disappointed with your purchase.
She notes, "Pressed by rapidly expanding immigration and growing commercialism, America had needed its own Christmas ritual, one that could bind together the increasingly varied ethnic groups housed within the borders of the new nation. Characterized by Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, and gift giving, this uniquely American celebration evolved about the same time as the heaviest waves of Norwegian immigrants were arriving on American shores.... Christmas reveals better than any other aspect of Norwegian American culture the forces of evolution, preservation, and assimilation that faced the Norwegians as they made their new home on American soil. Certain Norwegian Christmas traditions remain not only the most stable of the folkways Norwegians brought to America, but also the ones through which the immigrants revealed their deepest feelings about adjusting to American culture." (Pg. xvi)
She says, "Though fasting itself has disappeared from today's Norway, a significant feature of this centuries-old practice remains: the pre-Christmas lutefisk dinner... Norwegian Americans have a long tradition of proudly and painstakingly preparing lutefisk for Christmas and other special occasions while simultaneously cultivating entire joke cycles that resoundingly disparage the dish." (Pg. 20-21)
She records, "Sudden pounding on the door, loud singing, or commotion may interrupt ... The Noise announces the arrival of of julebukker... neighborhood children disguised in store-bought or homemade masks and costumes. Before being invited in, they might sing a song or provide other entertainment. Once inside, the julebukkers receive candy, cookies, and other Christmas treats." (Pg. 92)
She observes, "The gap between the child-centered Christmas adopted during the nineteenth century... and the Christmas celebrated by immigrants of peasant stock had begun to narrow... they also realized that their customary celebration would not last. Few immigrants could celebrate Christmas for thirteen days... [immigrants] experienced the much abbreviated and commercialized American Christmas as a threat to their own customs and an affront to their religious faith." (Pg. 156)
This wonderful study will be of great interest not just to persons of Norwegian background, but to anyone interested in the history of Christmas customs in this country.
Stoker traces the Roman and Viking roots to Christmas celebrations in Norway and their evolution among Norwegian-Americans. She emphasizes the importance of preserving ethnic heritage: "Americans find in ethnicity an antidote to the isolation that has grown increasingly acute in the wake of the massive suburbanization that began in the 1940's.... Ethnicity fulfills the particularly American need for origins and belonging..."
Christmas is an ideal time to reconnect with one's cultural roots. As Stokker writes: "Incorporating change while retaining everything that makes it so beloved, Christmas holds within its vast and monumental embrace diverse individuals, families and cultures, allowing each a means of self-expression."
The "authenticity" of ethnic celebrations, however, is open to interpretation. Stokker writes: "When people no longer fear that their ethnicity may threaten their life chances, they can express it more freely. With greater time separating them from the Old Country, they can also feel less constraint about the way they choose to express their attachment to it. As a result, individuals and families increasingly create the content of their ethnicity, picking and choosing the items that they themselves find meaningful...."
This book is a great read and worth the trouble of finding a used copy. (Or buy a brand new copy from Barnes & Noble)