I grew up the daughter of a Swedish immigrant to the US and for us, Christmas – jul – was the most important celebration of the year. In the days before email and Facebook and Google hangouts, when Sweden was so very far away that my mom called home only once a year, on julafton (Christmas Eve), Christmas was my mom’s best chance to share with my sister and me what she could of her childhood in Sweden.
These days I have my own household and kids, and I want to make sure that I pass on the same traditions that my mom passed on to me. I start at the beginning of December with my julbaket – my Christmas baking. As far as my kids are concerned, cookies are the most important jul tradition- right up there with the presents! The most significant cookies, traditionally speaking, and as measured by quantity, weight and volume, are pepparkakor – the famous Swedish ginger cookies.
Many celebrations center around special foods, but historically, at least, when Sweden was not as rich as it is now, and when there weren’t supermarkets stocked throughout the winter with a variety of foods, planning the julbordet (the Christmas table or buffet) must have implied a certain calculation, a reckoning of the sacrifices that might become necessary during the lean months ahead. Behind the display of Christmas bounty there lay the fervent hope that domesticated animals would survive the winter on the hay that (hopefully) filled your barn, and that your family could survive on the food stored in your cellar. It must have been a sometimes nerve-wrecking balance to strike: the mandate to mark the solstice (and/or the birth of Christ) today, versus the ongoing goal of survival!
But at this moment in time it’s all about pepparkakor! The dough starts innocently enough in a big heavy pot on the stove, filled with water, sugar, spices, lots of butter and some brandy. Here you can see it all melted together into a beautiful, silky brown liquid that makes the house smell delicious. Stir it and when it is cool add the flour, little by little. Then I let the dough sit out in a bowl, or maybe wrapped in plastic, until the following weekend. Don’t worry, the spices will preserve it; it won’t spoil!
When it’s time to bake, get started by preheating the oven, greasing cookie sheets, and getting out the rolling pins and cookie cutters. My mom always makes her pepparkakor heart-shaped, so that’s what I do, too. To me it wouldn’t seem right to make them any other shape, but there’s no law against it, so you can be as creative as you like. (Also like my mom, I make my smörkakor star-shaped; I’ll bake them when it gets closer to Christmas. I also bake bonnkakor, skärgårdskakor and havreflarn, but I do not roll them out and cut them into shapes.)
Pepparkakor are prettiest, and taste the best, if you can roll them out nearly paper-thin. Probably because I only make them once a year, it usually takes me a few sheets worth to get it right. Then I really start to roll! My recipe makes enough dough for 3 or 4 straight hours of baking, and by the end of that time I have three large tins full of cookies and two very sore feet!
I sometimes ask myself, why do this? It takes several hours of prime December weekend time; there are always other things going on and certainly other things that need to be done around the house. I wouldn’t have to bake all these cookies…would I?
Well, the truth is I do have to. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, and pride, in carrying on this tradition, and in demonstrating to my children and to myself, in a very tangible way, that, even though we live in the suburban US, where plastic Santas and Black Friday stampedes reign, we stand a bit apart. In our hearts we hold the dark northern sky, the moonlight on the snow, tomten with his sleigh, the julbord by candlelight. The truth is, I will probably still be baking these cookies when I am so old that I can barely stand!
This year we added something new to the big pepparkakor bake. My husband got our Swedish friend Lars to join us via a Google hangout. He gave us the shocking news that, nowadays, real Swedes actually buy their pepparkakor dough at the grocery store! We were horrified! But it’s okay for them, because they don’t have to make any special effort to be Swedish. They are Swedish 100% of the time, no matter what they do.
For me, though, the julbaket is more than just baking. Even more than a Google hangout, participating in this traditional activity shrinks the distance between me and the faraway land of Sweden. All of the effort, the stirring, the kneading, the rolling – even the heat from the oven and my aching feet – add up to time spent with my mother and my mormor and all the women who came before them, planning and preparing a special meal for their families. They accept me into their company, so that I, too, for a few hours at least, am a real Swede!