* This year, churches will livestream in competition with Netflix, supermarket Santas wearing red hazmat suits will read fairy tales about social-distanced gnomes, wish-lists must be submitted through touchless systems (rather than posted to the usual zip-code, 99999 Korvatunturi), and folks will get fresh presents delivered via Amazon (another year’s supply of sanitiser)
* Way back, before refrigerators, surplus animals were turned into porky-beefy sausages that could be preserved by smoking, or sylta (salt-cured pepper-boiled brawn nowadays eaten as cold cuts), and palt (rye and blood cakes dried for longevity) — and these rich repasts then sustained the populace until fresh fare became available in spring
* As you may have noticed, there was little solace for vegetarians earlier — maybe a beetroot salad — but nowadays, julbord is being eroded by gluten-allergy, veganism and other trendy dietary habits
Jolly Yuletide is back and I must wash my stinky socks, as I do annually, to hang them by the fireplace. We have few hearths in South India, so I’ll tape them to the modular kitchen chimney instead and hope Santa (and maybe Banta, too) can squeeze in somehow to deliver without getting shredded by the exhaust fan.
Xmas was always a complex affair back in Sweden where I grew up — next-door to Santa’s official ‘secret’ workshop at Mt Korvatunturi (1,594ft) in Finland where, under sweatshop-like conditions, the parcels are allegedly prepped by elves. Families got together, drank much, argued, and before New Year, followed Nordic Noir type fights, divorces, and blood feuds. The norm was to take surplus gifts from the previous year, rewrap and pass them on to some other relative (making sure not to return to sender).
Example: When I was about seven, instead of a comic book, I received a boring looking novel by Philip Roth. I shunted it off to another relative. After he died, I got the same again and felt I must read it even if I feared it might kill me too. Moreover, Swedes love to entertain themselves with masochistic films about Christmases, such as Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander (1982) or the even more depraved In Bed with Santa (1999).
This year, however, churches will livestream in competition with Netflix, supermarket Santas wearing red hazmat suits will read fairy tales about social-distanced gnomes, wish-lists must be submitted through touchless systems (rather than posted to the usual zip-code: 99999 Korvatunturi), and folks will get fresh presents delivered via Amazon (another year’s supply of sanitiser).
It’ll mean unusually laid-back celebrations since people aren’t to group and grope, but instead quarantine inside mental Plexiglas cubicles. It’s a queer situation, perhaps reflected in the fact that the most popular carol this Christmas, according to Swedish radio statistics, is Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You, closely — too closely — followed by George Michael’s nostalgic Last Christmas.
Nostalgia is the keyword. In olden days, come December livestock was butchered as fresh food was running out, as was fodder, so before the darkest day, my ancestors switched to non-veg. This turned into a religious ritual: A handy combination of animal sacrifice to appease gods by blood-bathing them whilst nicely pigging out. Pigs, so-called julgris, hogged the limelight, and when I was a kid there would be a massive baked ham at the centre of any Christmas table.
However, my preferred red meat was reindeer, which is common nourishment around Santa’s homeland in the Arctic Circle. I was naughty, I admit, because Santa might need his red-nosed Rudolph to visit other kids too, but I figured as soon as I got mine, he could park his sleigh and hitch-hike a snowcat ride back to Korvatunturi. Besides, Santa’s sleigh was traditionally pulled by a goat; flying reindeer were an American addition to the saga, characteristically, in order to market caribou chops. Naming one of those Rudolph was another Yuletide promotional gimmick — for a US department store chain. Hence there was essentially nothing wrong in eating reindeer as they weren’t, strictly speaking, sacred.
But perhaps this commercial association with Santa is understandable, considering how reindeer rearing remains a mainstay in the hamlets around Korvatunturi, where lakhs of doe-eyed livestock go about their business naturally socially distanced due to its location too close to the Russian border (only those permitted by the Finnish Border Guard can go anywhere near). The aboriginal Sami people call the animal a ‘living pantry’ as the organically lean meat is healthy, rich in omega-3, multivitamins and abundant minerals. They graze throughout summer in the unpolluted Arctics and are a renewable resource since new critters are born each spring.
My first encounter with this gamey grub came in the form of renklämma, essentially a kathi roll stuffed with reindeer steak, quark and whey. Another pet dish is a rye sandwich topped by renskav (thin-sliced reindeer leg roast somewhat resembling shawarma shavings), not to mention reindeer fillet stewed with creamed mushrooms. The wholesome venison can also be wood-smoked, sundried or salt-cured and is, increasingly, becoming a preferred luxury ingredient amongst slowfoodies, slowly overtaking the overexploited (not to mention industrially farmed) Scandinavian salmon on menus.
But, curiously, while Santa allegedly has constructed an underground workshop up north in the realm of reindeer, the actual historical person his figure is based on, St Claus, was a 4th-century Turkish saint. Furthermore, the cult around Father Christmas really only developed in New York to where his legend was brought by the city’s Dutch colonisers (long back when the Big Apple was still known as New Amsterdam), who worshipped him as Sinterklaas, making it tricky to pin down his antecedents — at least four separate myths from different countries combine into one schizophrenic identity. Besides, St Claus’s feast falls on December 6, but for pragmatic purposes he got linked to December 25.
Incidentally, the Bible gives no date for Jesus’s birth, but he most likely wasn’t born in winter, because it gets rather cold in Bethlehem (I got a bad flu there one Christmas eve long ago) so shepherds wouldn’t really be out working. If shepherds witnessed the Nativity at all, it means he was born between April and October, when they’d be out tending their herds. The holiday was only fixed in the 330s CE, to co-opt an ancient heathen winter solstice festival dedicated to the Roman sun god’s birth, some 20 years after Christianity was declared the Roman state religion. Parenthetically, December 25 was also the birthday of ancient Iranian god Mithra, which essentially, in present-day parlance, means it’s a multicultural festivity not owned by any certain creed.
The expression Yuletide, which has come to mean Christmastime, is actually of Old Norse origin, but it’s a bit unclear what it really implies: It’s often linked to similar pagan midwinter rituals that ancient Romans celebrated by gift-giving, partying, and embellishing one’s home with greenery and lights. These habits were later adapted by Scandinavians, who had served in the Roman armies. The original Scandinavian term is jól (the source for the word ‘jolly’, which I started this column with) and first time it appears in literature, in 900 CE, it’s a reference to Vikings getting drunk! And their jól-drekka wasn’t sacramental wine, but heady mead mixed with bona fide blood of sacrificial animals in honour of chief divinity Odin, the idol of intoxication. No wonder that modern Scandinavians get over-refreshed this time of year.
And this practice, gradually, developed into the modern julbord, the ‘Christmas table’ or communal meal eaten to mark these holidays. Way back, before refrigerators, leftovers of sacrificial animals were turned into porky-beefy sausages that could be preserved by smoking, or sylta (salt-cured pepper-boiled brawn nowadays eaten as cold cuts), and palt (rye and blood cakes dried for longevity) — and these rich repasts then sustained the populace until fresh fare became available in spring. Hence, this is what’s really being commemorated in Scandinavia at Yuletide, though it’s now said to be the Christ’s mass. Yet it all nevertheless provides a link to heathen history, memories of ancestors and clans that make friends and colleagues get together for gluttony and collective alcoholism, still today known as dryckeslag.
If this were an ordinary year, my Swedish friends would have headed to restaurants weeks before Christmas with their workmates, to partake of julbord, an opulent smorgasbord if you will, sometimes decorated with julhös, the pig’s chopped-off head (boiled with an apple in the mouth). This all-you-can-eat buffet of seasonal goodies reflects ancient eating preferences such as various porridges or dopp-i-grytan, ‘dip in the pot’ (dry bread softened by soaking in fatty pork stock onto which might be stacked anything protein-rich).
Then on the eve of Christmas, each family enjoys their own julbord at home, while on Christmas Day, groups of relatives typically meet up for yet another boozy julbord (occasionally a pot luck where they combine the previous day’s leftovers). These seasonal dishes generally last up to January 13, which is celebrated as Tjugondag Knut when people consider it appropriate to sober up — making julbord into a seven-week-bacchanalia.
The aperitif is commonly sweety-spicy glögg (mulled wine) followed by local vodka brännvin libations or flavoured aquavit shots (snaps) belted down after snaps-song-chanting (the great favourite is a pun on a Disney song that has nothing to do with Xmas but freewheelingly rhymed goes something like this: When you wish upon a star/ have a snaps and see a bar), chased with mugs of Christmas ale or a beery cocktail called mumma (stout, lager, port, brandy and any other booze of one’s choice blended with a dash of lemonade), and the debauchery is rounded off with an eggnog (hard liquor, wine, sugar and lemon juice mixed with raw egg).
Apart from non-veg and alcoholism, buffets are incomplete without cheeses. Traditionally in each farmhouse a huge 20-kg-cheese was set in early summer so that it matured by Xmas, but sweetened cheesecakes were also popular. Naturally, Sweden being a country with many lakes and rivers and a too long coastline, there’d be fish on the Christmas table — fresh, pickled, salted, smoked or baked into so-called ‘Janssons temptation’ (creamy casserole of anchovy and potato). For dessert, a selection of gingerbread biscuits, deep-fried crullers and other old-fashioned bakes should do just fine.
As you may have noticed, there was little solace for vegetarians earlier — maybe a beetroot salad — but nowadays, julbord is being eroded by gluten-allergy, veganism and other trendy dietary habits. But it was always an adaptable spread. Before that, due to foreign influence, American-style turkey replaced old-fashioned goose kroppkaka dumplings and the barleycorn porridge of yore gave way to rice pudding akin to Indian kheer, an obvious by-product of colonialism that brought rice to Europe, while customary hazelnuts are augmented by exotic imports like figs and dates.
This year at Operakällaren, the classic upmarket Stockholm restaurant (one Michelin star) credited with defining the modern julbord, my rock musician friend who went to binge as he usually does, found that the normally extravagant buffet has been downgraded to smithereens. Instead of a gastric atom bomb, it’s like masticating grenade shrapnel in the form of a degustation of Covid-19-free samples of herring, lobster, roe, and cold cuts paired with an assortment of champagne, snaps, microbrews and wines and there was, for obvious reasons, no Corona beer on the set menu (SEK1950/₹16,831). So, even as I sit in Bengaluru and dream of the julbord of my childhood, the same seems to be missing in my native place this time around.
Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;