This is a story I wrote last Christmas about a young girl celebrating winter in Sweden. Even though I am not a purebred, I have a Swedish heritage and love learning about their customs. Every year my Grandmother (Mormor) hides an almond in the rice pudding which you will learn about late in this story. I hope you enjoy reading it. Maybe it will get you thinking about Christmas now that Thanksgiving has come to an end.
It was dusk…
A gust of frosty wind plowed through me, as my horse and I took off at full speed. I leaned forward slightly and brushed a strand of my blond hair from my face. My hands firmly held the warm mane of my colt, as the rolling, white hills of the field sped past us. A snow-flurry or two clung to my eyelashes and tickled my nose that my scarf now exposed. I shifted on the bareback of my steed, and nudged my boots into her side. With that she took a giant leap over a fallen fence and her hooves kicked up the icy snow behind us. I giggled and pulled my shawl tightly around me. My dress was damp, my nose was numb. I buried my face in the warm brown hair of my Nordsvensk Häst or North Swedish Horse. Her coat had the scent of fresh hay and oats. I imagined my cozy, red farmhouse. It was lit with candles in each window and the glow of the fire-place flickering and cracking. Mother would be baking saffron buns, and the sweet tasty smell would fill the house. Tomorrow was December thirteenth, St. Lucia day. This year I was the honored girl that had been chosen to dress up as St. Lucia. Mother had assisted me when I had neatly woven holly and pine branches together for my wreath-crown.
“Oh Flicka,” I whispered softly to my horse. “I can’t wait for Christmas Eve dinner. Maria and Britta will come, and so will Uncle Carl. I will sneak you a ligonberry or two. How does that sound?” Flicka puffed and began to slow down a bit. I rubbed her neck softly and smoothed her chestnut hair. The towering, leafless aspen trees stood with snow-covered tops, and in the middle of a wide clearing stood my farmhouse. It was painted red with white trim. A stilted fence closed in the wide yard. A ways behind the house was our barn. We owned a few cows and sheep, and a little white barn cat that had recently had kittens. Flicka’s gallop diminished into a trot as we neared the barn. I leapt off and brushed the ice from my dress and boots. Then I escorted Flicka to her stall. The oat and water bucket had been filled that morning. I gave her a gentle pat on her nose. Her toasty breath warmed my frozen hands.
“Emilia!” called my mother from the house. “Please hasten, and come inside.” I lifted my skirts and ran for the door. When I entered the kitchen the warmth from the stove penetrated every part of my body. I stole a deep breath of Christmas scents. I heard singing from the living room. It was time for our Christmas carols. It had always been a family tradition to sing Christmas carols the night before St. Lucia Day. I scrambled to the stove and removed my leg warmers and boots. A puddle of melted snow had begun to collect on the wooden floor. I warmed my hands for a moment and then scurried into the living room. I joined my family in song as we sung the last stanza of one of my favorite Swedish Christmas carols.
“Stilla natt, heliga natt!
Allt är tyst, Klart och glatt
Skiner stjärnan på stallets strå
Och de korade helgon två,
Som kring Guds Son hålla vakt
Som kring Guds Son hålla vakt.”
I gazed at the serene snowflakes out the big window. I knew that angels were singing with us in heaven. Christmas was most definitely my favorite time of the year!
Early the next morning, I woke to the sound of muffled voices. It was still dark out. I glanced at my little sister, Astrid, who was still fast asleep. Quickly, but quietly, I escaped the bed and tip-toed into the hall. There on a blue trunk was the white St. Lucia dress with the wreath of candles. I had prepared them the night before. After rapidly dressing by candlelight and braiding my hair into long straw-colored braids, I made my way down to the kitchen. As I neared the kitchen door, I heard my older sister, Inger, humming a Christmas tune. Her blue eyes sparkled with the spirit of Christmas.
“Inger,” I whispered. “Help me light the St. Lucia candles.” I pushed the kitchen door wide open and rushed through. Inger relieved my full arms by grabbing the wreath and candles.
“I have already set the St. Lucia tray. It is complete with saffron buns and holly. You must hurry now Emilia. It will be dawn before we know it.” She gently placed the garland on my head and lit the tall, white candles. Then she cautiously gave me the tray of steaming Glogg and saffron buns. Before long, I began my rounds. First, I softly tapped on my parents’ door.
“St. Lucia invites you to breakfast,” I announced. The silent sound of ruffling could be heard from all of the rooms down the hallway. My family, one-by-one, opened their doors and gasped at the lovely sight. I gave treats to everyone as Inger sung the traditional St. Lucia song. Her stunning, clear voice rang through the air.
“Santa Lucia, thy light is glowing
Though darkest winter night, comfort bestowing
Dreams float on dreams tonight
Comes then the morning light
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.”
“Oh Emilia, You are so pretty,” gasped Astrid. A smile spread across my face. “You’re lucky. I hope I will someday get to be St. Lucia!”
“Of course you will,” Mama smiled. “You just have to be patient.” Little Valter wiped cinnamon from his gleaming face. The whole house glowed with candlelight.
The dim light of the gray sky barely revealed the thick sheets of snow that were dropping, and producing large bumpy piles of endless, colorless powder. I sat by the large family room window unenthusiastically staring blankly into the white dust. Father slammed the kitchen door tightly shut and shuffled into the kitchen. After removing his snow-shoes and smoothing his beard he guzzled down a mug of coffee and addressed the family.
“It’s a blizzard out there. I barely got home without being trapped in the snow drifts. The post office received word that a man had been found buried in the snow just a few miles from town. The weather is even worse up north.” A small spark of melancholy lit in my heart. I would be forced to stay indoors that day. I wouldn’t be able to take Flicka for a ride. I shrugged.
“To interrupt this gloomy episode I believe I have good news,” Mother declared. “In the mail stack there is a letter from Uncle Carl.” I jumped up with excitement.
“Is there a letter for me?” I asked curiously.
“There is a letter for each of you.” Inger replied as she entered the living room with a stack of envelopes.
It was never often that we received word from Uncle Carl, but when we did it was always an event to discover the goodies he had sent us. Uncle Carl traveled all over Sweden. He sent me photographs of famous castles, or landscapes. Although the photographs were black and white and fuzzy, I could still make out the picture. I eagerly tore into my envelope and revealed a photograph of the Linköping Cathedral. I had heard of this cathedral before, in school. It was the tallest building in Sweden. I had always wanted to visit the magnificent city of Stockholm, and explore the amazing structures. Uncle Carl inspired me to do more with my life than just sit around all day at home.
The blizzard continued for three days. In that time I had not seen Flicka once. Father had tried to venture out to the barn to feed the animals one time, but had sprained his knee trying. When the snow turned into flurries, Mother allowed me to go out to the barn to feed Flicka. Impatiently, I tried to run in my snow shoes, but soon gave up trying. It seemed like it was the longest trip to the barn I had ever taken, but when I finally got there, I was relieved to see that the cows had not thinned much. Only a few bones poked out on their sides. When I approached Flicka’s stall I removed a carrot from my pocket. I expected to see Flicka peek over the stall door any minute, but when I opened the stall door my heart felt as if it had left my chest. Flicka was gone! The stall door latch had been broken. I dashed out of the barn and began calling Flicka and searching everywhere, but she was nowhere to be found. After exhaustively collapsing on the porch steps, I began to sob uncontrollably. Tears rolled down my flush cheeks. At that moment, I had no idea what to do.
After days of searching, everyone had pretty much accepted the fact that Flicka had probably been buried in the snow somewhere; everyone except me. I had the determination to find her, but as Christmas approached, my stubbornness seemed to fade away. My mind still held on to the memories of her. Her playful figure had been engraved in my memory. I often thought of the day Flicka had been born. It had been my birthday. I had claimed her as my own from the moment I laid eyes on her. I cannot recall the countless visits I paid her that night. I would rub her neck to make her feel safe and made sure that her blanket was always around her small, shivering body. I had been her second mother, and she would always have a special place in my heart.
I awoke one morning and inched out of bed. It was two days before Christmas Eve. A Waxwing chirped on the tree branch outside my window. I listened intently to the shrill singing for a moment and then clumsily got dressed. The bird seemed to call me from his perch in the fruit tree. I leaned out of the window and took a gasp of fresh air. My face was warmed by the bright sun, that had forced its warm rays of light to break through the stubborn gray winter clouds. I grabbed a sturdy limb and clambered out, tearing the burgundy hem of my dress. I dangled for a moment and then landed in a cluster of bushes. I paused to catch my breath and then trotted along after the bird. I don’t know why I followed the bird, but something compelled me to. The sun looked like melting wax on the horizon. The shallow, melting snow allowed me to walk freely without the burden of snowshoes. I skipped gaily to the beat of the bird’s melody. When the sun had completely risen, we neared the woods. I stopped for a moment. Father had instructed me to never enter the forest alone, but my curiosity got the better of me, and soon I found myself ambling through the dancing shadows of the trees. There was no echo of the brook, for it had froze in the blizzard. Everything was unusually quiet. I wasn’t accustomed to the winter stillness that now haunted the usually cheerful hide-out that I had wandered in the spring. The wind whispered through the frozen trees, but other than that, everything was silent; until a noise grabbed my attention. The whinnying of a horse echoed through the trees. I listened more keenly. After several paces I could see a small shack in the distance. Branches bowed over the rough roof. I heard muffled voices from behind the hut. I could barely make out the words.
“She’s so pretty, Daddy.” I heard a small weak voice.
“But we can’t keep her,” the kind voice of a father replied. “She must belong to somebody.” I ducked and tried to get a closer look. A tall, strong man gently held a fragile little girl. She was stroking a horse with chestnut brown hair.
“It’s Flicka!” I gasped. Clouds of breath escaped my nose. I watched closely and quietly, but on the inside, my heart was pounding louder than a drum. How I longed to ride my beloved friend through the meadows once again. It took every ounce of my self-control to keep myself still.
“Do you think we could keep her…just for Christmas?” The little girl asked hopefully, her voice shaking.
“I’m not sure. I’m sure her master misses her dearly.” The little girl sighed and rested her head of golden curls on her father’s shoulder. The two disappeared through the little front door of the shack. A thin line of smoke wisped through the chimney. The hut looked cold and lonely. The only sign of Christmas was a small hand-made wreath nailed to the door. I slipped around the back-end of the house. There was a tiny opening that looked something like a window. I overheard the little girl praying, and I couldn’t help but listen.
“Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for all that you have given us. Please keep me and my daddy safe and sound. For Christmas I don’t ask for a Christmas tree decorated with that shiny tinsel. All I want for Christmas is for me and my daddy to stay together always, but if there was only one more thing I could wish for, it would be a friend. Someone who doesn’t care that I can’t walk or run on my own. Someone who will have fun with me even if I can’t go and play amongst the pine trees. Oh…and I don’t know if this is too selfish of me to ask, but please…please make the horse be able to stay. In Jesus Name, Amen.”
I paused for a moment and swallowed hard. “Flicka,” I said in a voice softer than a whisper. “It’s Emilia.” Flicka panted and put her front hoof in the air. I crawled quickly over to mollify her. Her warm breath was refreshing. A couple of tears fell from my eyes. I knew I was making a very quick decision, but I clearly knew what would make the little girl happiest.
“I can’t take you home. You must stay here.” I choked. “This family needs you…they…they need you more than I do; especially the little girl. You’ll be the only Christmas present she will probably receive this year.” I rubbed Flicka’s soft chestnut hair for the last time, and disappeared amongst the trees.
“Goodbye Flicka,” I said beneath my breath, “Goodbye.”
On the day of Christmas Eve, everyone had the joy of Christmas in their hearts. Gingerbread men decorated the mantel, along with fresh pine branches that filled the house with the scents of the outdoors. An eye-catching young spruce tree stood in the corner of the living room. Its branches were adorned with straw angels, Swedish flags and the glow of shimmering candlelight. Friends and Family would come and celebrate. I lent a hand as we prepared the smorgasbord. My mouth began to water as I took in deep breaths of the delicious smells of the food. As the firsts guests arrived, the excitement began.
“God Jul! God Jul!” Their voices rang like the Christmas bells that would ring at midnight on Christmas day, and would chime through the church walls and all over the streets of town.
“Merry Christmas to you!” I sang back. A bright star sparkled in the black sky. The children played, the adults danced and laughed well into the night. I kept my eyes on the rice pudding. Maybe this year I would get the almond. If I got the almond in my bowl of rice pudding, I could make a Christmas wish. I craved the dried codfish and ligonberry jam at the end of the table. The cheerful sound of children laughing filled the room; I turned to see Uncle Carl.
“Uncle Carl!” I exclaimed. “I’ve missed you so much!”
“How’s my little niece doing?” he asked.
The night continued to go well. Soon enough, desert was served. Mother allowed me to spoon up the rice pudding. Valter began fishing around for the almond. The cousins each groaned with disappointment. As I slowly put my spoon in the pudding, my heart skipped a beat. I had found the almond! I closed my eyes and wished for the thing that had been on my mind all that evening.
All too soon, it was time for the guests to depart.
“God natt!” they called through the frosty air. As Uncle Carl planted a kiss on my forehead, he tossed me a bundle.
“What’s this?” I asked with curiosity. He didn’t answer.
“Goodnight to you all!” He hollered as he walked away into the snowy night. I unwrapped the gift and examined a beautifully painted horse.
“It’s a Dala horse,” my mother told me with a twinkle in her eyes.
“What is a Dala horse?” I asked, but somewhere inside me I could feel that I already knew.
“Well,” she began, “A horse is a creature of great value, a faithful friend who pulls loads in the forest during the winter, works in the meadow when spring and summer arrive, and gallops through the vast fields of nature with her best friend. That’s why Sweden created the Dala horse, a symbol of a friend who will always be special to your heart.” My mother gave me a wink as we climbed the stairs. I held the Dala horse close, and with my imagination, I was riding in the fields of white once again.