The arrival: a Christmas Eve memoir

Lefse as legacy

Photo: TINE Mediebank Lefse is more than a food—for some it is a connection to Norwegian identity.

Photo: TINE Mediebank
Lefse is more than a food—for some it is a connection to Norwegian identity.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

Especially during a snowstorm, Christmas Eve afternoon would stretch into an agony of anticipation, waiting for Grandma and Grandpa. The route from Kenyon to Minneapolis was little more than a country dirt road in those days.

It was the one time each year that Ole and Tillie would make the 60-mile trip, their old sedan bearing cardboard boxes crammed with ingredients to transform the day into Christmas.

Mainly, the boxes contained lefse, the pounds of handmade lefse Grandma had been rolling out all week, flipping them one-by-one on her wood-burning stove. Like snowflakes, each lefse would be unique, a more-or-less perfect circle, thin and of the lightest consistency, somewhere between crêpe and tortilla.

“They’re here!” we’d yell, as the old Studebaker pulled up. We’d fling open the front door and usher them inside, whereupon, by their very entrance, they would begin to transform an ordinary winter afternoon into the nearly unbearable brightness of Christmas Eve.

They’d shake the snow off their coats, and we’d caravan the boxes into the kitchen, lifting out sparkling jars of pickled beets, tins of carefully stacked rosettes and row upon row of delicate krumkake, and finally, stacks of lefse wrapped in waxed paper. Our begging would start immediately, hoping Grandma would let us “test” one.

Soon, Grandpa would grow edgy and start checking his watch. Christmas was a sacred day that commenced, not the next morning, but promptly at sunset, after which, he maintained, all mundane work must cease.

Finally, we’d hear the dinner call: “Vær så god!” That expression, along with tusen takk—a thousand thanks—was all we knew of the Norse language, except, of course, the traditional table prayer, which we learned by rote, understanding nary a word except the Amen, but knowing well its essence.

Ole took his seat at the head of the table, surveying the arrival of bowls and platters of glistening, fragrant meatballs, clouds of mashed potatoes and rutabaga, and the quivering red and green Jell-O mold set out on the best white linen.

Rounds of warmed lefse, speckled with whimsical galaxies of beige and tan polka dots from the griddle, were swaddled in Sunday napkins and stacked on our best Spode. There they were before us, waiting to be seized and sprinkled with sugar.

Finally, the lutefisk was borne in, with as much pomp as if it were a gilded pheasant, or a roast boar with an apple in its mouth. Grayish and steaming, the humble fare would be set proudly in front of Grandpa. He’d brush his big moustache aside, tuck a napkin under his chin, and deftly scoop up a shapeless hunk. He’d prod us to taste it, pushing the odorous tureen our way. We’d make faces and roll up more lefse.

“Nei, you’re not good Norskies,” he would grunt, playfully leering at us with his remarkably piercing blue eyes.

I didn’t want to displease my grandfather, but the way I saw it then, there were only two ways to prove oneself to be a good Norskie, and both were sitting on the table before us. I loved the one, spurned the other, and never thought much about the origins, the traditions, the labors, or the ultimate value these simple items served in our lives.

Ole and Tillie were born in America, the children of mid-19th century Norwegian immigrants, and while they were good Americans, they still lived immersed in a virtually Norwegian dimension.

My family moved to California, and of course, Ole and Tillie stayed on in their Norwegian-speaking community. Sensing our need for connection, Grandma mailed us packages of lefse every Christmas. Then, one year, the packages from Minnesota stopped coming.

Determined not to lose this link to what little tradition we had, my mother and I set out to make lefse on our own. A few days before Christmas, we’d take out the recipe written in Tilly’s shaky hand on a piece of blue-lined stationery. She’d bequeathed us her old wooden roller and the lefse stick that Ole had whittled for her. I had never dealt with the basic ingredients, and marveled that such delicacy came from plain old potatoes.

Spurred on by our singular pursuit of better and better lefse, my mother and I went looking for other displaced Norwegian-Americans, and found a “new” old world: lodges, newspapers, merchants, churches, folk-dancers, visiting royalty, language classes, bunads, literature, lefse-making parties, and journeys back to Norway itself. My Mom and I got to be pretty good Norskies!

But the time came when I was left to make lefse alone. Mine came out too thick, and were never as round as Grandma’s, but I persevered, reminding myself that she had rolled out thousands and thousands in her time. Tusen takk, Mor-Mor.

Lefse is a cherished food of childhood memory. If it hadn’t been for lefse, which unknowingly sustained my faltering sense of Norwegian identity over the years, I would have lost all connection to my heritage, and not been able to pass it on. Lefse has been a link, a symbol and a magnet, drawing me to others who grew up loving it—Norwegian-American boomers, all of us wanting more. More knowledge. More recipes. More words and prayers in Norwegian.

The renewable relic of our grandparents’ time, it was lefse that gently bound us back to our roots, and sustained the ancestral soul.

New generations of children now fill my house on Christmas Eve. They bound in the door and first thing out of their mouths is “You got lefse?” I tell them stories, about Christmas in Minnesota, and make them practice the old Norwegian table prayer.

The sacred time comes, and as I roll up another piece of lefse, a grandchild asks why I stare off into the December night. “I’m waiting for someone to arrive,” I murmur. How can I tell them that I’m half expecting the front door to burst open, and the bearers of Norwegian Christmas Eve to come shaking the snow off their coats, their arms full of the endless, endless gifts.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.