The Norwegian tree that grew like Topsy

Photo: Barabara K. Rostad Four of the ornaments described in the story can be seen in this photo. From left to right: white stabbur, 1986; blue oval with nisse, also 1986; Top left of upper nisse doll, wood chip carving, 2004; Far right, white heart with blue flowers, 1969, bought in Norway.

Photo: Barabara K. Rostad
Four of the ornaments described in the story can be seen in this photo. From left to right: white stabbur, 1986; blue oval with nisse, also 1986; Top left of upper nisse doll, wood chip carving, 2004; Far right, white heart with blue flowers, 1969, bought in Norway.

Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho

It started with a branch of Douglas Fir rescued from a heap of discarded trimmings at a Christmas tree lot. I stuck it in a can filled with rocks and dirt, put foil around the can, and set it on my kitchen counter where it stayed for the holiday season, decorated with a few small ornaments found at a dime store and featuring one string of small Norwegian flags.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that first venture with a Norwegian tree started a tradition that has endured for over 40 years.

The following year I chanced upon a shop in San Diego’s Old Town that had boxes of candle clips for Christmas trees. Mindful of my mom’s stories about grandpa jumping up during Christmas Eve dinner to stop a fire from spreading on the candlelit tree, I bought a box of 10 such clips plus a box of small red candles.

“Ah,” I thought, “a genuine old-fashioned Norwegian Christmas tree.” This time I acquired an actual small tree, which still needed the support of dirt and rocks in a can, the trunk being too small for a regular stand. Alas, the branches of a Douglas Fir are not meant to support candle clips. By the time Christmas came, the branches were drooping from the weight of those charming red candles.

Nobles to the rescue! In subsequent Juletide seasons I bought a two- to three-foot Noble Fir with its stiff and sturdy branches—and pricey tag, which kept me to the miniature versions. But these, with a little extra creative help from my engineer husband, could be persuaded to spend the holiday season in a tree stand where water could extend their stay. I would put the little tree on a high stool, giving it a central focus in the dining room. For many years the 10 candles were the only lights and these primarily for décor.

I was slowly acquiring a few little painted wooden ornaments like stars, bells, or goats at the annual bazaar in the San Pedro Norwegian Seaman’s Church. Asbjorn and I were married in that church so the ornaments purchased there now hold a host of memories, not just of our wedding, but of the New Year’s Eve Asbjorn won a trip to Norway as the top prize in a raffle at the church or the Christmas Eve services we attended there with the chance to sing carols in Norwegian.

When we moved to a home on 20 acres in a wooded area of North Idaho with a view of Hauser Lake, I discovered our property offered a variety of evergreens, including my favorite, the Grand Fir. We have not bought a tree since.

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad “Topsy” in full form. The only thing missing is the strings of Norwegian flags.

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad
“Topsy” in full form. The only thing missing is the strings of Norwegian flags.

This house has a huge kitchen, so with space and a free renewable resource, the Norwegian tree grew, rather like Topsy; that is, with no plan or direction, it gradually became larger. The twig had become a three-foot Noble and now the Grand Fir went from four to five, then six or seven. The last several years the chosen tree has first been taken to our Sons of Norway lodge for the party there, then brought home to assume its place in our kitchen.

Last year I got it home and set up, unpacked the ornaments and laid them out on a cloth-covered TV tray nearby—and made no more progress for several days, caught up in the usual Christmas frenzy. Suddenly it was almost Christmas Eve, and the tree was still just standing there.

“Do I really have to do this?” I asked myself. There’s other decorating to be done. Packages to wrap. Cookies to bake. But the tree is cut and in my kitchen; the lights and ornaments await. Do I really want to just forget about it all?

Sighing, I strung the requisite white lights, then started hanging ornaments. Here’s the white ceramic heart edged in blue and painted with flowers, bought in 1969 on my first trip to Norway, a journey I took courtesy of my granduncle, Hagbarth Bue, 83 at the time. Once too large for my smaller versions of a Norwegian tree, it now takes its place on the seven-foot fir in my kitchen.

It was a trip that changed my life. I’d been raised a North Dakota Norwegian but touring the landscape together with Uncle Hagbarth, I fell in love with my ancestral nation. Through him I met many shirttail relatives including a third cousin my age that I still visit now on trips to Norway.

Once home, I began studying Norwegian on my own and when I moved to California, I joined Sons of Norway where I took language classes. I met Asbjorn at a Sons of Norway convention. Uncle H., as I affectionately referred to him, sang at our wedding and at our son Erik’s baptism.

Here are those tiny stars and other wooden ornaments from the Seaman’s Church. They go in the upper branches, just like the tiny white church so like Trinity Lutheran, the country church in North Dakota where I taught Sunday School as a teenager. And the small nisser that are actually gift tags from Norway sent by a friend’s relative for her to use over here. At one time they were perfect for my tabletop tree.

And look, a small piece of Hardanger embroidery enclosed in a circular wooden frame. Another round ornament contains the Norwegian flag in needlepoint. Both these came from a friend who once was in the San Pedro lodge with us; now we both live in the Pacific Northwest.

This square piece of Norwegian chip carving I bought at the Sons of Norway International Convention in Washington, D.C., in 2004, the year our son was stationed in Iraq with other Marines while we, along with all the delegates, attended a concert by the Marine Corps Band on what happened to be my birthday.

When Uncle Hagbarth and I went to the 1986 Norway Day at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis where he lived, I bought this elaborate white stabbur with rosemaling and later that week when I drove him, then 98, to Decorah, Iowa, for a Sangerfest where he performed a solo, I purchased this blue oval ornament featuring a nisse in a snowstorm.

These woven hearts (kurver) were made by a friend in my Idaho lodge. And this is the 2010 ornament, a Christmas tree with our convention logo on it that we gave delegates when we hosted the Sons of Norway International Convention in Coeur d’Alene. Asbjorn and I were co-chairs.

And I considered not hanging these this year? What was I thinking?

The flow of memories continued as each ornament was selected from the tray and the perfect spot chosen. Look at these tiny knitted red and white mittens, barely two inches long, that I bought in Norway one year. And these two hearts woven from birch bark, also purchased in Norway.

And this, I realize, as I continue with the trimming, is indeed the heart of the matter. The many hearts on this tree are reflective not only of a commonly used Norwegian motif from waffles to dishes to table runners to Christmas ornaments, but also the heart of Christmas itself and the many memories so dear to my own heart.

It isn’t the finished tree with flags and lights and ornaments that matters nearly as much as the process of unpacking and placing each one, remembering the story that each has to tell, stories that document not just where I have been and what I have done but the friends and family I have encountered along the way.

Of course, not all such ornaments go on the Norwegian tree; some are in the Big Tree box. Like Snoopy wearing a Viking helmet. Or the Kristin and Haakon dolls from the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics who take up residence annually in the upper branches of the Big Tree.

The Big Tree? Oh. That would be the tree we place in our living room, which has the vaulted ceiling with space enough to accommodate a ten-footer. But that’s another story…

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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