Kaldolmar night

This post is dedicated to my Aunt Laurie, for reasons that I hope will become clear.

“Food should be prepared with butter and love.”— Swedish Proverb

Tonight was kaldolmar night. This is the night that Crystal and I make the main dish of our Christmas Eve dinner: Swedish cabbage rolls. It’s an event, with its own traditions and weirdnesses. And tonight, I felt like I needed to write about it.

***

Kaldolmar aren’t particularly easy to make. It’s rather a process. First, you need cabbages, which you boil to convince the leaves to release from their tight grip around the cabbage head. Or, honestly, at least to cooperate once you cut them free from the central stem of the cabbage. Those large leaves become the outer wrapping of the kaldolmar.

Then you need a mix of rice and meat. Apparently the traditional meat is pork, but we usually use beef. Well, this year we’re including the leftover meat from making korv, but you get the idea. The rice is cooked. The beef is cooked. Mix. Then add allspice and salt until it tastes right.

What you do then is wrap the rice and meat mixture in the cabbage leaves. They won’t stay shut by themselves, so you tie them shut with string. Then you fry them in butter. Then you put them in a baking pan, cover them in brown sugar and more butter, and bake them until they are hot. Then you serve them. If you’re compassionate, you’ll cut the string first. Otherwise, the person eating one is on his own.

My grandmother once commented that she liked kaldolmar so much that she didn’t know why we didn’t have them more than once a year. Then she made them again and remembered why. They are a lot of work.

***

I don’t remember a Christmas without kaldolmar.

No, really. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I cannot remember a single Christmas Eve that wasn’t our traditional Swedish dinner. Kaldolmar. Korv. Fruktsoppa. Lingonberry. Sill, if you must, though I’ll admit that this is an aspect of the tradition that has conveniently slipped out of our observance.

It’s entirely possible that my memory is faulty, but, in my mind, this is what Christmas Eve looks like. This is what Christmas Eve has always looked like. A church service, carols sung, a fancy meal by candlelight.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without these things.

***

My grandfather’s favorite carol was “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. I guess I got it from him, really. It’s part of what was handed down to me. So, every Christmas Eve, it would be one of the carols that we’d sing.

I remember the year that my grandfather blessed Christmas Eve dinner in Swedish. It was a simple prayer, which he translated for us. But there was an air of tradition about it that I still remember.

I remember when he played one of the wise men in the living Nativity scene that closed out the Journey to Bethlehem event at the church that he was pastoring.

I remember when he stepped down, because the cancer was going to make him too sick to be able to continue.

I remember the first Christmas season after he was gone, when singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” somehow was an act of deep grieving and yet, somehow, of hope. The words of this verse suddenly meant so much more:

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

***

At first, my grandmother made Christmas Eve dinner. But life and age began to intervene, and my mother took over.

As I’ve said, making kaldolmar is hard. In particular, when you have to wrap the cabbage roll and tie it shut, it can be more than a single pair of hands can accomplish. And so, one Christmas season, my mother asked for my help. She needed my finger to hold the thread tight long enough for her to tie it.

Traditions have been forged from less.

And so, due to this accident of history, I became Mom’s official kaldolmar helper. Each year I would donate my finger to the cause, helping to tie the silly cabbage rolls shut. Then, one fateful year, I was promoted to the role of frying the kaldolmar.

***

My grandmother’s favorite carol was “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. I won’t lie and say that this has become one of my favorite carols, though I do love how it can be sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”. But it was her carol. So, every Christmas Eve, it would be one of the carols that we’d sing.

I remember her cookies, with the chocolate chips and the nuts.

I remember her as the first writer that I knew, who actually wrote her own book and self-published it.

I remember her quiet perseverance after Grandpa died, and her ongoing cheer and flexibility and devotion to God, when others might have become embittered.

I remember wanting to visit her once more this last summer, and being just a couple weeks too late.

And so, when I sing these words, I remember her:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

***

Frying anything is actually fairly hazardous. Oil splashes are a big deal, especially if they get in your eyes. I’m pretty sure that’s where the tradition of safety goggles started. Wearing gloves on my feet…I don’t even remember. I’m pretty sure that it started before the tradition of drinking wine during kaldolmar night, but I can’t be positive.

The point is that there’s proper garb for kaldolmar night. It’s tradition. That means it’s required. And so, every year, I gear up by wearing safety goggles on my face and gloves on my feet. Because it wouldn’t be kaldolmar night without them. And then, together, Mom and I would make the kaldolmar.

***

I don’t remember my mother’s favorite carol. Part of me feels like I should remember, somehow, but none of them really stand out. But that’s okay, because I know that she believed them all.

I remember her insistence that tradition needed to be humanized, that tradition needed to serve the people and not the other way around.

I remember her love of celebration and fierce insistence that all be included.

I remember her being hit in the eye with a marshmallow one Christmas Eve night, as a food fight broke out.

I remember the phone ringing on a bright summer morning, and a burial in summer rain.

***

When Crystal and I moved our family out to Illinois, Christmas Eve changed again. We were far from family, and so we needed to pick up the traditions and carry them. In particular, Crystal embraced this dinner as her own. Especially after Mom died only a year after we moved, she felt the weight of obligation to ensure that this tradition be carried on. And so she set herself to learning how to make all the traditional food. It’s entirely possible that she knows more about the history and tradition of these foods than me. I have the oral tradition of my family, but she’s done all the research.

And now, we make the kaldolmar together.

Over the thirteen years that we’ve been making kaldolmar together, additional traditions have emerged. There is, of course, the consumption of alcoholic beverages. There are traditional pictures that we take. There’s traditional music that we play, like “The 12 Pains of Christmas”, “I am Santa Claus”, “Fruitcakes for Christmas”, and others. I still assist in wrapping the kaldolmar by giving Crystal the finger, and then I fry the kaldolmar in butter, all the while wearing the appropriate gear.

It’s part of how I know who I am.

***

A couple of months ago, my Aunt Laurie mailed me an old Christmas letter that my mother had written. When I say “old”, I mean “written in 1977, written a few months after I was born.” In this letter was a picture of me at one week old.

When I got this letter, I stared at this picture of myself, fascinated by who I once was.

It’s not been an easy year for me. For various reasons, I feel like I’ve struggled with deep questions of identity. Who am I? Why am I even here? What’s the shape of my life supposed to be?

Have I even accomplished anything at all? What’s it all been about?

And as I looked at this picture of myself, I could feel the entirety of my life so far, measured in how far I’ve come from that little baby, staring out at the camera. And, in some small way that I can’t totally enunciate, I could see that, yes, I’ve actually made forward progress. Somehow.

I feel like I’m rediscovering who I am. It’s a slow process, coming in bits and pieces. And, honestly, some of it is rediscovering the new me, if that makes sense. A new me, built out of the best of what the person I once was had to offer and the bits that I’m still becoming.

But a lot of it is returning to my past, to remember who I used to be, who God made me to be. There feels like much I’ve lost along the way, and maybe I’m supposed to pick up those things again, to find myself again in what I have received from those who came before me.

***

I had a crisis of faith earlier this year.

I can tell you exactly when it was. October 30, 2015. All day long, I was being pulled down by voices questioning the faith that I had received. And I was starting to slip. “What if I’ve been wrong all these years?” I found myself saying. “What if I’ve believed all these things about God and Jesus and the Bible in vain?” The crushing weight of despair pressed down on my shoulders. Have I been a fool? Have I sacrificed so much in vain?

We were going to a Halloween costume party at a friend’s house, though we knew very few of the people there. And so, as I often do, I looked at the books on display in the living room.

And look! A book by Ken Gentry, a professor of mine from college. And I thought, “Ken Gentry believes the same things as I do about God and Jesus and the Bible.” And then I saw a book by Thomas Watson, a Puritan from the 17th century. And I thought, “Thomas Watson believed the same things as I do about God and Jesus and the Bible.” And I had Greg Bahnsen’s voice echoing in my head, speaking about a belief in God rooted in the impossibility of the contrary.

That night, the past saved me. The hands of my forerunners in the faith reached out to me. They grabbed hold of me as I was sinking.

They held me upright.

***

It would be inappropriate to say that our Christmas Eve dinner is haunted. I didn’t write about the beloved dead to summon their spirits to overshadow our joy with grief.

No, rather, I wanted to commemorate some of those who have gone before me, who trod the pathway of faith even when it grew dark, who honored their God even in dire straits. And it’s in traditions like this that they still speak.

They remind me that I am part of something larger than myself, a lineage of faith handed down, one generation at a time.

They remind me that our Father is honest and trustworthy, and that His revelation is sure.

They remind me that what I have been handed is worth preserving and protecting.

They remind me of the core of the faith that was handed down to us: our Lord Jesus Christ, come into this world to save sinners like me.

They remind me that there’s further to go, but that, if I’m faithful to Jesus, He will be faithful in return.

They remind me that I haven’t wasted my life.

***

Tonight was kaldolmar night. This is the night that Crystal and I make the main dish of our Christmas Eve dinner: Swedish cabbage rolls. It’s an event, with its own traditions and weirdnesses. And tonight, I felt like I needed to write about it.

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