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A Swedish Christmas: Andrew Brown

The religious journalist Andrew Brown spent part of his childhood in Sweden during the 1960s. In the '70s he married a Swedish woman and raised a family there. He remembers how his mother-in-law was dedicated to keeping the Swedish Christmas traditions alive. Producer: Phil Pegum.

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Christmas Day 2015 22:45

A Swedish Christmas

Sigrid always cooked the same Christmas meal: a great boiled ham with mustard, little frankfurters that squirted and burst from their tough skins when attacked with a fork, a cold salad of herring and beetroot, boiled potatoes and a sparkling seasonal drink, Julmust, that tasted of ancient carpets. There was nothing else to accompany the meal but water or coffee. It would have been a dreadful violation to bring alcohol to the house. 
Not drinking – in the English sense of drinking – was almost all she had left of her religion by the time I met her though you could tell the story another way and say that it was fear of alcohol and the determination to fight it which had cost her her faith and her marriage. 
When I describe her like that, she does not sound the mother in law I would have chosen, but I loved her daughter and we were lumbered with each other. Nor was I the son in law she'd have wanted. But I could not, in the event, have had a better one. 
She was one of the kindest people I ever knew and one of the most humble, too. She taught her grandchildren to milk the lean cows that are kept on Swedish smallholdings and all her life retained a child's appetite and relish for the world. She loved the seasons – the heat of sunlight or the bite of snow. In her youth, she'd nearly been a missionary in the Congo, and there was something about the way she talked about the world outside Sweden that made me think of children's books from the time before mass travel – Pippi Longstocking, of course, but also Tintin and Dr Doolittle. 
Her own childhood had been spent just south of Lapland in a part of Sweden so poor and isolated that it is hard now to believe. As a child she had lived in one big room, along with her parents and 13 brothers and sisters in a house on the edge of the forest, two miles from the nearest road and school. 
The upper two rooms were occupied by her father's parents, who had the second storey entirely to themselves. There was one lightbulb, in the centre of the living room. The family had a horse and a few cows which were let out to graze in the forest. They grew oats and barley and hardly brought anything with money in the shops. In summer, for a treat, the children would cut the bark of pine trees and chew the resin that oozed out.
When she was thirteen, in 1948, she left school and was taken on as a milkmaid in one of the larger local farms. Out in the wider world, that was also the year when the Swedish state first recognised citizens could be atheists. Until then you had to be legally registered as some kind of Christian, if you weren't Jewish. At sixteen she moved to another farm as a general servant and then, for the first time, she had a room of her own to sleep in. 
She had an aunt who wanted more for her. The two elder women managed to get her sent to Stockholm to train as a nurse and from there she travelled to Antwerp to train in midwifery. The plan was to become a medical missionary in the Congo. They taught her a little French and one of the Congolese languages. She was very devout, in a quiet way. 
When she had been born in 1935 it was still actually illegal for anyone to leave the Church of Sweden who had been born into it. One the most mortifying memories of her childhood poverty had been kneeling at the rail for her first communion in brown shoes which her father had simply blackened with boot polish because he had bought her one pair of shoes that year already. But it was raining that day, and the polish ran in streaks, exposing their poverty to the whole village gathered in the church behind her. 
Yet all her devotion, and preparation for a life of sacrifice as a missionary, came to a shaking end. A fortnight before her final exams she suffered some kind of nervous collapse. Fifty years later, her hands would start shaking as she remembered it. She could not take the exams at all and was sent back to Stockholm to convalesce in a church run home.
There she met another devout and neurasthenic Christian, an engineer with strong views and weak eyesight from Jönköping in Småland. They married, and he found a job in the power station at Trollhättan, nearly 500 miles south of her birthplace. In Lilla Edet, the small town where they settled.  
The cold around Christmas was more of a nagging inconvenience than a hardship. Snow was still a relative novelty at that time of year and a welcome one, since it brightened everything up, but the dark seemed to surround and crush us. It was dark from around 3 in the afternoon till 9 in the morning and on grey days it would never grow properly light at all. Christmas could not really supply enough light on its own, which explains the popularity of the feast of St Lucia, a fortnight before, when children parade, singing, through the night with candles in their hair. But Lucia is soon extinguished. Christmas becomes the next festival of light to hope for, to endure until. Every tree indoors was dressed with electric candles and real candles stood in every window. The commercial frenzy was welcome, too, because it meant that the shop windows were unusually well lit and interesting. Anything would do to push away the immense darkness of the forest around us, which extended, almost unbroken, all the way to the arctic circle and beyond. 
After their marriage, Sigrid and Hans had two daughters quite quickly, then several miscarriages and another girl. Sigrid worked as a nurse and midwife. They were both active in the Swedish church's Mission Fellowship, an evangelical organisation. Even years later, many of the books in the house were pious works – I remember the autobiography of a man who had been caught smuggling bibles into soviet-controlled Estonia. But their missionary activities were confined within the town. In particular, they worked for the defeat of alcohol.
People will tell you nowadays that Sweden is a deeply irreligious country. That's not in fact entirely true. Christianity is not nearly as marginal as it can seem, and nearly two thirds of the population still pay membership dues to the Church of Sweden, and say they believe in some kind of a God. They just don't go to church, except on special occasions. 
But there was one great religious and spiritual movement which has completely vanished, leaving only a few wooden halls around the country, and that is the temperance movement. In the early part of the twentieth century it was as strong in Scandinavia as the movement which led to prohibition in the USA and it was never so thoroughly discredited. Fighting alcoholism was a profoundly religious movement in both countries. It was both spiritual and political. To shun drink protected the weak and gave self-control to the strong. But though I have called temperance a religious movement, and it was, quite important parts of it were atheistic, socialist, progressive. They believed in humanity and in its unshackling from interior chains as well as outward oppression. 
In the 1920s, at the same time as Prohibition became law in the USA, a referendum in Sweden very narrowly failed to enact prohibition there. Instead there was a system of rationing for hard liquor, which was available only through a state monopoly and not at all to the unemployed or to married women. Ration books were abolished only in 1955, when Sigrid was 20, and there was still no drink sold legally in a small town like Lilla Edet when I met her in 1977: it was an hour's bus ride to Trollhättan if you wanted to buy some. 
So it was obviously the duty of a devout Christian couple to rescue an alcoholic who wanted to turn his life around. In Lilla Edet, where Sigrid was raising her family, the town drunk, a hulking brute named Karlsson, came into their church fellowship and wanted help. The church helped him and he sobered up. It turned out he wanted love as well, and Sigrid, little mousy missionary Sigrid, helped him out with that too – at least until Hans, her husband came home unexpectedly one afternoon.
The resulting catastrophe blew her right out of Church, and, indeed, out of decent society altogether. Of all their old friends, only a Danish couple would still speak to Sigrid. Her three daughters all sided with the wronged father. 
The eldest, Anitha, left to work on a kibbutz in Israel, and then became a volunteer in a Cheshire home in North Wales, where she met me. She took me home. We spent a cramped summer living with her father and then we married.  When Anitha took me to meet her Sigrid, it was only the second time they had spoken in three years. 
Then Sigrid was living with reformed drinker Karlsson, but a year later, after her daughter had married me, she left him and turned up in our kitchen, weeping and shaky. She'd left him. I hugged her. We helped her move out. Very gradually, she started talking to her husband Hans again. One year they moved together again back in the old house. We all ate our Christmas meal together on Christmas Eve, which is when the festival is always observed in Sweden. It had by then become an entirely Godless and intensely human observance for her. She never forgave the Church for rejecting her, and Hans, too, rather enjoyed in his shy precise way the freedoms that he gained by abandoning Christianity. 
But the bonds of convention held us all tightly on Christmas Eve, when we ate the ham and herring salad and drank solemnly the carpet-flavoured Julmust. How glorious it must all have tasted to Sigrid, who had once been a little girl and chewed pine resin as she wandered in the great forest. The youngest child in the family – then my son Felix – would be fitted with a floppy Santa hat to show he was the Jultomte, the Christmas troll, and set to work distributing presents from under the tree. The youngest child present must act as the jultomte, the gnome who rewards good children. The presents were never very elaborate. The gift, for all of us, was the net that Felix wove, crawling around and between us to make a family again. 
Christmas day itself was always a quiet and exhausted day, bleak and cold, soon over. Once their youngest daughter, Ingela, had finished school, Sigrid and Hans split up again, without much acrimony. In the late Eighties, Sigrid moved back North to Östersund, the nearest town to where she had been born. 
She died last October. Her funeral was secular because in 2000 the Church of Sweden had been disestablished and she never renewed her membership. None of her family had realised that she was no longer entitled to a religious funeral and we sang hymns around her coffin anyway before the talk that wasn't a sermon and the speeches in her memory. We drank coffee, of course but the sinners could also have bottles of weak beer. Then we drove to her graveside and stood for a while in the rain on a day when the dark green glisten of the shrubs that grew in the graveyard made the brightest colour in the landscape.
“You know, I think at the end of her life, she had almost forgiven God”, said Ingela. I think God should have asked her pardon too, and now, on Christmas Day, I'll raise a quiet glass to the memory of one of the best women I ever knew. Skål, kära Sigrid.

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