Bill Holm, the well-known writer of several books and English professor at Southwest Minnesota State University, is no longer with us in person - but we will never forget his presence and the thoughts he shared with us through his writings. He was one of us, born and lived in Minneota; and he had a cottage in northern Iceland, the home of his ancestors. He visited his home there on many occasions, and of course, wrote about that country. Three years ago, I visited Iceland, on a trip to Norway, but did not get as far north as his house. I found Iceland countryside completely different than that of Norway, with its boulders and geysers - and I did wonder why he picked Iceland instead of Norway. Well, the answer is simple - we are drawn to the land of our ancestors where we immediately connect when we get there.
In this column, I want to share a portion of Bill's writing about Christmas as published in "Christmas in Minnesota," that includes Christmas memories of several authors and published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2005. The title, "My December Duty," refers to his job of bringing boxes of ornaments and multiple Christmas letters out of storage for his mother.
"My December Duty"
"At Christmas, the gavel of tradition bangs on the table to call the house to order. We have always done it this way, so do it now. We have always eaten - oysters, lutefisk, ham balls, fill in the blank - so we shall eat them again. In towns like Minneota, the solid front of Christmas habit brought even the atheists to church on Christmas Eve. The Jewish doctor's children acted in the Sunday school Christmas pageant. A Hindu could not have escaped appearing in the manger scene, toasting the holiday afterwards with garishly decorated butter cookies dunked in thin coffee.
Yet tradition, anywhere in America (and certainly in the Midwest), is a strangely jackleg affair, hardly old enough to qualify as tradition at all, rather only invented procedure. A tradition must be so old that its true origin, while lost to us consciously, remains quick inside; the cells of the body. Tradition grows from the texture of the grass, the shape of the hills, the color of rivers when the snow melts, the swampy pasture where our great-grandfather's horse stumbled and broke his leg. We haven't been long enough in Minnesota to earn that kind of tradition.
But what about the old country, you ask? Didn't tradition travel over on the boat from Ireland, Norway, Iceland, and Belgium? A majority of Minnesotans descend from those stocks, hardly over a century ago. But traditions seem not to travel well over water; most sickened in mid-Atlantic and expired shortly after they stepped off the horse cart onto the tall grass prairie. This is a country of interrupted traditions, just entering a difficult puberty to start growing real ones. The physician poet William Carlos Williams, described us well, if a little harshly, as 'tricked out/with gauds/ from imaginations which have no/ peasant traditions to give them/ character.'
But at Christmas, my mother, Jona 'tricked out' her house with gauds that would have astonished even Dr. Williams, and as she would have briskly assured him, she had plenty of character. She might have defined tradition as anything you did once that looked good to you, so you practiced it forty or fifty times more - and behold you have invented 'tradition.'
Her house became the gallery for her projects, and at Christmas, her favorite season, the show doubled or tripled in size to overwhelm the cramped little farmstead. Out came the boxes of handmade tree ornaments, the painted figurines of Santa and his whole retinue - reindeer, elves, sleighs, a set of wise men and camels and an electrified manger scene with blinking lights, angels of various color and design, dishes and bowls decorated with poinsettias and mistletoe, the embroidered Christmas tablecloth and napkins, the rosemaled napkin rings, wooden plates painted with Christmas motifs and Yuletide greetings in four or five languages, Christmas brick-a-brac on every flat surface, handmade candle holders of maybe fifteen designs with scented candles burned nightly for a month, their smells of lavender sachet, pine forest, and spicy cinnamon oozing together in the drafty rooms, and finally, my favorites, the Christmas angels made from folded magazines shellacked and spray painted to a board-like stiffness, and the piece-de-resistance: the Christmas toilet seat cover with a gay red winking Santa Claus waiting for your hind end (this came after acquiring a flush toilet in 1950).
She loved the festivity of Christmas, the chance to create some light and noise and gaiety at the bottom of the Year's darkness, cold, and silence. If you had to live in this godforsaken place at least show some evidence of being actually alive. Maybe that's the real kernel of psychological wisdom underlying the Christmas rites anyway. Jona's extroverted nature guided her to stumble into that wisdom unconsciously.
The Icelandic Christmas tradition inside her family and immigrant culture evaporated in the new world, except for a few Christmas recipes that were adaptations of food that had already begun to disappear from real old country tables. One ritual function of a tradition is to create connection inside a community. So, lacking Iceland, Jona made do, announcing: 'This is now tradition; help yourself.'"
Source: "Christmas in Minnesota" by Bill Holm published in 2005