The following was written with the help of my Scandinavian in-laws. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of the information, but it makes for a great story.
The Scandinavian Christmas celebration starts on the first Sunday of advent. Back in the old country, the nights are long and the days are dark this time of year. Children spent their evenings making Christmas tree decorations out of paper. We bought our decorations at IKEA, but here is a star my husband made back when he was a young sprout.
IKEA also supplied our traditional Julbock or Yule Goat. The straw Yule goat dates back to times when a goat was slaughtered during the pagan Yule festival. Here is our pagan Julbock.
Without fail, every December 13th, my husband and I forget Santa Lucia day. Santa Lucia is a Sicilian saint. Above is a picture of a Santa Lucia’s statue that my in-laws photographed during their trip to Sicily. The Scandinavians became acquainted with her when the Normans (men of the north) occupied Sicily. Santa Lucia is associated with light during the dark wintertime.
On the morning of the 13th, the eldest daughter of the house puts a wreath of candles on her head and serves coffee and Lucia buns to her family. Below is a Santa Lucia bun made by my Danish mother-in-law.
My mother-in-law tells me Santa Lucia is a Swedish and Norwegian tradition, and she only observes the day because her husband is Swedish. However, my mother-in-law bakes delicious Santa Lucia buns and brings them to our house every year to enjoy at Christmas. She also makes traditional Danish Christmas cookies: ginger snaps, vanilla rings and almond cookies. Very tasty.
The next big day in the Christmas celebration is Lillejuleaften which means the evening before Christmas Eve. On this day, the grownups would cut down the Christmas tree, bring it inside, and decorate the branches with candles, glass bulbs, and the children’s paper decorations. In olden times, the children weren’t supposed to see the tree until Christmas Eve, however, now decorating the tree includes the entire family.
Typically, we have the tree set up before Lillejuleaften so we can concentrate on the smorgasbord. We have to shop at farmer’s markets, IKEA, and specialty grocery stores to gather various herrings, Greenland shrimp, smoked salmon, cold cuts, hard rye bread, schnapps, and a variety of cheeses including Fontina, Havarti, Port Salute, blue cheese and others. The sandwiches are open faced so the breads have to be strong enough to support loads of herring, egg, caviar and other yummy things. My father-in-law tells me that the schnapps is drunk for affect, not taste. The strong spirits warms and cheers you, but must be chased with beer, else it will burn your throat. Back in the day, there was formal drinking or open drinking at smorgasbords. Formal drinking means you must drink when the host does. My father-in-law contends this is how the Danes drank the British under the table. He also says that the advantage to formal drinking was no Viking could cut your throat as you drank. There are two sizes of schnapps glasses: large Swedish and small Danish.
At the smorgasbord, the guests make a sandwich with fish and then wait for the host to Skål, a Scandinavian toast for good fortune andhealth. Skål means drinking vessel but my family claims the term actually means drinking out of the skull of your enemy. Then the host welcomes everyone and wishes them happy glaedelig jul.
A proper smorgasbord should take several hours. The last course is coffee. Then the family and friends take a walk in the snow or such and gather a few hours later for a supper of pork loin, potatoes and red cabbage.
In Denmark, you eat a light breakfast and lunch on Christmas Eve or Jule aften because the kitchen is taken up preparing a goose stuffed with prunes and apples soaked in Port. The bird is accompanied by more potatoes and red cabbage. For dessert, you have rice, almond and cream pudding topped with hot cherry syrup. (I have a recipe if anyone is interested.) You must be very careful when you eat this dessert, for it is really a treacherous family game. You see, hidden in the pudding is one whole almond. The lucky family member who gets the almond wins a marzipan pig. In our home, in lieu of such a pig, we give out a chocolate orange.
Meanwhile, across the Kattegat in Sweden, Lutefish is served (or was). This, ummm, delicacy, is cod that has been cut by a carpenter saw and soaked in water and lye for months. Lutefish is tasteless except for the pepper and onion cream sauce and can turn your silver black. My husband gave me a little chemistry lesson on preserving fish. According to him, you have three ways to preserve fish. 1.) pickle it and make sil. 2.) let the fish rot and make surstömming. 3.) freeze dry. To reconstitute the dehydrated fish, you have mix it with lye and water and then wash away the lye.
The Swedes also had veal jelly with vinegar, pickled anchovies including the heads, and potato sausage made with pork, potato, and veal. After the meal was done and the dishes washed, glasses of Cognac were passed around.
In Denmark, the grownups would open the door to the room housing the Christmas tree and let the children see the decorated tree with all the candles burning. Everyone danced around the tree and sang carols. In our house, we light the tree candles, have a fire extinguisher handy, and keep the kids far away from the tree. We don’t keep the candles burning for very long.
If you were Swedish, on Christmas morning you went to church at 5:30 to greet the sun while the Danes slept in. After church, the Swedes opened their gifts, ate ham for dinner and then took a nap. The Danes had another smorgasbord on Christmas and then continued to party for second Christmas day or Anden Juledag.
N took the children to Stonehenge, leaving Mom and I to wander Bath. Actually “wander” is not an accurate term as it connotes something leisurely. We had exactly six hours to see the city before being carted away to London.
This was my second visit to Bath. The first time I visited was with my awesome cousin H. I had just gotten out of graduate school after a grueling quarter of non-stop, up-all-night work. For the two miserable years I spent in graduate school, I kept “Pride and Prejudice” in the VHS player, watching it over and over like a balm to my ailing brain. When I hit England all I wanted to see was Jane Austen things. Jane Austen. Jane Austen. Jane Austen. However, H was working on her Masters in history, specializing in Medieval England. So I didn’t get to see much Jane Austen, but a whole hell of a lot of really, really old England. I nearly froze my butt off at Sarem (my butt was significantly smaller then.). Nonetheless, H kept me from totally embarrassing myself in historic places (she can name all the British monarchs…it’s pretty impressive, not like the Danes where you got a 50/50 chance that it’s Frederick or Christian) In Bath, H and I stayed in rooms that required money to keep the radiator running and a coin operated bathtub that we shared with all the other tenants. Also, I don’t really like meatballs. Yet the night H and I arrived in England, blurry–eyed and hazy from the jet lag, I ordered spaghetti with meatballs. The very next day the Mad Cow panic hit.
Ok, I’m totally digressing. But hey, it’s my blog. Like it or leave it.
Bath was a happening resort town during Georgian Era or the period when the Georges were on the throne of England. For those who remember dates, that’s 1714-1830. The architecture has remained surprisingly unaltered through time and is an excellent example of the period. I’m lousy with architectural history, but from what I understand Georgian design is obsessed with the clean lines and mathematical precision of classicism. The understated style is sandwiched between the more bombastic Baroque and Victorian.
There are two stories explaining the origins of Bath. In the first, King Bladud created the springs through divination. He went on to build feathered wings for himself, but sadly died flying into the Temple of Appollo in New Troy. Bummer. In the second story, Bladud became afflicted with leprosy and left the court to become a swineherder. He and his pigs, also stricken with leprosy, found the springs and were cured. Bladud returned to court, became king, and fathered King Lear. Regardless, there was an early Celtic shrine erected at the springs dedicated to the goddess Sulis. Later the Romans would appear on the scene and build “Aqueas Sulis” proper, though they identified Sulis as the goddess Minerva.
Ruins from the Roman Temple
After the Romans, things slide right into the dismal Middle Ages where everyone managed to forget that the earth was round and went around the sun, or how to make flush toilets, or build decent roads.
Nonetheless, rumor had it the springs had curative powers, and ailing people from all over England continued to come and swim or drink the waters. What you see today was built in the eighteenth century.
The museum takes you into the archeological diggings of the Roman Bath temple and chambers including the hot, cold, and warm baths. There a bunch of stone stuff to Minerva, but I’ve never “ohh-ed and ahh-ed” over Roman art. It’s the Roman drain still holding runoff from the springs that fascinates me or the stone piles that held up the floor to allow hot vapor to build up underneath. What happens when geeks travel…
We actually began the day at the Jane Austen Museum where we listened to a great lecture on Jane’s family, which I can hardly remember as I write. That short term just can’t seem to make the haul to long term anymore. Must be mad cow kicking in.
Here is what I remember from the lecture:
Jane had a love, but mostly hate relationship with Bath. She was a nasty critic of its society. Her family removed to the resort city from the country. Unfortunately, the Austen family overextended themselves and had to give up their first finer home in Bath. Over time, they slipped slowly down through the cracks of society until the final blow of Mr. Austen’s death, leaving the females in the family in financial straits. Jane’s brothers came to their rescue and set up the women on a country home. Unlike the Brontes, the male Austens were generally decent people.
Though several of her novels were set in Bath, Jane did not write much while living in the town. The novels that we read today were either written or rewritten from earlier novels at Jane’s home in the country.
From the Jane Austen center, we roamed to the Assembly rooms. As y’all know, I write stories in the Georgian era, so if this isn’t your thing, you might want to skip this section (or entire blog entry.).
The Assembly Rooms
The Assembly rooms were bombed in WWII. What you see today is a careful restoration. Up until the Prince Regent built the Royal Pavilion in Brighton in the early nineteenth Century, Bath was the most popular resort town in England. People came in from nearby Bristol, London, and the countryside to rent a house for the season. All levels of society mingled in Bath, thanks to big-man-about-town Richard Beau Nash. He laid down “rules” of behavior for Bath, which excluded all sorts of lovely pursuits such as dueling with swords, cock-fighting, or bull-baiting.
Nash’s rules are pretty humorous, so I will include them.
I. That a visit of ceremony at coming to Bath, and another at going away, is all that is expected or desired by ladies of quality and fashion – except impertinents.
II. That ladies coming to the ball appoint a time for their footmen’s coming to wait on them home, to prevent disturbances and inconveniences to themselves and others.
III. That gentlemen of fashion never appearing in a morning before the ladies in gowns and caps, shew breeding and respect.
IV. That no person take it ill that any one goes to another’s play or breakfast, and not to theirís – except captious by nature.
V. That no gentleman give his tickets for the balls to any but gentlewomen – N.B. Unless he has none of his acquaintance.
VI. That gentlemen crowding before ladies at the ball, shew ill-manners; and that none do so for the future- except such as respect nobody but themselves.
VII. That no gentlemen of lady take it ill that another dances before them – except such as have no pretence to dance at all.
VIII. That the elder ladies and children be contented with a second bench at the ball, as being past or not come to perfection.
IX. That the younger ladies take notice how many eyes observe them – N.B. This does not extend to the Have-at-Alls.
X. That all whispers of lies and scandal be taken for their authors.
XI. That all repeaters of such lies and scandal be shunned by all company – except such as have been guilty of the same crime.
N.B. Several men of no character, old women and young ones of questioned reputation, are great authors of lies in the place, being of the sect of Levellers.
In the winter months or “season,” people bought subscriptions to attend activities at the Assembly Rooms. On Monday’s there was a Dress Ball which cost a guinea for three tickets. It started at six o’clock. For the first two hours, stately minuets were danced, followed by some get-down country dances lasting until nine. Then everyone went to Tea Room for refreshments of sweet meats, jellies, wine, biscuits, cold ham, turkey, tea with arrack and lemon. Concerts were held on Wednesday. Musical guests included Joseph Haydn and Franz Liszt. Cotillion balls or country dances occurred on Thursdays. Cards could be played every day. Gambling was an addiction in that period and lots of pounds were laid down on Whist, a precursor to Bridge and Spades, and Vingt-et-Une (blackjack).
Sadly, in the early nineteenth century, society followed the Prince to Brighton and the Assembly Rooms fell into decline, becoming a cinema in the 1920s.
I couldn’t get good pictures of the room because there were portable chairs stacked about. So I would suggest the Assemble Room virtual tour.
Housed beside the Assemble Rooms, is the tres cool Bath Costume Museum. However, if you want to see some awesome costumes, you gotta go to the Victoria and Albert museum in London.
This dress is from approximately 1830 because of the slightly lowered waistline.
From the Assemble rooms, we hot-footed it over to No 1. Royal Crescent. Crescents are big thing in Georgian England. There is one across from Regent’s Park in London, as well.
No. 1 Royal Crescent is a museum of the typical Bath home in the Georgian era. Unfortunately, the museum wouldn’t indulge my photo obsession, which prompts me to mention my other fixation: guidebooks. I feel like a set designer when I visit these homes. What did it look like, what did it feel like, how would one move in the space? I get nothing from the sterile environment of museums where artifacts are kept under glass. I want contextualization, silence, and time. Once my mother let me in a house that was about to be given to the Georgia Historical Society. The place hadn’t been altered since the turn of the century. It was like a playground to me, wandering through the rooms, like the quiet human observing the ghosts.
The Bath homes were row houses that extended up five or more stories from basement. Under the entrance walkway would be the coal vault, behind it an open area that led to the kitchen. On the iron fences above would be a rigged pulley or winch that allowed supplies to be lowered to the kitchens below. The basement level contained the kitchen rooms with a large fireplace and spit, servant’s table, and an additional vault for storing wine and beer. Some feet behind that vault wall was the cesspit that accepted the drainage from the outdoor privy running above it. Liquid matter in the cesspits was supposed to seep into the ground. Cesspits were emptied by the night soil men who came around early in the morning or by the poor servants who would have to haul the waste, bucket by bucket, through the house. They may have dumped the contents into the sewer opening in the front of the house which was technically illegal. These sewage passages were made of brick and did not have a constant flow of water to push the contents along.
The first floor (Americans add one floor) opened to a central hall flanked by parlors or a dining room. The dining room could be on first or second floor. In this house, the stairway zigzagged up the back wall of the house with another circular servant’s stairway on the side of the house. In other homes, the staircase emptied into the central hall, not a few feet from the front door.
Aside from the parlor downstairs, on the second floor there could be a withdrawing or drawing room, study, male or female parlor. Bedrooms made up the three floor and the children and servants stayed on the attic floor. Every room had a chimney and corresponding chimney pot belching coal smoke and soot into the sky.
Water as supplied to a lead cistern in the kitchen. It came to the house through narrow lead pipes which feed from larger pipes made of hollowed out elm trunks. Bath had a consistent supply of water because it tapped the natural springs in the area. Water companies were private. In London, where the water supply was not always constant, a house could have water supplied by multiple companies. Typically, water was serviced only to the ground floor. Inside the house, people could use a chamber pot or if they were lucky they had a water closet which was created either by a tank or pump forcing water up in a pipe leading from the cistern in the basement.
The entrance way would include a foot scrape, iron lamp bracket for holding the torches that the city required be burned at night during the winter months, a fire insurance plaque so the private firefighters knew to put out a fire at the home, and a snuffer for extinguishing torches.
Afterwards we strolled through the lovely parks and not so lovely parking lots until we reached the unassuming row house once belonging to famed astronomers, William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel. William Herschel is credited for using his telescopes to find Uranus, and the moons Titania and Oberon. Caroline is famous for finding several comets, a nebulae, and for putting up with her brother.
Replica of Herschel’s Seven Foot Newtonian ReflectingTelescope. He used the original to find Uranus in 1781.
Model of Herschel’s Forty Foot Telescope
William, born in Hannover, started his professional career as a composer. Unfortunately he wasn’t so well–received. In fact, he had to publish a public apology in Bristol newspaper concerning his horrific performance of “The Messiah.”
Poor pox scarred Caroline was left behind in Hannover to be a housekeeper to her family. She joined William when he came to Bath. He taught her English and gave her music lessons. Often she assumed the role of lead singer in his choral works. (Caroline probably had more promising in a musical career than her brother, but she declined the opportunities presented to her.) William considered astronomy a mere hobby. Unfortunately he couldn’t afford a nice, new shiny, telescope, so he decided to build one. And that’s when all hell broke loose. Building telescopes became his passion. Caroline writes, “It was my sorrow that I saw almost every room in the house turned into a workshop.” Keep in mind, William used horse poo-poo to make molds for his lens.
Herschel’s Tiny Workroom at the very back of the house.
It was in this garden that in 1781, Hershel discovered Uranus.
William to his sister Caroline
It was getting close to time to meet N and the children. Mom and I swung into the Sally Lunn house, reputedly the oldest house in Bath, circa 1482. It’s a restaurant, but in the basement is a tiny museum to Sally Lunn’s kitchen. Sally Lunn was a French Hugueno who came to Bath in 1680. She became famous for her buns (Bread buns, that is. I don’t want ya’ll to get confused and think I meant a bun as in Bunny rabbit. For sailors in the early nineteenth century would touch a “bun” for luck before getting on a ship.)
Sally Lunn House
Sally Lunn Kitchen Museum
And then ten minutes in the Bath Abbey.
One minute at the chocolatier and onto London. Here is my husband driving through downtown London at night in the rain. (London drivers have nothing on Welsh drivers.)
For a time during my childhood, I lived in my grandfather’s old, yellow, Victorian house nestled amid the pink and white lantana. A great curiosity to my young mind was the well just outside our back screen door. I don’t know the history of the well; perhaps it was dug when the old house had only two rooms. By the time I came along, a protective concrete slab covered the opening. A hole, about three inches in diameter, had been cut into the concrete. I would throw limestone rocks down the hole and waited for them to splash the water deep, deep below.
Now I as write from Maastricht, Netherlands, the Jeker River winds like a grapevine through the old stone buildings and stone fortifications, eventually disappearing under the city into the network of dark silent channels leading to the Maas River.
When Delle asked me frame to my journey to the Netherlands in terms of the hero’s journey, I immediately thought of Joseph Campbell’s work. Yet, most of Campbell’s heroes sojourn into the unknown. In my case, my journey was a return. A rebirth. My imagination kept circling back to the hero from a folktale entitled the “Skeleton Woman” recounted in Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It’s a myth of a fisherman hero, who finds a horrifying treasure under the waters, and a heroine reborn. So, I have adapted the tale and reset it in Maastricht. Hopefully, you will enjoy it, but be aware — it is a little weird (or “freaky” as my husband describes it). After all, we’re is the realm of myth and folklore, so one learns to expect swan princesses in the sky and tiny mermaids under the water.
A long time ago—no one remembers exactly when—a woman was thrown into the Maas River and drowned. She drifted to the river’s bottom, and over time, the fish nibbled her flesh away until she was just a skeleton. You may know this woman—day after day spent grocery shopping, folding laundry, scanning the lines of a spreadsheet, sitting before her computer pushing pixels about a screen—until one day she became this hollowed out skeleton, just as sure as the fish ate her skin. All her creativity nibbled away in everyday living. For years, she drifted about the river’s floor, a forgotten, tangled skeleton amid hundreds of years of refuse: Roman beads, medieval vessels, the rusted remains of shrapnel.
Now comes our Dutch hero, a mere fisherman, dipping his pole into the Maas for gifts from below. Food to appease his hunger. In Jungian terms, he is playing with some powerful stuff on his small boat afloat on the water, poking the surface of the subconscious. How often the romance novel begins with the hero who thinks he is perfectly content in his small, controlled world. Such heroes should know better than to fish!
Of course, his fishing line catches onto the ribs of the old skeleton. Our fisherman, thinking he has gotten something big—the mighty Hemingway of fish—excitedly reels his catch in. From the water rises an old, hideous skeleton, decorated with slimy weeds, old bicycle parts, beer bottles, and other urban debris.
He cries out, horrified at the atrocity hanging from his line. He drops his pole and slams down the boat’s throttle, desperate to flee all he has seen. But the fishing line is caught on his person, so the poor skeleton rides behind, bouncing in the rough water of the speeding boat’s wake. The fisherman drives his boat to the shore, leaps onto land, and runs away.
But the skeleton, still connected to him, is dragged along. Her bones rattle on the old cobblestone. It has been so long since she has been above water. She has forgotten the dense air scented with rain, faint diesel fumes, and flowers. Or the narrow streets lined with ateliers selling modern paintings with lush, vivid colors and flowing lines.
By the Turkish grocer, her skeleton hand reaches out and grabs a handful of the salty, mild-tasting olives from Turkey. Oh, to taste something different than the foul, polluted river waters! Further down the street, a chocolatier has put out candid orange peels covered in bitter dark chocolate. Like a greedy thief, she takes a handful of these, too.
Now, she clings to the terrified fisherman, so afraid to be thrown in the sea again. Afraid her senses will again be dulled by years of drifting, floating about in darkness and silence.
The fisherman runs to his small flat above the restaurant where the tables have been scattered onto the small square. He scrambles upstairs, then slams his door shut, thinking he has outrun the monster. But down at his feet, her bones are wrapped tight about his ankles. He kicks the skeleton to the corner and begins to pace the room, his hand pressed to his mouth. She can hear his fearful heart beats echoing against the high, white plaster walls. Finally, he tosses up his hands, mutters a curse, and walks away.
The skeleton is alone.
From her dark eye sockets, she studies the room. Flowers spill over the edges of a glass vase set on the low table before the Danish-style flat leather sofa. Beyond the thick-glassed, arched windows, she can see the roofs and chimneys of Maastricht sprouting up at odd angles, like weeds fighting for the space in the sun. Above the narrow, dormant coal fireplace, a nude female dances on a canvass of swirling splatters of red and gold paint. The skeleton once had round, fat breasts and curving hips. Clad in silk, feathers, beads, and jewels, she had danced in the street during Carnival, swinging her hips in sensual swirling motions.
The fisherman clangs about in the kitchen. Soon the high whistle of steaming hot water fills the flat. He returns, sits down on a sofa, looks at the skeleton, and runs his hand through his hair. He is tall—the Dutch are the tallest people in the world—but his dark hair curls are brushed back from his face and fall about his shoulders like the Italian men. From his teacup, steam rises. She can smell the sweet Rooibos and vanilla. The skeleton is so thirsty; she could gulp down the tea in one swallow, but she dare not move.
The fisherman studies her sad, mangled bones heaped in the corner. A compassionate light warms his eyes, the fear receding. “You are just a poor skeleton,” he whispers. He sets down his cup, crawls on his knees to the skeleton. Slowly he untangles her old bones. His hands are large, but as precise as a painter’s. He hums as he pulls her legs from where they had become tangled about her shoulders, straightens her spine, and kindly sets her head upright.
When he is done, he opens the window and fills the room with the warm, summer breeze, rich with the staccato of Dutch conversation amongst friends, the lulling rolling sounds of Massnet’s Meditation, and the fragrance of wine and flowers. He sits on his sofa and begins to read. The skeleton watches the concentration of his eyes, the crinkle in his brow, and the unthinking motion of brushing his hair from his eyes. For hours she does nothing but watch; she wonders what words light up his mind, wishing they could fill her mind too.
A little before midnight, the fisherman falls asleep on his sofa, the book falling from his fingers. The skeleton crawls forward, careful not to let her bones clank. So thirsty. She sips the last of his tea, now cold to her growing lips. The aroma of African leaves and vanilla fills the small nose forming on her face.
She looks at his creased face, troubled in his dreams. A tear slides from his eye. Still so thirsty, she drinks the tear. It fills her skeletal frame like pitchers and pitchers of pure water.
The fisherman shivers in his sleep. She carefully touches his face with her bony hand, wanting to comfort him as he had comforted her. Warm skin blossoms like opening flower petals on her fingertips, down her hand, her arm, and over her body. She feels him quiver under her fingers. Was he cold? Were there other monsters in his dreams? She slides beside him and presses herself against him until she can feel his heart beating beneath her fat breasts. His arms circle her body as if by memory, knowing the sloping concave of her waist, the tender place between her shoulder blades. His eyes, still drowsy with sleep, open and gaze at her. She sees her face reflected on the gray surface of his eyes. She is smiling. He cups her chin in his hands and brings his mouth to hers. His warm breath fills her lungs, making her alive with art, words, world, being.