Christmas Greens and Other Traditions

Every family has its own traditions established over long years together – none more so than ours have been. Even before we were married my husband and I discovered that although or ethnic heritage differed greatly, both his family and mine shared many of the same traditions: a real tree, fir or pine, carefully decorated with heritage baubles, well-worn winter stockings hung on Christmas Eve to be filled by Santa, gifts opened after a full cooked breakfast, turkey for dinner on Christmas Day, with steamed pudding and dark fruit cake choices for dessert.

As a married couple we began making our own traditions by alternating visits to his parents and mine on the “big day.” Making a three hour drive on Christmas Day just to be able to share a part of it with each set of parents, as many of our friends did, seemed for us to be wasting precious time in the car. Generally we made a point of visiting the other people a few days later or celebrated New Year’s Eve in their town.

Upon the arrival of our first child we agreed the grandparents were welcome to come to us for Christmas but our new family would not be travelling to them during the holiday season. We believed, and still do, that children were entitled to enjoy their own home for that important celebration. In establishing that first principal we developed further our own family’s traditions. And so it has remained, with our daughter’s similar determination to allow our grandchildren to stay in their home for Christmas.

Until very recently the search and selection of a Christmas tree of appropriate size and having regal bearing was an important step in our preparations. During the early years our family of five went out together looking, and each person had a vote. With his forest industry affiliations and frequent trips through healthy young forests my husband often had one “spotted,” even before the first snow fall may have made it hard to choose well. When cutting our own tree was no longer an option because of where we lived he brought home a potted Norfolk Pine, the species of tree we traditionally chose for our Christmases in Hawaii. It graced our home here with lights and baubles for several years until it sickened and had to be discarded. My dream now is to find an artificial Norfolk Pine tree, reusable every year – they do exist. This year we have a little potted pine from the local nursery.

Although we enjoy seeing them and appreciate the effort involved, outside decorations or extravagant light displays have never been a big part of our Christmas preparation. A wreath or swag made of fresh local greens always adorns the front door and similar cut garden greens find their way into an assortment of inside non-floral arrangements. Encouraged this year by such a good crop of holly berries, I made swags for each of the gateposts as well.

Significant to living in this moderate coastal climate is the speed at which trees grow. Newcomers from other climatic regions find it hard to believe how frequently we need to trim hedges and shrubs. I remember the first Christmas we lived in this house when we decided to string outdoor lights on a young sequoia bordering the driveway. We used an 11 foot aluminum extension ladder to do the job, and used several strings of lights on an extension plugged in to an electrical switch controlled from a switch panel inside the house. That was 23 years ago. Today the same tree is 70 feet tall, certainly well beyond our climbing ability, even if we wore spurs. It remains there, free of any decoration beyond its natural grace and beauty.

Looking for Grandmother Gunhild, the Girl

It was with great excitement that cousin Liv and I set out to find the place my grandmother had lived as a child. Liv had said the women I had called Nano, or White Nano because of her hair colour, must have lived just a short distance from her home. Liv and Magne make their home on the banks of the Asdal River, near Arendal in Norway. Liv had identified the place and told me she would take me there. I was visiting with Liv and Magne after the grand, long delayed reunion of the Forbergs in Bo, Telemark, in June 2002.

Liv explained that after we last talked she had read further in the Aust-Augder farm record book. Each of the provinces or districts in Norway has maintained a record of all of the farmland holdings and their owners for as long back as that can be determined. Thanks to a Norwegian-speaking researcher in Salt Lake City it was in one of those bygdboks that in 1998 I discovered relatives still living on the farm my grandfather had left over 100 years before.

Liv said that Grandma Gunhild’s father, Ole Gunnulfson, had come from the Tisehold area, perhaps even from Rise, where the book said his family had lived for a time. I assumed there must have been some significance in the place because my father’s middle name was Rise. I’ve since learned that Ole’s second wife, my grandmother’s mother, was Ingeborg Bjornsen Rise Arendal.

We set out to walk to the place – Liv’s present home was very close to Grandma Gunhild’s former residence. By calculating from the farm records that told when the Gunnulvsons lived there, we were able to determine that young Gunhild would have been 6 years old when her family settled in to the house. Her father, Ole Gunnulfson, had taken a job at the municipal office just over the hill from this home. We were able to see where the pathway would have been that Gunhild used to walk to school and her father walked to work.

Sooner than I expected Liv and I came upon the house. It sat facing the road on the rise of a little hill with a large exposed mossy rock surface in what would have been the back yard. Fine grass grew around the house and there were trees that in my grandmother’s time would have been seedlings or newly planted.Grandmother Gunhild's childhood house in NorwayThe house appeared pleasantly compact with a tile roof and smallish windows spotted in the wide shake walls. Around the back its graceful roof line had been marred by an additional level that did not show from the front. We could see another floor had been added after completion of the original structure.

Our research showed that the young Gunhild had lived here until she was eighteen years old and began her career in the world of work. Between this time and her immigration to Canada with my grandfather, in 1909, we were able to find little information about her. I knew from a notation in the census files and from a picture showing her with students, that just before she left Norway she had been teaching young women destined to become housekeepers or to work in small inns. We can only assume Gunhild, at 30 years of age, had decided married life with Einar in the unknown remote wilderness was a better choice than remaining a spinster in Norway.

As we approached the house it appeared empty, deserted, un-lived-in and, I thought it looked sad. But the door stood open and a car we had been unable to see from the front stood in the driveway. We approached the door and called “Hello.”

From within emerged a woman, perhaps younger than Liv, then in her fifties. Here was a woman with the appearance typically considered a Scandinavian person. She was about my height, with a solid body, but not overweight, broad shoulders, and a sunny complexion with blond hair and blue eyes. Once she was assured we would do no harm she opened up to us in welcome and told us the story of the house.

This woman’s parents had bought the house several years after Ole and his family had left Asdal. The farm book would be able to show us the year but we couldn’t establish the exact date ourselves without having it before us. All we had learned about Gunhild’s parents, Ole and Ingeborg, was that with their younger children, Gurine and Evind, they had left Asdal bound for an island where her father worked with indigent people and supervised the poor laws. I found letters from the girls to their sister Gunhild along with her family history chart that she had left.

Our host had been born in this house along with several of her siblings. While they lived there her parents had built the upstairs floor that was visible only from the back of the house and she showed us around inside.

What I appreciated most was that she was able to describe for us the configuration of the room and its décor when she had lived here as a very young child. From her explanation we had a sense of what it had been like for Gunhild. I especially reflected on the location of the wood box, something I had known as a child living in a wood-fire-heated house. Also significant to me was placement of a built-in “day bed” between the door and the stove. In many homes of the time a day bed was where an outside worker or a senior family member laid down for a few minutes rest at midday or during the afternoon. Even in the homes of both sets of my elderly grandparents there was always a single cot or pillow-backed settee where a person could rest in a fully stretched-out manner. More than once it was where I had slept as a child during my afternoon nap or later, used for a “sleep-over.”

As we took our leave and expressed our thanks for her time, the home-owner explained she and her husband lived in a big new house on the adjacent property. This modest home my grandmother had known in her childhood was currently being painted and re-decorated before the next renters took possession. It pleased me to know the building had stood the test of time.