Harmony amid the chaos:  A fifties Christmas in Embarrass, Minnesota

Christmas memories of steep snow banks, department-store Santas, and Dayton’s store windows in Minneapolis filled with holiday scenes remain with me half a century onward. I remember sitting with my older brother on the worn dining room rug, studying the Montgomery Ward catalogue, picking out toys we hoped Santa would leave under our scrawny, tinsel-draped Christmas tree. My mother spent her days hovering over her Mixmaster stirring up dough for Spritz cookies, powder-sugared Norwegian bowtie-shaped Fattigmanns, and Finnish tarts—her specialty.

With the bitter winter roaring outside, we often spent Christmas in our tiny, two-bedroom house with the six of us gathered around the tree. Every so many years, however, my folks packed a box of gifts wrapped in recycled holiday paper into our Plymouth Plaza and headed north to my grandparents’ farm in Embarrass, Minnesota—known as “The Cold Spot of the Nation.”

In the 1950s, when there were no three-lane freeways or roadside rests, our 250-mile trip north took forever. In the back seat, bundled up in our winter jackets and hats, my older brother and I passed the time fighting and drawing pictures on the frost-covered windows. Trying to provide a small battle buffer between us, my mother often sandwiched my 4-year old brother in the middle. Sitting in the front seat with my little sister snuggled in her lap, my mother visited with my father as he stared at the icy road beyond the windshield, often driving 20 miles per hour.

When we got to the farm, the Plymouth’s tires crunched along the snow-packed driveway as my grandparents’ faces appeared in the porch window. Shuffling through the snow, the frigid air snapping at our cheeks, we entered the cozy kitchen. The aroma of birch logs burning in the wood stove surrounded us, and Finnish curled around us, as my grandparents wrapped us in hugs. Over the next several hours, while the women peeled potatoes, boiled cranberries, and filled piecrusts with blueberries picked and canned in July, a constant stream of relatives arrived and flowed into the kitchen.

At dinnertime we ate in shifts, with the youngest children squirming on their mothers’ laps while the older cousins squeezed in wherever they could find a space. The early-evening meal disappeared quickly and was followed by the stream of bathers bundled in jackets walking through the snow to and from the sauna, with icicles occasionally dangling from their hair. After a hot sauna bath, the women and younger girls gathered at the kitchen table, where they twisted their hair into curls secured with bobby pins—a nightly ritual that formed a bond between women young and old.

When my mother’s three sisters, my four uncles, ten cousins, and our family of six finally joined my grandparents in the tiny living room, complete chaos reigned! While toddlers stumbled through the empty boxes searching for more presents, the adults admired Grandma’s gifts of homemade rugs, mittens, and socks. The sisters talked to each other in Finnish and laughed as they exchanged presents of underwear, nylon stockings, and embroidered towels. After the gifts were opened, my aunt slid onto the bench of the upright piano my grandparents purchased in 1929. While we sang Christmas carols together, my grandfather smiled and puffed on his pipe—tickled to have his family together.

With my grandparents snuggled into their bed on the first floor and one cousin on the living room couch, the women arranged the girl cousins and toddlers in the three small bedrooms upstairs. The oldest girls slept two to a single bed, while my aunts shared the two double beds with their toddlers, and the youngest baby slept in the antique crib. With the farmhouse filled to capacity, the men and older boys bedded down on the sauna floor for the night.

In the morning, my folks packed us into the frigid Plymouth and we waved goodbye to my grandparents standing on the back steps. I snuggled in the back seat, the Christmas songs in my head mingled with the faces of my high-spirited cousins ripping open gifts. More than 50 years have passed since those icy trips to Embarrass, Minnesota, yet the laughter and joy of those chaotic Christmas Eves spent with my relatives remains with me. I guess holidays are what we make them—it’s all relative!