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!

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  • Joel Again January 19, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Hi again Diane, sorry for taking so long to reply. You know how it is in January with all the rush at work etc. Kiuruvesi and Simo are quite a bit more north that I’m, though my parents summer cottage is not that far from Kiuruvesi. There’s some amazing nature around that area.

    I took a peek at your book and will take a closer look once I have some more time. Thanks for the offer with Facebook but I have to admit I don’t really like spending time there and thus hardly use it anymore. I’ll try to keep in touch through your site however if that is fine with you.

    Have an amazing 2016 as well!

  • [email protected] January 5, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    Hi Joel, Thanks for the comment! We had a quiet, low key Christmas. Nothing like the ones at the farm in Embarrass! My grandfather was born in Kiuruvesi, Finland and my grandmother in Simo. They met on the ship coming to America in 1913. I coauthored a book with my aunt, Miriam Kaurala Dloniak, about our Finnish family carving a life out in the Embarrass wilderness in the 1920s. The title is Miriam Daughter of Finnish Immigrants. Here’s a link if you’re interested in more information. http://www.amazon.com/dp/1432722948
    It would be great to stay in touch. Maybe we can connect on http://www.facebook.com/diane.dettmann.9 Hope you have a fantastic 2016!

  • Joel Koskinen January 5, 2016 at 2:33 am

    Hi Diane, hope you had a wonderful christmas. I’m from Finland myself and was just wondering if you knew where in Finland your grandfather lived?


  • Diane Dettmann December 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Robert, Thank you, so much for your inspiring comments. I’m so pleased you enjoyed reading it and could relate to the energy and chaos of our family’s Christmas. As a writer, the positive response from you and other readers touches my heart. As my grandfather would say, “I’m very well pleased.” Kiitos to all of you!

  • Diane Dettmann December 25, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Toni, Hope you had a fantastic celebration with family. Thank you so much for your wonderful feedback on my Embarrass Christmas story. It was VERY cold on many of those nights walking from the sauna to the house. I’ve heard the record low in Embarrass is -60 and that’s not the windchill temperature!

    Memories of my mother winding pin curls into my hair every night are some of the most powerful of my life. We bonded physically and emotionally as we talked and I handed her bobby pins one at a time. Many thanks for your response to my story and for your interest in my book, Miriam Daughter of Finnish Immigrants http://www.amazon.com/dp/1432722948
    Kiitos! Wishing you a fantastic 2013!

  • Toni Myers December 25, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Diane, It’s Christmas afternoon and we are winding down our celebrations. Rain outside makes me shiver thinking about how cold it must have been in Embarrass, MINN and how cozy inside the farmhouse, with the race out to the sauna in the middle of your festivities. A classic and wonderful tale, and a real one too! I will look for your book about your Finnish grandparents. Thanks for the added Christmas cheer.
    I love your pincurls.

  • Robert Shaw December 25, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    This is a beautiful, evocative piece Diane. I absolutely love it and can relate to it very vividly. Even though my childhood Christmases took place in the UK, many many miles from Embarrass, they were still as chaotic and joyful. Thank you for this wonderful little memory.

  • Diane Dettmann December 25, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Thanks, Tobysgirl or Kiitos as my Finnish relatives would say! Glad you enjoyed the essay and it connected to your past. By the way, I’m the one in the foreground with pin curls in my hair. My loving mother’s on the left.

    My uncle had all sorts of stories about how Embarrass got its name, never sure how factual they were. He was quite the story teller. “Embarrass” comes from the French word “embarras” meaning “obstacles”. Go to “How Embarrass, MN Got Its Name” Slate Magazine by Brenda Koerner 2005 at: How Embarrass, Minn., got its name. http://www.slate.com/id/2112389?utm_source=tw&utm_medium=sm&utm_campaign=button_toolbar

    Thanks for taking time on Christmas morning to read my essay! Merry Christmas!

  • Tobysgirl December 25, 2012 at 6:39 am

    Diane, this is a wonderful piece. You really bring your childhood experience to life! Do you know how Embarrass got its name? We had a Mixmaster, too, and my mother made two kinds of fruitcake, pound cake, and numerous cookies, mostly German. How wonderful to remember Christmases where people didn’t expect everything to be chocolate!