You are cordially invited to join veteran tradeswoman and activist Molly Martin as she reads from her book Wonder Woman Electric to the Rescue and is interviewed by tradeswomen activists. There will be time for Q&A.
January 8 Interviewer: Ronnie Sandler, a carpenter and tradeswoman advocate who founded programs in Northern New England and Detroit.
January 12 Interviewer: Judaline Cassidy, a plumber who founded the mentorship program Tools & Tiaras, and the podcast Tradeswomen Talk.
Attend one or both parties, but you must register separately for each.
Books are out and available here:
Book sale proceeds will be donated to Shaping San Francisco (www.shapingsf.org), a project dedicated to the public sharing of lost, forgotten, overlooked and suppressed histories of SF and the Bay Area.
Our family never did that thing where white-robed virgins with candle crowns bring breakfast, but we did celebrate Swedish Christmas. Culture was supplied by my grandmother, Gerda, who grew up on a farm near Lake Vänern in central Sweden in an age when you really did hitch the horse up to the sleigh to go anywhere in winter. The farm, Stora Myren, is still there. The nearest village, Lugnås, hasn’t changed much since Grandma emigrated in 1905.
I hate a lot about Xmas—the whole religious thing, the requisite shopping to keep the economy afloat, the pressure to give the perfect gift, to give gifts at all. Bah humbug. I’m an atheist who joined the Church of Stop Shopping decades ago. https://revbilly.com
But, as my brother and I delve into the Swedish side of our family, we’re rediscovering ways that Swedish culture has influenced our family. One thing we all agree on: Christmas was the most important holiday of the year, when the Swedes pulled out all the stops.
The tradition is long. The winter solstice, representing the return of light and warmth, held great importance for pre-christian peoples. The earth had died and would be resurrected.
Solstice is a Saint Named Lucy
As with most northern European cultures, a christian holiday usurped the pagan solstice celebration. Catholics took over solstice festival and made it into St. Lucia or St. Lucy’s Day during the Middle Ages. Now, and ever since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Lutherans rule in Scandinavia, but they continue to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. The holiday is on December 13 because that was the date of the winter solstice on the Julian calendar before it was changed to the Gregorian. The actual solstice is now a week later, but St. Lucy’s Day retained the old date.
St. Lucia was a fourth century virgin christian martyr in what is now Italy. She invented the head lamp, putting a candle wreath on her head to keep her hands free as she hid christians in the catacombs. Or so it’s said. The name Lucia translates as light.
Candle wreaths have not yet been replaced with head lamps in modern celebrations, but I see it coming. I mean when I see pictures of people walking around with lit candles in their hair, all I can think of is–fire hazard!
The celebration is, or was, an all-female affair with one young woman playing Lucia and a court of girls and women. There are white robes, candle wreaths, singing and the serving of food. Lately, though, the boys have nudged their way into the celebration with a boy or two being elected to play Lucia. Traditionalists are not amused.
We grandchildren knew nothing of St. Lucy’s Day. It was, apparently, a Swedish tradition left in the Old Country.
But Grandma did envelop us in Swedish culture at Christmas.She brought with her the tradition of cooking the foods of her childhood when she immigrated to the U.S. In our hometown of Yakima, Washington, she was famous for her cooking, and especially her baking.
Our mother had the foresight to record Grandma’s childhood memories of Christmas in Sweden. My brother printed up a little chapbook of the stories, titled A 19th Century Swedish Christmas by Gerda Wick. Grandma was in her 92nd year but her memories were still clear.
Here are some excerpts.
“In Sweden we could, of course, always count on a white Christmas—snow that was “deep and crisp and even” and a great abundance of evergreen trees growing all around us. Christmas Eve was the official time for celebration and gift giving; Christmas Day was a religious holiday and holy day.”
“In a day without rural electricity or other conveniences that we now take for granted, our preparations for the annual celebration had to start in the fall with butchering of beef and pork and turning the slabs of dried cod into the famous and favorite holiday dish, lutefisk.
It is hard for me to realize now that all cooking was done on an open fire in the brick fireplace and all baking in a very large brick oven, heated by large logs about the size of railroad ties. In this oven breads of all kinds—flat bread, rye loaves, traditional braided coffee bread and dozens of cookies—were baked for weeks before the big day. Many kinds of sausages and head cheese were prepared and meat readied for another traditional food, Swedish meatballs.
“The food at Christmas Eve was a smörgåsbord of breads, homemade cheeses, pickled herring and korv (homemade sausage), but best of all the lutefisk which had been in preparation for several weeks from a dry slab of cod, by soaking in water and a “lute” of lime and lye. Served with a rich white sauce and white potatoes, it was and still is a favorite native winter dish. This was followed by meatballs made of ground beef and pork, sweet and sour brown beans and a dessert of rice pudding with wild lingonberry or strawberry jam (from berries we children picked in the nearby woods), or fruit soup.”
Loving and Laughing at Lutefisk
Lutefisk jokes elicit laughs in both cultures. Garrison Keillor told a story about people arrested for bringing toxic waste across state lines when they took lutefisk to Minnesota for Christmas dinner. Most actual Scandinavians abhor the fish, but Americans still eat it with gusto and most lutefisk is exported to the U.S. Served with white potatoes and white gravy, it resembles a blob of glue. Still, for my family, lutefisk symbolized Scandinavian culture.
Don says he has made Swedish meatballs and lutefisk many times since our childhood, but I only tried it once, recreating my family’s holiday meal for my gay San Francisco family. I bought frozen lutefisk from the Scandinavian Deli on Market Street near the Castro. No soaking necessary. I attempted to bake Grandma’s cookie and bread recipes, making krumkake using the pancake maker that you heat over an open flame. It didn’t go so well. No one would even try the lutefisk. I neglected to have a distribution plan for the cookies, which quickly got stale before we could eat them all. But I can say I did it!
In her small kitchen in Yakima, Grandma ground the pork and beef with a meat grinder to make Swedish meatballs. My brother Don served as Grandma’s little helper, and so his memories are best, butI do remember helping her make krumkake, Smörbakelser cookies and fancy braided breads. Don has her old Swedish cookbooks whose frayed binding opens to favorite recipes. Recently he challenged the family to remember the secret ingredient in Grandma’s meatballs. He kept us in suspense for a month. WTF Bro! It turns out the secret ingredient is crustless bread torn in pieces and soaked in cream, then wrung out and added to the meat. Never would have guessed that!
Gerda Persson was the second youngest child in a family of 12 kids. Born in 1888, she was 12 when the century turned. Her memories were about more than just food.
Birds and mittens and tree trimming
“My father would put my younger brother and me on a sled and take us with him into the woods to select a tree for our house. He would also cut other trees to place on the outside of the house and at the barn. Not forgotten in our celebration were the birds and our domestic animals. Papa mounted a large sheaf of oats on a pole for the birds and gave the animals an extra share of hay.
“Most of the tree trimmings were hand-made and our favorite was the customary paper-wrapped candies which we children could help make, wrapping hard candy in colored tissue paper. There was a variety of candlesticks for candles of all sizes, many of them hand-wrought of brass and wood. A candle was always displayed in the front window.
“We exchanged gifts, though this was not the ritual it is today. The gifts were mostly handmade and very practical—knitted socks, mittens and caps—all from yarn spun on my mother’s spinning wheel, wooden toys—a doll cradle or sled—and gifts like sewing boxes for the older girls and Mama.
“Christmas morning it was up early to be at church at six o’clock. Our church was the most important building in our village; it had been built in the 12th century and still stands and is in use today. Our family walked to church and those further away came in horse-drawn cutters (sleighs). And what a joy it was in the early morning light to see a lighted candle in the window of each home, reflecting on the deep white snow, and to feel the crisp crunching and squeaking of the hard-packed snow under foot.
“The two bells in the steeple were rung by hand. My father was an official ringer of the smaller bell, which required skill in alternating its sound with the large bell, and also very strong arms. The church was lighted with hundreds of candles at the communion table, the large hanging chandeliers and at each row of the pews. It was a thrilling festival of light and sound to a child growing up in a simple farm village in Europe before the age of industrial wonders. Inside the church Christmas hymns from the time of Luther were played on our ancient organ. This, too, required man power to operate, and my father served often as “pumper.” We children sang in the choir accompanied by the organ. The rest of Christmas day was quiet with a dinner of ham and goodies of the night before.”
Carry it on
Our family continued the Swedish traditions of trimming the tree with hand-made ornaments and of opening gifts on Christmas eve. My mother filled the house with colorful Swedish decorations like wooden horses and straw reindeer. After the big dinner with cousins at Grandma’s house, one of the men would excuse himself and (we later realized) would go back home to place all the presents under the tree. My father would drive home slowly from Grandma’s looking at all the outdoor decorations. Of course, we kids couldn’t wait to get home to open gifts.
I was glad Christmas Day wasn’t a religious holiday for us. Watching football, playing with toys and eating took up our day. Mom cooked the traditional ham and Grandma joined us for dinner. Her memories end with another delightful custom—robbing the Christmas tree.
“The neighborhood children took turns having these “untrimming” parties before the Christmas tree was taken out. Each child was blindfolded and allowed to pick a paper-covered candy from the tree until all were gone. There were cookies and cakes and milk for the guests. Since many homes were involved, the shared candies and goodies made a happy ending to the holiday for all the children.”
“Do you remember killing chickens?” I asked my brother Don.
“Are you kidding? I killed, gutted and plucked hundreds of chickens. Nasty job.”
“ Yeah, I remember holding the headless chickens to keep them from flopping around as blood spurted from the necks, and stuffing them in the haystack as they bled out, and I remember the plucking station behind the barn, dipping each chicken into a bucket of hot water, then pulling off the feathers. That was a tiresome job. But I don’t have a memory of wielding the axe. Though I must have. I wasn’t squeamish and I always wanted to try everything. I must have done it.”
Living with animals on our little three-acre farm in Yakima, Washington taught us much about life and death. Animals were born, and sometimes we got to be part of that. And animals died, sometimes by our hand. Sometimes we ate them.
As I remember we only ever had one sheep. The word for a motherless lamb is bummer, and that’s what we named the lamb. My father bought him at a livestock auction. We loved Bummer. He was so darned cute. We fed him with a bottle and got pretty tight with that wooly guy. But I guess lambs, as they mature, like butting their heads against things. The thing became my little brother Terry, who, at four, was no match for the strong animal two or three times his weight. Technically, sheep are no longer lambs when they reach one year in age. After that they are classified as adults, or mutton—that is if they are to be eaten. Bummer was mutton. And when he was served up to us as stew, we kids looked across the table at each other wondering how to respond to the invitation to eat our friend?
Terry, the four-year-old, may have been too young to understand. Tim, six and a half, refused to eat one bite of Bummer. Don and I, nine and eleven, with adult stoicism, gamely dug in. The meat was fatty and tough, the taste gamey, not at all pleasant. We looked at our parents who were not able to disguise their own distaste. It turns out mutton is not very good, unless maybe you’re a Basque shepherd. In some parts of the world it’s probably a delicacy.
Gus the goose died by stomping. Don saw the whole thing. Gus enjoyed teasing the horses, following behind and snapping at their fetlocks. This seemed like a particularly suicidal pastime to me, the horsewoman. But I did know that to avoid being kicked you come up along the side, touch the horse’s hindquarters so as not to surprise her and walk close in to her body. The horse can’t get enough power to complete a kick and maybe Gus had discovered this. Maybe the bird delighted in frustrating the huge animals. But Gus pushed his luck with one horse too far. She wheeled around and came down on him with a front hoof. We didn’t eat Gus. We buried him in a gander grave.
We saw chicks hatch, the births of kittens and puppies, but I only ever saw the birth of one horse. It was awesome. I was seven and in second grade. Bonnie the Shetland pony mare had given birth to many foals and so perhaps she was not bothered by human presence. But all other horses on the farm were born out in the far end of the pasture in the middle of the night.
We never had a cow. My father, nostalgic for his country childhood, wanted one but my mother drew the line. She knew who would end up with the job of milking while my father stayed out drinking with his buddies. But Dad did get a calf. The calf was wild but Dad committed to its domestication. You couldn’t get close to the calf after he was let out into the pasture so Dad sat down in the middle of the pasture and didn’t move. The curious calf moved closer to get a better look. Dad sat there like a meditating Buddhist monk for maybe an hour. Finally the calf came up to him.
The calf grew up to be a handsome Hereford, the cattle breed Dad had raised on his family’s South Dakota ranch (the farm’s address was Hereford Rte, SD). Dad hired out the slaughtering. That steer was shot, then hung up on a tripod and slaughtered right there in the pasture where he had first encountered Dad. Do I need to add that we ate him? Cousin Gail recalls two calves fattening up in the field. “When it was time to slaughter, the one waiting his turn seemed to recognize his fate. Oh, the bawling, rolling eyes, and frantic attempts to escape the fence. Too much for a city gal,” she said.
My brother Don, the poultryman, raised many different breeds of chickens and exotic poultry including peafowl (the males are peacocks, the females peahens). Neighborhood dogs would form packs and could take down a calf or a goat. When one of our dogs misbehaved he was immediately put down, even as my brothers protested. One night a pack dug into the peafowl pen and killed all its residents. We buried them in the rose garden. Afterward my mother dreamed that the roses bloomed as peacock feathers. She wrote the story. I penned the illustration. Don couldn’t remember if we ever ate peafowl, but he did research the prospect and learned that it’s quite common in India.
Brother Tim told me of the deaths of animals that came to the farm after I had left home. A goat was killed by a falling tree after my mother wished him dead for trashing her flower garden.
There was a pregnant sow, traded for some treasure, who gave birth to eight piglets. I was given some of the resulting meat, which I shared with my collective college household. Best pork I’ve ever tasted.
At one time Dad and the boys raised rabbits. Tim remembers that they multiplied quickly. When skinned they looked like human bodies. The story goes that Dad had such trouble killing them, he had to give it up.
We were used to animals dying on the farm, but the death of a foal took on greater significance and resulted in my teenage existential crisis.
My mare, Barbie Q, the color of the sauce, was another livestock auction rescue. She had been orphaned at three days of age when her mother was killed by a dove hunter. The little sorrel filly cost my father $30. She was in bad shape as a result of neglect, with a case of mange and a number of other disorders.
We sometimes called on a large animal vet named Dr. Heffernan, but, as my dad had done on the farm in South Dakota, we doctored our animals ourselves. My dad had an animal husbandry book from the 1940s that we studied. I remember having to give Barbie injections for some ailment. I had to stand back and throw the needle into her hindquarters, like a dart. I didn’t always get it in the first time.
Barbie survived and grew into a mare with excellent conformation. We knew that her mother had been a registered Quarter Horse. Barbie was small, only 14-2 hands high, easily mounted bareback by my 12-year-old self. I took charge of Barbie’s training, teaching her to lead, setting the saddle on her back and riding her for the first time. We trained in the small pasture, repeating figure eights and practicing changing leads. I showed her in 4-H shows and fairs.
I was 13 when I won an essay contest sponsored by a woman who bred Arabian horses: “Why I want to breed my mare to your Arabian stallion.” The combination of Quarter Horse and Arabian genes resulted in a filly who exhibited the best of both breeds. She was a bay with a white star on her forehead and three white socks.
Barbie was a good mother and the filly was healthy. One day when she was about three months old I noticed her putting her head in a funny position. She pointed her nose to the sky and didn’t seem able to move her head. We consulted our old vet book. The common name for tetanus is lockjaw. There was no cure.
The filly was in agony. We called the vet who came out, laid her down and injected her with whatever they use to kill horses. A flood of urine told me she was dead. Ever the stoic, I didn’t cry.
But I was shaken. By that time I was already struggling with the contradictions inherent in christian doctrine. The foal’s death inspired me to abandon a religion whose god commands men to have dominion over all the earth and its animals and who allows beautiful beings to die before their time.