In my novel Searching for Nora: After the Doll’s House, my heroine Nora Helmer ends up spending a winter on the harsh Minnesota prairie helping care for a family of Norwegian immigrants. They settle on a very poor farm, and struggle to gather hay and make improvements before the snow comes. By Christmas, the family is facing its first holiday without their mother, who died just as they started their immigration journey in the spring. There are few stores nearby and even fewer people. It’s a long way from Nora’s former cozy apartment in Kristiania with a Christmas tree lit by candles and hung with packages wrapped in gilt.
As Christmas on the prairie approaches, Nora finds herself alone with the three children in the sod house, as Mr. Eriksen has gone east to work in the logging mills. Their hardscrabble conditions are hard enough on Nora, but once Mr. Eriksen leaves, she grows anxious about managing the farm and caring for the children, fretting that one of them might get sick. But she soon discovers that her biggest challenge is keeping everyone’s spirits up. Sometimes she ladles out a bit of molasses for their porridge; other days she entertains the children by reading from a novel she brought with her. Mr. Eriksen promised to return before the first snow, and the children start counting the days until Christmas. Surely he will return to celebrate with them, they tell her. But Nora is doubtful. She watches them mark the days with a heavy heart.
When I researched my book, I found that the historical record of prairie Christmases echoed with stories of want. If there were any presents at all, they were often hand-made objects: ragdolls, carved animals, knitted mittens. But Nora is too busy caring for the baby and cooking meals on the fussy wood stove to make hand-crafted gifts for the children. She comforts herself by thinking that, if Mr. Eriksen returns in time, his presence will be gift enough for all of them.
Mr. Eriksen misses the first snowstorm, sending everyone into a gloom, but he does manage to arrive a day before the juletyde. He slips Nora tiny packets of cinnamon and raisins, asking if she can make a julekake. They prepare a goose for the Christmas meal, and the children dress up in their family’s traditional Norwegian costumes. At the end of the dinner, Mr. Eriksen gives each person a small present. For Nora he has a beautiful, hand-carved mirror, which he made while sitting around the stove at the logging camp. It’s an intimate, thoughtful gift, and Nora is astonished. Living in a sod house had stripped away all her city refinements. But, somehow, the mirror restores her to herself. She pulls her hair back with a ribbon; she smiles at her own reflection if only to encourage herself. Within weeks, her feelings for Mr. Eriksen begin to change.
And that is the magic of gift-giving. Christmas presents often get a bad rap in modern day society, because they are sadly steeped in the commercialism of our age. But I would argue that gifts, if carefully chosen, can communicate a tender message: “I know what would delight you, because I’ve paid attention to you. I know what you need, what you long for; in short, I know you and I care.”
If you’re searching for a special gift, consider a book. There are millions to choose from, and what you select can carry a special message to the lucky recipient. I recently heard of a delightful tradition in Iceland (another Scandinavian country) of giving mostly books at Christmas. It’s called
, which means something like “flood of books.” The tradition started during WWII, when import restrictions made it hard for Icelanders to find good gifts and they turned to local book sellers. But here’s the best part: many Icelanders still stay up late on Christmas Eve sitting by the fire or snuggled in bed reading their new books and eating or drinking chocolate. What a country! Makes me want to give everyone on my list a great book – lovingly chosen – and a big bar of chocolate.
By Wendy Swallow, Dec. 1, 2020
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