In 2020, the holidays are vastly different for my family, as they are for millions of people across the globe. We will celebrate as a nuclear family of four people plus three dogs, three cats, and two horses. The freshly cut tree made it to our home last weekend, ready to be decorated.
We have one box just for “special” ornaments. They’re not the most expensive or the fanciest ornaments, but they are the most precious because they represent places visited and commemorate special times in our lives. Some are precious just for the hands that made them, people no longer ‘here’ to create new memories with us.
One such ornament was a Danish Christmas heart or a julehjerter made by my dad. You may have seen a Christmas heart or julehjerter on Scandinavian Christmas trees or even made one as a craft with your children. Paper is woven together to form a basket shaped like a heart, traditionally filled with cookies or sweet treats and then hung on Christmas trees in Denmark and across Scandinavia. It’s believed the famous Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen crafted one of the earliest paper julehjerter in 1860. One he made is now preserved at his museum in Denmark, which I visited with my Dad and Uncle Evald many years ago.
As I unpack the julehjerter from my special box and begin decorating, I carefully handle the ones made by my dad over 45 years ago. The paper is fragile and sometimes rips a bit, but I save them to remember the simpler Christmases we used to have. They transport me back to the happy memories of my childhood when they adorned our family tree. My dad has been gone for more than eight years now, but the memories of him singing his heart out on Christmas carols and all of the joy he felt during the Christmas season comes rushing back to me as I hang the hearts on our tree. I am thankful for the baskets still here some 45 years later, shaped by his hands in days long gone by. They no longer hold sweets or cookies, but rather sweet memories of happy holidays shared with my family.
My parents immigrated to the US in 1956 and most of my family lives in Denmark. Growing up, we celebrated a Danish Christmas with my aunt, uncle, and five cousins, the only relatives we had here.
What constitutes a Danish Christmas? Christmas Eve begins with a big family dinner, traditionally a pork roast, followed by a dessert game. Traditionally, dessert is rice pudding with one whole almond inserted somewhere into the pudding. Gingerly, people scoop out their portion, trying desperately to peek and see if the almond is in their scoop. Whoever finds the whole almond, gets the prize, a gift provided by the dinner host.
When my mom used to find the almond, she invariably sat with it in her mouth while we all ate our portions of rice pudding, not wanting my aunt’s pudding dessert to go to waste. Then she would announce she had the almond the whole time. My family later modified the game using chocolate mousse with a whole M&M inside instead of rice pudding, because, well …..rice pudding! Need I say more?
Following dinner, we gather in a circle around the Christmas tree, hold hands and sing Christmas carols while walking around the tree. It may sound corny, but seeing the faces of your loved ones, lit by the lights on the tree, trying to remember the lyrics to Christmas carols while passing by special ornaments and dancing, is a special time.
I made some julehjerter with my sons when they were younger so we’d have some sturdier baskets for our tree and so I could share some of their Danish heritage with them. As I hang my dad’s julehjerter on our tree, I’m glad these paper hearts are still around to remind me to be thankful for all the wonderful childhood memories and to be present for those holidays yet to come, including this year’s unique pandemic Christmas.
Merry Christmas to all and I wish the world peace, joy, and good health in 2021.