26 December 2020

God Jul! (2020)


The following is a Christmas story excerpt from Charles J. Hoflund's reminiscenses.123  In 1850 Hoflund emigrated with his family from Djursdala parish, Kalmar län – his recollections of life in Sweden and his experiences in America are especially relevant to understanding the early Swedish settlers in the Jamestown area.

It was customary to get up long before daylight on Christmas Eve morning, take a lantern or a torch and chop wood for the fireplace until time for breakfast. We were very careful to see that we had a good supply of hemlock for the evening, which would enliven the scene by its crackle like a lot of fire crackers.

And now when the long and earnestly looked for Christmas Eve had come, and the chores had been thoroughly attended to, which was not a small item, as the cow barn, horse barn, sheephouse, and even the hog house had to be cleaned, and the animals all given a double portion of the very best feed, we carried in the wood and got ready for the evening's pleasure. Mother had different kinds of meat on the stone hearth (spishälla) before a roaring fire; not only did we have pork, beet, and mutton, but many different kinds of sausages and potatoes were placed there to roast. The whole hearth was full, and it was quite large, since it came out some distance from the wall in circular form and was about six inches higher than the floor.

Well, it was a scene, the impressions of which it is impossible for me to convey to an American-born, for it was a scene never witnessed in a common peasant's family but once a year. Generally in everyday life these things (meat, butter, cheese, and so forth) were meted out according to age. I was the oldest of the children and, for instance, when pork was served I generally got the largest piece of any of the children, and after that one piece it was useless to ask for more at that meal. But how gloriously everything had changed at Christmastime, for then and for sometime after we could have all we wanted of everything and anything there was. And then to sit down by a regular table, spread with a white linen cloth and lighted with candles, not a few, and the floor spread with pine and hemlock branches contributed not a little to the festivities.

Before we sat down to the table, Father would read out of a book of sermons, a part appropriate for the occasion, and then Mother and Father would sing some of those beautiful old Christmas hymns to be found in the Swedish Lutheran Hymnbook, which a Swede never tires of hearing. Both were good singers, and loved to sing, especially Mother who sang a great deal until she was ninety-one years old. She knew most of the Lutheran and Methodist hymnals by heart, and she would often sing while in bed at night, it was such a pleasure to her!

All in all this Yuletide must have had a wonderful effect on us children, for I remember the last Christmas Eve we were in Djursdala going into the yard, and as I looked up into the sky on this clear starlit night, it seemed to me as though the whole heavens were full of music, and had come down so near to earth that the angels could be heard.

I have now tried to describe a Christmas in our part of the country among the farmer folk in 1848, and have gotten as far as about ten o'clock Christmas Eve. It was not thought best to stay up any longer as we had to get up very early in order to go to Julotta [the Christmas morning service] for up to this time it has been our physical being which has been cared for, and now comes the more important provision, that of our spiritual being. Of course, no one could rightly do that but our ordained rector, and in no other place could these needs be as effectively supplied as in the parish church. This was a rural district and some of the parishioners had to go five or six miles and even more on foot through the deep snow and bitter cold.

But regardless of all these difficulties everyone who was able to be up was sure to go to Julotta. They would have felt dissatisfied all the rest of the year if they had not gone. And think what a sight they would have missed. Every nook and corner of the old church was lighted with candles, the best lights of those days when there were no oil or kerosene lamps, and a church lighted by anything else than sunlight during the whole year with the exception of Christmas morning would have been out of all reason.

But I must not neglect to say something about our good rector, for he certainly was a picture worthy of the time and place. How we would stare at him in his brilliant vestments and a great glittering cross that covered his back. It was certainly something that would stir the dormant spirits that dwell inside those stiff, gray homespuns as nothing else could do.

Djursdala church (interior)
Interior of Djursdala Church.
Photograph by Ulf Klingström, 2009. 
Open licensed/public domain
through Wikimedia Commons
A good part of the time was spent by us children in looking at the weird old fresco painting on the ceiling, which represented scenes of both Old and New Testaments, the prophets, evangelists, apostles, and a good sprinkling of angels good and bad. The pulpit was built out from the wall like a huge basket, so high that the head of an ordinary man was just visible. On top of this was placed a small, angelic figure, so it was not to be wondered at that in our estimation the man who occupied this important place was not an ordinary person, and for that reason, it was very natural that we should humble ourselves whenever he was met by taking off our caps and bowing very reverently.

Djursdala Church was, and is yet, a wooden structure, how old I never knew, and I believe, very few did know. Every seat [pew] had a door from the center aisle so that no one could get the seat they were not intended for. I think our seat was the third or fourth from the front, and I can remember that I had quite a little pride for being permitted to sit so near the altar, which was nicely decorated with a scene of the crucifixion.

Djursdala Church and Klockstapeln (bell tower).
Photograph by Ulf Klingström, 2009. 
Open licensed/public domain through Wikimedia Commons
Before I leave this subject I must say a few words about the old belfry, for it was always an object of interest to me. It was not connected with the church, but stood a little way off and was built a good deal on the plan of a windmill tower only very much higher and stronger. I think it had three bells. The largest one was larger than any I have ever seen since, and I remember it was said that it took a man with strong nerve to go up there in that rickety tower and ring the big bell. I was up in the belfry one time when this bell was rung, and have a very vivid recollection of how frightened I was when the man began to tread the big bell. The whole structure would sway, for the weight of the bells was below the beam or axle they were fastened to. I have learned recently that this tower and these bells were still standing at the present time, and they were doing service, which was a surprise to me, and I could hardly believe it.

But I see I have digressed from my subject of Yuletide, so now a few words more about Julotta. Of course, everyone was anxious for the minister to come to the last words of his sermon as quickly as possible, and especially was this true of the younger generation. About the time the candles burnt down it began to get daylight, and then we could display our new clothes to good advantage. My, how anxious we children were that people would take notice of us and make some complimentary remarks.

As soon as services were over the young folks would break out for home to see who could get there first. Nearly everyone had to travel on foot, and when the snow was deep this task was quite a difficult one. The first thing we received on arriving home was a small glass of punch, which consisted of homemade whiskey [brännvin] diluted with water and sweetened to taste, some bread and butter, or a little cheese. Then we did the chores and had breakfast, after which the children would strike out for sport of some kind.

If the skating was good most all would steer for the mill pond or the low marshy ground along the river, as sometimes that would overflow and freeze and make the finest kind of a skating pond. When the weather was nice and the ice clear and smooth, we would keep it up all day and sometimes until late at night. I remember one time I was so tired and sore that I could hardly make my way home.

Road outside Djursdala.
Google image 2011, ©2020

But if, as sometimes was the case, the snow had spoiled the skating, then we would have to resort to the toboggans or sleds, for there was always good sleighing during the winter. The road or street that ran through the hamlet (Djursdala village) was on quite a steep hill, and at the upper end, a little outside of the limits, was a still steeper hill. This was called stentrappan, which means stone stairs. Every hill, hillock, and mountain had its special name. At evening the young people would gather on top of this hill with sleds of all manner and fashion. The young men would press into service even bobsleds upon which all who had a chance would pile like a swarm of bees. Quite often someone would get hurt for the sled was sometimes so heavily loaded that it was hard to steer, and consequently they would run into a tree or a pile of boulders along the side of the road.

Djursdala. Photograph from
Musteriet i Djursdala.
A restaurant and guest houses
are in the village, see Musteriet

During this Christmastime there was a great deal of visiting, especially among relatives, and the visit would be not only for a single meal, but often for several days. So we certainly had a hilarious Christmastime in Sweden, and besides this there was a great number of festive days all of which contributed not a little to make the social conditions there very pleasant.



Merry Christmas! 


Djursdala landscape
Djursdala overlooking Lake Juttern 
Photograph by Nils Carlgren, 1947.
Kalmar Läns Museum, collection reference
no. KLMF.A08835 Public Domain.

Endnotes

  1. Charles J. Hoflund and H Arnold Barton. Getting Ahead: A Swedish Immigrant's Reminiscences, 1834-1887. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989,  p 8-13.
    Digital edition available through OpenLibrary.org [archive.org/details/gettingaheadswed00hofl_0]. 

    Barton's editorial notes added to an already significant text. H. Arnold Barton (1929-2016) was a leading historian of Swedish-American history whose family also had their origins in Djursdala parish.

  2.  Charles J. Hoflund (1834 Djursdala - 1914 Omaha, Nebraska) who had left Sweden at age 16 dictated these memories to his grandson in 1913. The publication of these accounts has itself an interesting history, see the introduction in Hoflund and Barton.

  3. Djursdala in map of region
    based on SCB Rikets indelningar, 1992 
    Djursdala parish is located near the center of the primary region of early emigrants to Warren and Chautauqua County.  Approximately 80 emigrants left Djursdala for Amerika between 1849 and 1852.   Most of these emigrants settled near Andover, Henry County, Illinois.

    John P. Dahlen [1850.061] and his family also emigrated from Djursdala but settled in Chautauqua County instead.  They travelled along with the Hoflund family aboard the bark VIRGINIA.  Note that this was the same ship and captain who brought our earliest settlers to New York in 1846.

    Nine early Jamestown Swedes were born in the parish, twelve emigrated from Djursdala.