Old Christmas traditions -- in the New World

Dec 15 2012 - 10:06pm


ANDREA SACHS/The Washington Post
Tomte, a mythical Swedish figure, peers out from a barn at the Karl Oskar Immigrant Home in Lindstrom, Minn.
ANDREA SACHS/The Washington Post
Tomte, a mythical Swedish figure, peers out from a barn at the Karl Oskar Immigrant Home in Lindstrom, Minn.

I already have a computer, a smartphone and my two front teeth. I'm too old for Tonka trucks and fairies and too young for orthopedic socks. I wish for world peace and a cure for cancer, but I'm realistic: Those holiday gifts are too expansive to fit inside a box tied with red ribbon and topped with a bow.

That said, what I really want for Christmas is tradition -- and not just my own. I wish to spin from culture to culture, celebrating the nearly universal holiday on a national level.

To achieve this Christmas wish, I drove into the heart of the country and the holiday, to Minnesota and Wisconsin, where Swedes, Swiss and Germans immigrated more than a century ago. Though they left behind their homelands, they did not abandon their holiday customs -- or characters. At this time of year, Samichlaus, Tomte and Sankt Nikolaus all come out to play.

* Mall of America -- The holy church of retailers is the Mall of America, which claims to be the largest shopping and entertainment emporium in the country. The Minneapolis-area mall contains 520 stores, plus a Nickelodeon theme park and an aquarium. If you feel guilty for shopping instead of going to the gym, don't: Walk a lap on each of the four levels and you just completed a 5K. Ask the information desk for the 10K route.

Six times a day, the 44-foot-tall Christmas trees in the rotunda perform a 32,000-LED-light show that's part rave, part hyper kid commandeering the light switch. The red, green and white bulbs flashed and blinked to tinny holiday music, a John Cage-esque performance of illumination.

To capture the holiday mood, the mall strings 21 miles of lights throughout the interior, including curtains of bulbs that drip from the ceiling like silvery waterfalls.

* New Ulm -- After the artificiality of the Mall of America, I embraced the genuineness of New Ulm, a German town 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, that greets visitors with a "Willkomen" sign.

Fresh garlands hung like silly mustaches across Minnesota Avenue. Christmas trees girly with red velvet bows lined up along the sidewalks. The air was filled with the piped-in sounds of polka, oompah and other Germans-in-lederhosen music.

"New Ulm is echt. A lot of what you see is falsch," said local historian George Glotzbach, using the German words for "authentic" and "fake."

With more than 65 percent of its residents claiming Germanic ancestry, New Ulm purports to be the most German town in the United States. Moreover, it is even more German than Germany. The New World destination was established in 1854, 17 years before the creation of the country known as Deutschland.

* New Glarus -- When the Swiss settlers arrived in New Glarus in 1845, their eyes popped at the familiar landscape of rolling hills and deep valleys. They must have been exhausted after their long trip, because compared with the Swiss Alps, the Wisconsin area's earthen bumps are like lumps of sugar.

"They settled here. They thrived here," said Beth Zurbuchen, president of the Swiss Center of North America in New Glarus. "They made it Switzerland."

The sylvan town, about 30 miles south of Madison, looks the part. The shops, hotels and restaurants snuggle inside chalet-style buildings with gabled roofs, painted floral ornamentation and balconies that hold flower boxes in sunnier weather. Retail signs lasso people indoors with promises of cheese, chocolate, raclette and fondue. Whimsical painted statues of Swiss cows add an agrarian accent to the town, without the mess.

The New Glarus Bakery can fill any holes in your holiday cookie tray. Owner Angela Neff, who's continuing a baking legacy from 1910, stuffs the cases with jewel-like cookies of Swiss granny provenance. Her recipe for stollen comes from Lucerne, as does the labor-intensive birnbrot, Swiss pear bread (price tag: $14.50) that you might want to squirrel away in your own stocking.

Esther Zgraggen, the Swiss-born owner of Esther's European Imports, covers the gift-giving category. She sells raclette and fondue sets, Swiss Army knives, straw ornaments and wood-carved cows, a popular toy in Swiss children's playrooms.

* Scandia and Lindstrom -- "This is more Swedish than Sweden," said Bonnie Olsen, a volunteer at the Gammelgarden Museum in Scandia, about 40 miles northeast of Minneapolis.

Her most compelling argument: Swedes "don't eat lutfisk."

Swedish Americans, however, can't get enough of the stinky rehydrated cod. In the Swedish immigrant towns of Scandia and Lindstrom, the holiday dish appears at numerous church Christmas dinners.

A Swedish thread runs through eight towns organized as the Swedish Circle Tour. The tour pays homage to Vilhelm Moberg's literary series, "The Emigrants," which tells the fictional tale of Swedish farmers and families who settled these real Minnesota towns.

The Gammelgarden Museum, an open-air cultural center with preserved buildings from the early settler years, offers traditional Swedish shopping.

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