God Jul!…five Swedish Christmas stories sprinkled with ginger cookies and tomtes

christmas in noisy village cover imageChristmas in Noisy Village, by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland, translated by Florence Lamborn

Britta  and Anna, Karl, Bill, and Lisa, Olaf and Kerstin, all live on three, small, neighboring farms in Sweden.  These children have such fun playing together, making a commotion whatever they’re doing, that their homes have come to be called Noisy Village.

Christmastime in Noisy Village is a happy, snowy time.  The days are filled with delightful events — baking gingersnap cookies, cutting fresh Christmas trees, caroling, decorating blind Grandfather’s little room, christmas in noisy village illustration ilon wiklandwrapping presents and fastening them with red sealing wax (what a great idea!), gathering around candlelit tables for special Christmas feasts, dancing around the tree, sleigh-riding to church, playing in the deep snow with new skis and sleds, and many more warm traditions.

Lisa, age 9, narrates these events in a simple, straightforward, childlike manner.  No eloquent, poetic speeches here.  Just an interesting account of their days.  For an amplified version, Lindgren’s full-length book, The Children of Noisy Village, contains quite a bit more detail in the Christmas chapter, still narrated by Lisa.

This picture book dances with the charming full-color illustrations of Ilon Wikland, whose pen sketches adorn the chapter book.  Every page bursts with life and love and joy and creativity and warmth.   Many Swedish details  — furnishings and rag rugs, gingerbread pigs and sheaves of wheat for the birds, woven heart ornaments and red wooden candelabras — add that delicious Scandinavian touch we’re looking for!  This is an incredibly appealing book for ages 4 and up.

peter and lotta's christmas cover imagePeter and Lotta’s Christmas, written and illustrated by Elsa Beskow

Peter and Lotta are celebrating Christmas for the first time ever with Aunt Green, Aunt Brown, Aunt Lavender, and Uncle Blue, and what a mysterious, exciting time it is!  The spicy sweetness of gingerbread wafts through the house, snow blankets the world in lovely softness,  the tree sparkles with candlelight, and strangest of all, an extraordinary vist from the Christmas Goat results in some wonderful Christmas presents for each of them.  For two children who peter and lotta's christmas  illustration beskow 001 (1)have never had a Christmas before, it’s an almost magical time.

As the next year goes by, Peter and Lotta learn quite a lot in their new life with the Aunts.  Not only do they learn the story of the Christmas Goat, but they learn to pick blueberries, fetch milk from the neighboring farm, and pay a visit to the charcoal burner.  When sickness requires the Aunts to take in twin toddlers for a time, they also learn how strenuous a job it is to keep up with their shenanigans!  Finally Christmas rolls around again, and Peter and Lotta are happy to be on the giving end as well, this time.  The two are kept busy working on special gifts for their new family.  Just when they think they’ve got things all straightened out with the Christmas Goat, however, they’re in for a big surprise!

Elsa Beskow is one of Sweden’s most beloved children’s authors.  Her charming watercolor illustrations are such a pleasure with their clarity and light, the quintessential, bright details of Swedish rag rugs and Dalarna horses, the beautiful woods and flowers of the Swedish countryside.  This story is a bit long, best for ages 5 and up, perhaps taken in installments for the younger listeners.  Once you’ve discovered Beskow, you’ll want to read many more of her delightful old stories.

the tomten cover imageThe Tomten, adapted by Astrid Lindgren from a poem by Viktor Rydberg, illustrations by Harald Wiberg

The tomte is an essential part of Scandinavian folklore.  He’s a little gnome of sorts, dedicated to one home or farm,  looking out for the farm animals and children of the place, pattering about by night, unseen, to check on everyone’s welfare.

Viktor Rydberg, one of Sweden’s famous writers pre-1900, wrote a classic poem, Tomten, about the lonely nighttime wanderings, inspections, and reflections of one tomte on a cold winter’s night, which has become a favorite Christmas piece.  Astrid Lindgren adapted the poem in 1960 to the tomten illustration harald wibergcreate this well-loved children’s story.  It is quite different from the poem, though it does contain the main ingredients.

In the darkness and quiet of a winter’s night, this little gray fellow with his long, shaggy, white beard, slumpy, red hat, and tiny feet, silently moves about the farm.  He visits each of the animals in turn, comforting them with a few kindly words in tomte language, which animals and children can understand.   It’s a quiet tale, with no grand story arc and actually no mention of Christmas at all, but simply a peeping in on this mysterious gnome, watching him go about his business, eavesdropping on his whisperings.  A series of circumstances have linked tomtes inextricably with Christmas in Sweden, thus this has become a Christmas tale.

Harald Wiberg’s wonderful paintings brilliantly capture the frosty cold, the loneliness of the middle of the night, the quintessential tomte, the gleam of moon on snow, the warmth of this thoroughly Swedish home, the icy beauty of starlight.  I remember listening to my dad read this story to me in Swedish when I was a very young child.  Quite magical.

lucia child of light cover imageLucia, Child of Light: The history and traditions of Sweden’s Lucia celebrations, by Florence Ekstrand, illustrated by Kris Ekstrand Molesworth

Okay, this is not a children’s book, per se.  But for those of you keen to explore Swedish ways, it’s a helpful little guide to understanding and celebrating  St. Lucia’s Day as well as a few other Scandinavian Christmas traditions.

Ekstrand traces the story of Lucia, a young Italian woman martyred for her Christian faith in the year 303, carefully seeking to differentiate between what is known and what has been colorfully added to the legend over the centuries.  She then explains how this Catholic, Italian, saint’s life came to be celebrated in thoroughly Lutheran Sweden, and how each st. lucia day by carl larssonelement of the current celebration has emerged.  It’s quite an interesting account.  I particularly liked discovering that Lucia was known for her gifts to the poor, and the emphasis on maintaining this as a part of the celebration.

The discussion of specific U.S. ceremonies is, admittedly, a less helpful section of the book, but carry on because Ekstrand then moves to a very interesting explanation of the evolution of the tomte in Swedish Christmas lore, provides the original Rydberg Tomten poem in both Swedish and English, and finishes off with a number of recipes for Swedish Christmas baked goodies.  Mmmm!  Be aware that Ekstrand writes the book from a thoroughly Christian point of view.

As I said, it’s not so much a children’s book as a slim reference to help you understand and create some Swedish traditions in your home, especially surrounding December 13, Saint Lucia’s Day.  Children ages 12 and up could read it for themselves, and sections of it could be read or told to younger ones.

flicka ricka dicka and their new friend cover imageFlicka, Ricka, Dicka and Their New Friend, written and illustrated by Maj Lindman

Flicka, Ricka and Dicka are three sisters from Sweden who share many happy adventures in a classic series of books by Maj Lindman.

In this wintery story, the three don their cherry red snowsuits and set out to make “the biggest snowball there ever was.”  They succeed at packing together a giant snowball, but when it rolls down a hill, coming to rest on a neighbor’s front walk, the girls abandon it to head in for lunch.

Mother scolds the girls for their thoughtlessness, particularly since this neighbor is new, an old gentleman who seems to be lonely, so immediately after lunch the girls head down to the candy store to spend some of their Christmas money onflicka ricka dicka and their new friend illustration maj lindman 001 three,  jumbo, pink and white striped lollipops to deliver to their neighbor and make amends.

The neighbor, Mr. Smiley,  has already cleaned off his sidewalk himself and is quite cross with the girls.  BUT!   When he sees those jolly lollipops, his heart is warmed.  A lovely friendship ensues, full of  conversations about Mr. Smiley’s world travels and a very surprising toboggan ride!  

The Flicka, Ricka, Dicka books are pleasant, old-fashioned stories, often having themes of  kindness and helping others.  Maj Lindman’s watercolor illustrations are bright, sunny, retro glimpses of the little blonde, blue-eyed sisters, their always-well-heeled mother, and their tidy, lovely Swedish home.  I recall reading these stories over and over as a child.  Now they’ve all been reprinted and are easy to locate.

Here are Amazon links to all these Svenska yuletide stories:
Christmas in Noisy Village (Picture Puffin)
Peter and Lotta’s Christmas: A Story
The Tomten
Lucia, Child of Light: The History And Traditions of Sweden’s Lucia Celebration
Flicka, Ricka, Dicka and Their New Friend