From A Snow Bear to European Christmas Bread
Via Festive Frying, Duvet Cover Wrangling & Horseradish Tears
Dearest Gentle Reader,
This is just a short note before I break for my traditional Festive/January break. I write from the depths of my to do list, which contains amongst many other things: frying latkes, making horseradish sauce with an actual, if slightly terrifying horseradish root, and boiling eggs for a incredibly smart (and very delicious) Christmas Eve lunch sandwich. I also have to make time to change bed linen: king size duvet cover wrangling in a rush on Christmas Eve may possibly count as an extreme sport.
I’m sure many of you are also busy so in that spirit, I will just provide a lovely short festive story from Norway which may bring a rest from the chaos. If you are not busy because it’s not your thing or you are a better planner than I am, then this will hopefully provide a charming way to spend a few minutes instead. If you would like to listen instead, this is also the middle story in my December podcast episode.
The Christmas Bear inspired by and adapted from the tale shared by both Lari Don in Fire & Ice and by Margaret Sperry in Scandinavian Stories. The story begins in the coldest part of Norway with a hunter and the capture of a strangely stubborn but wise snow bear. They stop on their journey to find out why a family is forced from their home every Christmas Eve ……..
Long ago in Finnmark, which is in northern Norway, there lived a man whose name was Lars. His father's name had been Lars Larsson. Lars had been out hunting and had trapped a large white snow bear, and to her he gave the name of Freya.
About this time the King of Denmark sent out heralds to announce: “The man who brings His Majesty a tame snowy polar bear for Christmas can ask for anything and the King will grant his wish!" You see, other kings owned lions and tigers and giraffes and unicorns and he wanted a big, fancy pet too.
This was music to the ears of Lars.
He said, "Come on, my beautiful white bear. I will take you to the King of Denmark and you will wear gold chains around your neck and be admired and fed all sorts of good food. Follow me to Copenhagen to live a life of gold and warmth and comfort." He put a collar round Freya's neck and fastened a chain to it, and off they started for Denmark. Or rather Lars did,
Freya the snow bear looked around at the hard, cold, silver ice, then she sat down on her bottom and refused to move. Lars pulled on her iron chain and told her all about the wonders of the palace, the generosity of the king, and the splendours of the city. None of which he had seen, all of which he had dreamed about. But she sat firmly on her white bottom and wouldn't move. And a snow bear is very heavy if she doesn't want to move. Lars kept tugging, chatting cheerfully about the king's palace and dangling raw meat in front of her. Eventually the snow bear shrugged, stood, and followed Lars.
As they journeyed southward the man and the bear lost track of time, yet they sensed Christmas was near for the days were short and dark. About this time they reached the Dovre Mountains, which are the home of trolls of every shape and size. The trolls would hide in the dark mountain caves and would come out only at night; then they would prowl and frighten folk with their fiendish pranks.
They walked through the frosty mountains, Lars hunting for food for them both.
When they reached the farmlands at the edge of the mountains, a blizzard began. The cold, howling storm didn't bother the bear at all, but Lars was getting tired, his boots were wearing thin, and it was taking longer than he thought to reach the king's palace.
Through the swirls of snow, he saw the lights of a farmhouse made of brown polished logs. Blue smoke rose from the chimney.
"Let us hope that is the home of decent folk," said Lars to Freya. "There we'll ask for food and shelter."
"I like my ice cave better, but you're in charge," grumbled the bear. They walked to the door, pushing against the wind and snow, and Lars knocked.
When they had come down the hill and knocked at the door, a man with sad blue eyes opened it to them.
"We're on the way to the King of Denmark," began Lars. "He wants a tame white bear for Christmas, and my bear, Freya, is really tame!"
"You're rather late for Christmas in Denmark," muttered the man, whose name was Halvor. "It's Christmas Eve tomorrow."
"Can we get food and shelter here?" asked Lars.
"We're not safe here ourselves," mumbled the man half to himself. "And I am not used to bears in my house."
"But you have the shelter of a roof," said Lars. "Are you worried about the bear? She'll be fine. She's been as gentle as a kitten all the way here."
The bear smiled, showing all her teeth. The farmer backed away,
"Tomorrow this home will become the lair of trolls!" went on the host. "Every Christmas Eve they come rolling down the mountains and take possession of our house. They break in every year, wreck our furniture, rip our curtains, and attack anyone who stays in the house. So we leave them our feast to distract them from destroying the house completely. Here they hold their Jul feast. We can do nothing against them. They are far too strong."
The man's eyes looked dark and troubled.
To cheer him, Lars replied, "There is an old Norse saying that when strangers enter a home, they bring good luck. There's no harm in letting us try!"
"None can keep the trolls away," said Halvor grimly. "But do come in to warm yourselves."
Lars and the white bear stepped into the house. Beside the open hearth sat a handsome dark-eyed woman, spinning. She looked about the same age as Halvor and she wore a bright red jacket with full sleeves, a white blouse, and a long blue skirt embroidered in brilliant colours. Opposite her sat a young woman with the same kind of blue eyes as her father, but hers were not sad but flashing and bright. Her blonde hair peeped out from beneath a white embroidered cap, and she wore a costume similar to her mother's.
"This is my wife, Helga; and my daughter, Elsa," said Halvor as he showed Lars into the house. Lars' heart skipped as he saw the lovely young woman. He greeted the two women with a deep bow; and the two strangers were asked to move close to the fire. Soon they were comfortably settled and Lars was served warm spiced mead and small sweet-smelling cakes, while Freya was given a huge blood sausage. Lars felt he had just arrived in heaven.
"Do tell me about the trolls!" he said as his eyes took in the brightly painted furniture, the shining copper bowls along the shelves, and the handmade tapestries on the walls.
"As far back as we can remember," said Halvor, "trolls troop down from the mountain caves each Christmas Eve to find a place where they can hold their feast. No matter what we do, on holy days the trolls bring wrack and ruin with them. They infest our home! If you can free us from this evil, whatever you ask for in our house is yours."
After much talk it was agreed that the farmer and his family should quit the house on the morning, and then Lars and his white bear should move in and try to rid the house of trolls.
With a sinking heart, Lars watched Halvor and his wife and his lovely daughter take off on their skiis next day down the snowy slopes toward the neighboring village where they were to spend the night.
"If I ever see them again, my life and fortune are made," he said aloud. "If not, then heaven help us!"
"Oh, never fear! We will not only see them, but they will thank us," answered Freya calmly.
The last hours of Christmas Eve passed under a soft silent snowfall. The moun-tains were dazzling white; the fields looked blue with deep purple shadows under pine and spruce.
Dark came early but inside the house was firelight and warmth. Out of doors a sharp wind cried like a lost creature. The pines and the spruce moaned softly in the stillness.
Stars seemed to twinkle and dance on the distant ice of a lake. All appeared peaceful over the valley and the mountain slopes.
"This is a strange Christmas Eve!" said Lars to Freya. "We should be home dancing round a tree, and bringing in the Jul log: we should be drinking the good mead, and feasting on the Christmas boar. Instead we're waiting in a strange valley to face trolls in a strange house far from home with a Christmas feast untouched on the table.
"This is because you insisted on traveling to the King of Denmark," grumbled Freya. Soon she was asleep with her nose in the warm ashes of the fireplace. Lars went to a wall bunk and pulled aside the handwoven curtain and climbed into bed: he pulled a reindeer-skin cover over him and soon he was asleep in the dark, still house.
Suddenly Lars awakened and sat up in bed. He heard a yelping, yelling, and shouting as if a pack of wild animals were tumbling down the mountain slope toward the house. Lars peered out from the tiny window near his bunk. Against the moonlit snow, a throng of dark forms were rushing toward him.
Lars leaped out of bed and shouted: "Wake up, Freya, here come the trolls!"
The bear did not waken but slept on. The yelling and yelping came ever closer.
Lars was trembling. "Wake up, Freya!" he shouted. "The trolls are here!" He shook the bear. She opened her eyes and gazed at him calmly.
"Why fear trolls? Don't you know a polar bear has the strength of twelve and the wit of more?" Freya got on her hind legs and stretched herself. She seemed to fill the whole room with her creamy white pelt.
"No matter how strong or clever you are," Lars raced on, "trolls are trolls! They are less than human, and theirs is the strength of evil!"
Freya merely grunted and lay down again. This time she placed her huge body under the long table at the far end of the cottage. On the slope the uproar grew louder and wilder. Now the trolls were banging at the door. Lars leaped back into the bunk and pulled the curtain.At that moment the troll pack tore open the door and flooded in like a torrent of demons.
Lars peered out and saw that the trolls were wild creatures, half-man and half-beast. Some were gigantic, some as small as dogs. Some had noses as long as spades; others, noses as round as hams. All had small evil eyes, burning like live coals.
In one corner an old wizard wearing elk horns sat down and began to beat a troll drum marked with magic runes.
The trolls slumped down around the table. They began to gorge: their rending and tearing and gulping of food and drink became bloodcurdling to hear.
The troll drum was beating louder and faster. The trolls began to chant, but their chanting seemed the screaming of eagles and the howling of wolves.
The troll feast went on and on. Lars trembled where he lay. To him the feast seemed to last a year and a day.
Suddenly one young troll picked up a bone and, waving it in the air, cried: "Where's the house cat to gnaw this bone?" With that he ducked his head under the table and came up squealing. He had discovered Freya lying under the table
"Look at my big white cat!" the troll-youngster shrieked.
"It's the biggest cat in all of Dovre! Can I take you home to my cave?"
With that he tickled Freya's nose with the bone. The bear opened one eye. The troll prodded her again. The bear stood. As she stood, the table and the feast rose
up on her shoulders. When she straightened her spine, the table and the feast slid down her fur and crashed onto the floor.
The bear stood erect on her hind legs and looked about with calm eyes. The house was hushed, and not a creature moved. The trolls gaped at this towering beast.
She stretched and broke the thin iron chain that Lars had put around her neck. She roared, giving the trolls a close-up view of her long, sharp teeth. Her voice was the sound of Arctic waves lashing against cliffs of ice. It echoed beyond the house as if there were no barrier to her thunder.
Freya stretched her heavy white arms to crush the trolls in a death-hug. At once the demons vanished out of the house into the night as if blown away by a gale. Across the snowy fields they rushed, whisked up the slopes and vanished into their mountain caves.
"So?" asked Freya, as she lay down again to warm her nose in the ashes. "What did I tell you?"
Lars said nothing but crept from his wall bunk and began to put the house in order.
"Didn't I tell you that it is good luck to take in a stranger on Christmas Eve?" asked Lars when the farmer’s family returned next day to find peace and quiet reigning in the house. Helga and Elsa instantly went to work on making a replacement Christmas feast with what Lars had salvaged from the trolls and foods she had cleverly hidden outside for their return.
"Since you've freed our home from trolls, stay to celebrate with us!" cried Halvor with a great show of warmth. So Lars & Freya stayed. They dined in the light and warmth of the fire on the remains of the the pork ribbe and the Pinnekjøtt, sausages and meatballs, steaming potatoes, mashed swede, pickled cabbage, apples & prunes, gravy and lefse.
The food and the welcome were so good, and the weather so bad outside that he didn’t want to leave. When the farmer’s daughter smiled at him, Lars decided he wasn't interested in seeing the king's palace after all. Instead, he fell in love, wooed and wed the lovely Elsa.
And Freya the snow bear? She had never been interested in gold chains and warm comfort, so she waved goodbye to Lars and followed her own trail back to her icy, silver home. If you ever travel far up into the North Sea, you may find some of her children's children riding on the ice floes.
No trolls were ever seen again in the valley where this adventure had taken place. Just in case, the following Christmas Eve, Lars put a sign on the farmhouse door:
“Our white cat has just had kittens. Free to good homes in the spring.”
So the trolls went somewhere else for their Christmas feast. I hope it wasn't your house.
So it only remains for me to share the last of my food folklore posts:
I wish everyone a hopeful, peaceful & restorative festive break in whatever shape that makes you happy! I know that for some it’s not a great time, but I hope you can find something in the chaos or the silence that brings you some joy or at the very least some solace.
If you have enjoyed this and would like to read further such nonsense but almost certainly not before mid January at the earliest, and have not yet subscribed, please don’t hesitate to subscribe for free at the button below. You’d be very welcome and it would be a joy to write to you.