Classic Christmas Stories | A Visit to New Sweden, Maine, December 1991

The day of celebrating light dawns dark and cheerless. A cold east wind drives freezing mist up the valley, out of Caribou, across a half-dozen miles of frozen Aroostook potato field. In New Sweden the farmhouses are lit. On Jacobson Hill and […]

By Jim Collins

Dec 05 2017

Photo Credit : Paula Lerner

The day of celebrating light dawns dark and cheerless. A cold east wind drives freezing mist up the valley, out of Caribou, across a half-dozen miles of frozen Aroostook potato field. In New Sweden the farmhouses are lit. On Jacobson Hill and Bondeson Corner, on Route 161 toward Jemtland, smoke rises from chimneys to greet the grayness.

By the time the first buses arrive at school, swirling snow has joined the mist. In the school kitchen, cinnamon buns sit cooling on countertops. The children passing by on their way to their classrooms are noisy and restless; two of them drop off baskets of thin ginger cookies called pepparkakar, traditional food for the occasion: Today, December 13, is Lucia Day, the day of light, the start of the Swedish Christmas season.

Half a world away in Sweden, it is a national celebration. By tradition, the youngest daughter rises early on this darkest day of the old calendar, dons a white robe and crown of lighted candles (levande ljus, living light), and serves coffee and Lucia buns made of cardamom and saffron to the members of the family. The custom, practiced in very few places in the U.S., is more than a mere ritual in New Sweden. It is a link to the old families, to the old way of life.

At 9:00 a.m. the classroom lights are turned out, and Evangeline Lowery, a shy, blond girl, begins the processional. She is this year’s Sankta Lucia — a lottery-won honor coveted by every girl in the eighth grade. As she walks from room to room offering pepparkakar to the younger students, she is escorted by the other girls in her class and by stjärngossar — “star boys” — who carry lighted candles in their hands and wear tall paper crowns on their heads. The first-graders giggle when a tall boy’s crown hits the doorway or when white wax drips onto a black pant leg, but in the glow of the living light in the dark room, surrounded by the enchanting Lucia melody coming from the tape player, the occasion is charged and solemn, almost transcendent. Outside, the snow turns to rain, then tapers to nothing.

In the gray morning light the children board a bus and, like children in Sweden, bring their processional and cookies to the elderly housing center, a modern complex just outside the village on Capitol Hill. On the way the bus passes the house of Beda Spooner, who is, at this moment, is hard at work knitting mittens and socks for her 26 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who will be joining her for Christmas. The bus passes the house of Hampy Johnson, a rugged man with thick hands and a thicker accent, who is just now calling a friend for a ride to Anderson’s IGA in Stockholm to pick up herring for his Christmas pickled sill. The bus passes a house with suet hanging from a tree — a season’s gift for the birds from Lewis Peterson, the butcher, who gives suet to his regular customers free this time of year. The bus passes the town’s historical museum, a building given new life twice since it opened in 1925. The first time came when David Anderson moved here in 1968 and helped resurrect interest in the town’s heritage. Then, three years later, following a lightning-strike fire that destroyed the building, townspeople rallied to save every piece in the museum, storing everything in their potato barns until an exact replica of the building could be completed.

The bus reaches the housing center, the wide view down the valley whited-out by the fog after the storm. Inside, Lucia and her escorts carry their candles and cookies from apartment to apartment. While they are finishing their rounds with the pepparkakar, David Anderson’s stepmother, Alice Anderson, is down the hill, finishing her baking of kroks (Swedish butter cookies) and kaffe krans (braided Swedish coffee bread). Alice baked her first coffee bread when she was 12 years old for farmers who came in from the fields twice a day for refreshment. For 35 years she has lived in the B&A section of New Sweden, one of three distinct villages that grew up around the rail stops: Jemtland, A.V.R. (Aroostook Valley Railroad), and B&A (Bangor & Aroostook). Capitol Hill separated the villages and, to a large extent, the people. “When Alice became part of the family,” recalls David, “it was amazing. We learned a whole new set of stories from that side of the hill.”

It is, of course, a much more mobile society today. Easier access and outside influences have blurred the distinctions between villages and towns in the area. They’ve also accelerated the process of assimilation that began with the first settlers.

New Sweden began as a grand experiment: W.W. Thomas, a former U.S. consul in Sweden, brought 51 men, women, and children from Sweden to settle in northern Maine. Thomas convinced the Maine legislature to provide 100 acres and a log cabin to each family as a way of boosting the state’s sagging population. By 1895 four Swedish communities had taken hold: New Sweden, Stockholm, Westmanland, and Woodland. Though French and Yankee workers were attracted to the mills in Stockholm, much of the area remained nearly 100 percent Swedish. Many of the new immigrants, afraid of embarrassment and ridicule, raised their children to speak English. But the physical isolation of the towns and the lack of new ethnic blood coming in created a unique Swedish colony. Rather than blend into the melting pot as did other heavily Swedish areas — in Worcester and Southwick, Massachusetts, in Monson, Maine — customs and language in New Sweden survived intact for decades. It wasn’t until nearby Loring Air Force Base opened in 1947, bringing a steady stream of outsiders who spent money and settled, that the pure Swedish ways of life began to be diluted. Improved roads, television, consolidated schools, and the growth of Caribou and Presque Isle as commercial centers have hastened the change.

Even still, the Swedish influence remains visible here as it does almost nowhere else in the country. While Lucia and Midsommar (midsummer’s festival) have been recently revived in some Swedish communities in the Midwest, they’ve been celebrated here for many years. Twenty years ago a linguist came to New Sweden to listen to dialects that had disappeared in old Sweden. Though the dialects are dying here now, it is still possible to pick up a party line and hear Swedish being spoken. At the post office a hundred cards arrive from Sweden every Christmas season. In two days, as she does every Saturday, Alice Anderson will get together with seven or eight of her oldest friends to play canasta and speak the old language. Traditional songs continue to be passed down within families; traditional Swedish trinkets and decorations (many of them from Monica Soderberg’s Scandinavian gift shop in Caribou) fill the houses; food is prepared as it has been for generations.

Anderson’s IGA in Stockholm is one of the few places left — anywhere — that carry the traditional foods of a Swedish Christmas: korv (sausage), lutfisk, herring for pickled sill. The store has been in the Anderson family since it was started in 1903. Lutfisk (dried cod soaked in lye water, boned, skinned, and boiled) is selling at $7.99 for a l¾-pound bag. “The price has killed it,” says Gale Anderson, who has run the store for the last ten years. “Of course, the taste had already killed it for us younger ones. It’s the older ones who buy it now.”

“We had to eat our lutfisk before we could open our presents,” says Gale’s father, Fernald, who shares the same great-grandfather with Rampy Johnson. “God, it was awful.”

It is late afternoon. After a day of darkness, a salmon-pink sunset is caught and released by a metal-sided barn on a distant ridge. The children, at their one rehearsal for tonight’s Lucia pageant, miss it.

Two hours later, as townspeople fill the folding chairs of the combined gym and community center, the children are in the makeshift dressing room, nervously checking hair, straightening costumes. For many of them, this is a rare chance to perform, to receive applause. Mercury-vapor lights bathe the gym in harsh orange light. The basketball scoreboard (“Swedes” and “Guests”) faces a small artificial Christmas tree at center court. More people arrive. Aside from the Midsommar festival, which attracts hundreds of tourists and seasonal residents, tonight’s is the largest town gathering of the year.

The lights go down. Lucia and her escorts repeat the performance for the town. The legend of Lucia is read; fifth, sixth, and seventh graders sing “Sankta Lucia” in Swedish a capella. David Maple steps from the star boy line, removes his crown, and plays a trumpet solo, “Hosanna, David’s Son.” And then the recessional, and then the lights, and then what much of the town has been waiting for: the dancing children.

The “New Sweden Little Folks,” 16 strong this year in grades three through six, are perhaps the town’s tightest link to its heritage. Started in 1968 by Monica Soderberg, the group has been taught for the past ten years by Nancy Holmquist. Tonight the dancers perform a Swedish waltz, a Swedish polka, and two ring dances. Watching, it is difficult to know what year it is or which continent. Though only half of the students in New Sweden’s eight grades have Swedish surnames now, most of the dancers, in full traditional costume, are blond and fair skinned. Many of the townspeople join in the final dance. As older hands join younger, the ring expands beyond the confines of the room. It breaks into a series of spiraling concentric circles, until the room is a blur of color, music, and dance.

Afterward, they step out into the night wind, the day’s stormy air blown clear and cold and clean.

A week later, at Floyd and Elaine Jepson’s house near Jemtland, a winter storm has dumped 14 inches of snow. The wind, incessant, has whipped the fields into a soft white meringue and drifted a potato barn shut. Floyd, a retired potato farmer, works overtime on the driveway, plowing and sanding and making it safe for the relatives expected later today for dinner and presents. It is Christmas Eve, the traditional day of Swedish celebration.

In the fields that stretch far back of the house, sons Alan and Wayne have the snow machines going, one of them pulling a yellow sled and family: sister Nancy, her husband Kris, taking turns with their children, Lukas and Karsten. The wind cuts through the falling snow; there is no horizon or tree line, only white, wide open and exhilarating. For Wayne and Nancy, it is also coming home — Wayne from studying geology in Montana, Nancy from her new home outside of Cleveland. “It’s always nice to come back here,” says Wayne. “It’s hard to tell one year from the next.”

Inside the house, the cooking is nearing completion. It is a full Swedish spread: lutfisk with white sauce, meatballs, pickled sill alongside the ham, turkey, and potatoes. An extra table is brought in from the barn. Relatives, including the Jepsons’ oldest daughter Diane, arrive with rolls and desserts; there is plenty to go around.

The living room is trimmed with presents, tree, and four generations of New Sweden. Mildred Taylor, Elaine Jepson’s 90-year-old mother, is here with her sister Beatrice. Their father, Per Hedman, was five years old when he came to New Sweden with the second group in 1871. “They spoke Swedish to us,” recalls Mildred of her parents, “and we’d answer back in English.” Floyd’s grandparents, too, arrived in 1871. His father was from New Sweden, his mother from old Sweden, and he has lived his entire life in this one house. Together, the 24 family members gathered here tonight can reach into every crack of New Sweden’s history.

Wayne, then Kris, then the young ones take turns passing presents from beneath the tree. Mixed in with the toys and socks are a pie basket, a pair of matching Swedish scarves, a Valkommen (“welcome”) sign from Monica’s. Mildred, bothered by arthritis, chooses not to play Swedish jigs and carols on her violin this year. There are no Swedish flags on the tree. But there is family and laughing and stories and food. And in the coldest, darkest part of winter, these are the important things, as they have always been.

It is still dark on Christmas morning when the traditional Julotta service begins in the simple wooden building of the Covenant church. A full congregation joins in the living light of a candlelit tree. Pastor Tim Hawkinson shows no sign of being tired, though it was well after midnight when he arrived home last night after filling in at the Lutheran church service. He is not the only one who attended both services.

As in Sweden, there are three churches here: Baptist, Lutheran, and Covenant. The dawn service has been rotated in recent years, though denomination doesn’t seem to affect attendance. While faith is important in New Sweden, so too is tradition, and Julotta is as much a part of Swedish Christmas as pickled sill.

The Jepsons, devout Baptists, fill a row. Nancy Holmquist is here, and David and Edwina Anderson. Lewis Peterson, the butcher, and Monica Soderberg, whose daughter sings a solo. The service is performed half in Swedish, half in English, and Tim Hawkinson’s sermon, about his grandfather’s trip from Sweden, captures the tremendous ambivalence between the past and the future, leaving tradition behind as one moves on to a new place. “My grandfather told me,” he says, “‘I was just five years old when the boat arrived in America. Each new day was an adventure for me, but my parents, though they were excited, wore the wrinkles of age and worry.’”

The church bells ring as the congregation hurries out into a brilliant, purple, five-degree morning. The trees, white-hung with snow, draw color from a flawless sky. The first shafts of orange cut through the hardwoods on Capitol Hill. Christmas in New Sweden: season of Lucia, season of light.