Holidays Gone By

Growing up in Sweden, with Alice Alfonso

Alice Alfonso was born Ellen Maria Alice Wallin in Arvika, Sweden near the Norwegian border, and lived in the neighboring farming village of Speked through secondary school. Her grandfather, and then father, ran the local newspaper, the Arvika News, while her mother managed the small farm where she was raised. Her parents seemed to have worked out a pact, blending city and country life. Her father always wore a suit and tie, except when walking in the woods (he took off his suit coat and tie on those occasions), which became a welcome Sunday afternoon tradition. Her mother worked the farm with their four cows, chickens, and sheep, although she always seemed to have her head in a book when she wasn’t milking a cow!

Alice’s first school experience was a one room school house with 15 children in grades 1-5 (there was only one other student in her first grade class). She discovered that you can learn a lot more in this setting than in a more traditional setting, since the younger children don’t “shut off their ears” when the teacher is teaching astronomy to older students, for example. The teaching method must have worked, because she passed her middle school entrance exam with flying colors!

The children walked several miles to grade school each way, including the snowy winter months. A rare winter treat was skiing to school if the road hadn’t been sanded yet, and they biked to school when the weather permitted. Speaking of bikes, Alice recounted her “painful” experience of learning to ride a bike, when her brother Allan let go of the bike as she descended down their sloping driveway, and she toppled over at the end of the driveway into her mother’s flower bed. She remembered her mother’s disapproval more than the battle scars!

Winter holiday traditions included Advent, the celebration of Saint Lucia, and Christmas. Advent, which marks the beginning of the Christmas season, begins four Sundays before Christmas. The merchants in Arvika would cover their display windows with sheets the Saturday before Advent and surprise the public with holiday wares that Sunday. Families would then walk the streets on Sunday, admiring the merchandise (while the boys and girls admired one another!)

On December 13, the Swedish celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day, the patron saint of light. December 13 also marks the beginning of Winter Solstice according to Swedish folklore. According to legend, Lucia was a brave young woman from the island of Sicily. Lucia, who died a martyr’s death, was widely admired for her courage, generosity and faith, and the Vikings carried the story back with them to Scandinavia.

To honor this Swedish tradition in Alice’s community, the eldest daughter of the house would make coffee, bake pastry (Lucia Buns), and sing the song of St. Lucia for her family that morning (and later, for teachers), honoring the ritual of bringing food during a famine. There was also a pageant along city streets, with a chosen Lucia wearing a white robe, red ribbons, and a candle crown on her head.

As for the Christmas tree, the Wallin family tradition was to cut down a tree before Christmas from their woods, but not until December 23. It was a tricky selection process, particularly if it had been snowing, because it was important to find a tree with straight branches to hold the candles (no, they did not have electric tree lights). Alice’s father was particularly gifted in finding just the right tree, and they never burned down the house!

Christmas presents were collected in one room and opened on Christmas Eve. If you were “very good,” Santa Claus might arrive in person to distribute gifts. On Christmas Day, community members went to church service in the morning when it was still dark outside. The church driveway was lighted with torches, and candles would illuminate the nearby gravestones to remember their dead. The lights were magical! Church services were followed by a hearty Christmas dinner.

Eighty four years and thousands of miles have separated Alice from her Swedish beginning. She moved to Chicago (where her mother’s cousin lived) in 1949 to “learn English” and unexpectedly fell in love and married an American, Robert Alman, less than a year later. Alice and Robert raised their three sons in a Chicago suburb before moving to rural Wisconsin, and Alice came to Santa Rosa after her husband passed to be near her son Bob and his family.

Today, you can find Alice ballroom dancing at the Santa Rosa Finley Center and other venues, three (or more) times per week. She has an energy and enthusiasm for life to be admired at any age.

May you find magic in your own holiday traditions!