My maternal grandparents immigrated from Sweden when both were in their teens. They rarely talked about their life there but did mention that all they had to eat was potatoes.
When he was 70 my grandfather planned his first trip back to visit to his sister, but returned early. He said his sister did not like to cook, so she fried up a batch of potato pancakes every Saturday and parceled them out over the course of the week. It was obvious that potatoes held as little charm for him at 70 as they had at 17.
I do not have many Swedish stories directly from my grandparents. I was happy to find a beautiful story by Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940) who in 1909 was the first Swede and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. Lagerlof often used folklore and legend in her work, so while her Legend of the Christmas Rose is not an ancient tale, it has the feel of antiquity.
Once upon a time, a Robber Family lived in a cave in Goinge forest. Robber Father was an outlaw who could not leave the forest, so it was Robber Mother and her five children who went begging in the neighborhood for food. They were all greatly feared.
One day Robber Mother and her children came begging at the Ovid monastery. They walked right in through an open gate. Mother was stunned at the beauty of the herb garden just inside which was also full of brilliant flowers. Abbot Hans who cared for the garden asked if she liked it, but she said that while it was very pretty, it was nothing to compare with the holy garden that bloomed in the forest at the hour of Christ’s birth.
The Abbot had heard about this mystical garden and longed to see it. He said he would do anything he could for the family, if only Robber Mother would show him the garden.
She feared the danger to Father if she brought the Abbot to visit, but she had a desire to show him a garden that was more beautiful than any. With his promise to arrange a pardon for Father, she agreed to show him on the following Christmas Eve.
The Bishop did not believe in the garden, but said if the Abbot brought him a flower from the Forest the letter of pardon would be granted.
And so it was that Abbot Hans and a lay brother went to the forest on Christmas Eve. The cave had bare stone walls that offered little comfort, but Robber Mother invited the Abbot and his companion to sit by the fire. Both men fell into a doze
When the Abbot woke and sat chatting with Robber Mother, Robber Father accused him of trying to take his family away from him, but when he heard that the Bishop promised him a pardon he laughed bitterly. The Bishop was not known for his compassion. Still, he promised if he got this pardon he would never steal again.
Then the Christmas bells rang and they all went out into the forest that was illumined with a shimmering light. The snow melted and the mossy green earth sent forth buds. The trees burst into bloom and the birds sang. Father Robber ate the ripening raspberries and the Abbot and the children gorged themselves on strawberries.
Then the abbot looked for the most beautiful flower to bring back to the Bishop, but each flower was more beautiful than the other.
Meantime, the lay brother could not believe his eyes. He thought the glorious garden was the work of the Evil One. Such a garden would not be revealed to bandits like the Robber Family.
A throng of angels appeared and birds settled on Abbot Hans. The lay brother saw all this and knew it was all Evil deception and called out “Go back to hell, from whence you came!”
Instantly the angels’ song ceased, and it was dark again. Frost came and all the beautiful plants began to shrivel. The leaves fell from the trees and the animals disappeared into the forest.
The Abbot grabbed for a plant, but such was his anguish that he fell on the frozen ground and died.
When he was prepared for burial the lay brother found two tiny bulb roots in the Abbot’s clenched hand. He planted them in the Abbot’s garden. They sprouted and grew, but there were no blooms – until Christmas Eve. Then he believed in the truth of the holy garden and determined to take some of the pale blossoms, the Christmas rose, to the Bishop.
The Bishop was shocked and became pale, but said that since the Abbot kept his part of the bargain, he would keep his. He sent the lay brother off with the letter of pardon.
The Robber Father was angry when he saw the lay brother arrive on Christmas Day blaming him because the Forest did not come into bloom the night before. He was slow to take the Bishop’s letter, but Robber Mother said that since the Abbot and the Bishop had kept their word, Robber Father would too.
The lay brother remained in the forest to live in the cave to meditate and pray that he might be forgiven, but the Forest never again bloomed on Christmas Eve.
Hellebores, Christmas roses, will still bloom in our gardens, a reminder that fear and anger destroy and that we must hold on to faith and hope.
Between the Rows December 24, 2010