Much of my blog’s content is about asking “why.” When I think about a city, a travel opportunity, a cuisine or custom, it is usually through that particular interrogative that I engage, and thus learn. The answer to that question often leads to among other things, ethnicity and nationality. So much of our daily habits, from our food, language, clothing and holidays derive from the rich palate of ethnicity and nationality. Usually, Anglo-Americans do not celebrate a particular ethnicity, given our place as longest-simmering in the great American melting pot.
While later immigrants from Europe brought with them some of their traditions, most of those traditions have been either ubiquitously commercialized (Guinness, Pizza, Croissants) or slowly faded and forgotten (Wienerschnitzel, Spotted Dick). Ethnicity, in the long genetic view, is rather fleeting. And in the cultural view, the formula for survival is its frequency of use. Consider that over the past few years, more people have embraced Cinco de Mayo with Margaritas. Yet Dyngus Day is a holiday only known to the sons and daughters of Poland.
I have gradually tried to bring in old customs from my forbearers in my daily life, even if some of them amputated them from our family traditions generations ago. I am more likely to say “Gesundheit” over “Bless You” and have hosted a few Oktoberfests of my own to celebrate my maternal family’s Bavarian roots and my paternal grandmother’s Rhineland and Swiss heritage. I have yet to convince my own family to sup on Haggis to celebrate Rabbie Burns and our Scottish heritage through my surname and my wife’s maiden name, though I do take in Scotch not so much as a celebrated restorative but rather a birthright. I don’t do much for my English heritage, lacking a palate for boiled food, flat ales and fish and chips and all.
But this time of year, coming loose from the Christmas holiday (a holiday whose trees and yule and holly and elves harken past the Christ child and right into Norse mythology), I found a way to draw in my maternal grandmother’s Swedish and Norwegian heritage, and close out the holiday season with a tip to my Swedish ancestors on Knut’s Day.
Knut’s Day is a religious martyr’s day, commemorating the death of Canute, a Danish prince and heir to the Holy Roman Empire, assassinated in 1131 by his jealous family who wanted another scion on the throne. The day of his death coincided with the Feast of Epiphany, and as the years moved on, Canute and his story became a sort of final act for the Christmas season. Folks in Scandinavia would dress as a goat (?) and take down the Christmas festivities. Knut’s (an alternative spelling) Day was changed to the 13th of January to try to break the confusion. Today in Sweden, the day is usually reserved for tearing down the Christmas decor. For those who still decorate their trees with sweets and savories, the children are allowed to raid the tree of its candy canes and cookies, in homage to their raiding Viking heritage perhaps.
Canute had a relative, King Canute, who was also assassinated. (We are talking about Vikings, here). Both owe a certain polar cub, named Knut, for a rehabilitation of his name. You may recall Knut, the adorable polar cub saved by the Berlin Zoo, whose Bieberesque exposure led him to psychosis from the shutterbugs and fanatics. Of course, long time fans of Notre Dame football recognize Knute Rockne’s name, in any form.
Ascribing so much meaning to a spot on the calendar may seem overkill. After all, most people toss their trees when the garbage pick-up says so. Some people follow the Christian season right up to Epiphany. Others want the Tannenbaum out before the first touchdown of the Super Bowl. Yet meaning is often under our noses. Most of the days of the week in the English language owe their names to the Norse Gods—a “win” for my Viking ancestors and their adoration of their god of war (Tiu’s dag), the god of the hunt (Wotan’s day), the god of thunder (Thor’s day) and the goddess of love, (Freya’s day). Aside from the days of the week, my choices in observing anything Swedish in my year are limited to either this particular day, or perhaps going to IKEA.
(I cannot deny that I sometimes tingle with scant nationalism for Sweden when seeing a big blue box blazed with gold on the horizon. My people?)