Merry Christmas, dear readers.
I think Astrid Lindgren must have loved Christmas. There are Christmas descriptions in almost all of her book series; Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Maple Hills, Madicken of June Hill, the Six Bullerby Children, and Lotta on Troublemaker Street all celebrate the holiday in her books and their Christmas preparations and celebrations are always carefully described. In this December 24th post I will discuss the Christmas descriptions found in Madicken of June Hill and Emil of Maple Hills, two Christmas descriptions that I’ve always loved dearly.
From the book "Look, Madicken, it's snowing!"
(NOTE: as I do not have access to English translations of Astrid Lindgren’s books, the English translations of the Swedish books below are all my own)
Portrait of the Writer as a Little Girl – Christmas in June Hill
Madicken of June Hill books have always been my favourites among Astrid Lingren’s works. The books are said to be inspired by Lindgren’s own childhood, and I think that this authobiographical trait is very much visible in the series: I think that it’s possible to read the Madicken books as the story of the cultivation of a young writer’s voice.
Madicken is an upper-middle-class girl, living in Småland in a house called June Hill during the time of World War I with her father, editor-in-chief at a local newspaper, her mother, her younger sister Elisabeth, and their maid Alva. And Madicken definitely has the makings of a writer: She’s emotional, she has a vivid imagination, she’s passionate about books and stories, and one of the first things we learn about her is that she “gets her ideas quicker than a pig can blink”. The main conflict of the Madicken books is, however, that Madicken has not yet learned how to manage her creative abilities and her flair for storytelling, and Madicken often gets herself into trouble. A recurring theme in Madicken is the fact that things rarely turn out in reality the way one imagines them, or the way they play out in fiction. One famous example is her jumping from a wood shed with an umbrella, inspired by stories she has read about WWI soldiers jumping with parachutes – with the result of her getting rather a concussion.
Madicken is somewhat like Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in this way; she sees possibilities of fiction everywhere in her surroundings. This is what gets her into trouble - and sometimes into real danger – but it’s also what makes her an intriguing and amusing heroine.
This is apparent in the Christmas descriptions in the Madicken books. In December, Madicken is characteristically enthusiastic about having everything play out the way she’s imagined, and it’s important to her that the aesthetics of Christmas permeate her entire world. Accordingly, Madicken inspects the Christmas preparations in her home carefully:
“Yes, now Christmas may come to June Hill, everything is ready to receive it. Every nook is clean, there are white, newly starched curtains at every window, there are candles in every candlestick, in the kitchen the new patchwork quilts are brightening up everything, on the walls the copper pots and pans are shining with all their might, and the iron rod under the cooker hood has been decorated with curly crêpe paper of red and green, festive like Christmas itself.”
Another illustration from "Look, Madicken, It's Snowing!"
Madicken is satisfied with all this, and on the day of Christmas Eve she savours every little sensory impression of it, like the smell of the lacquer used to seal the wrapped Christmas gifts:
“She explains Elisabeth how nice it would be, if one could put a little bit of the lacquer scent into a tin along with all the other lovely Christmas scents. Then you would have a can to sniff all year, until it would finally be Christmas again.”
A can containing all the scents of Christmas is of course an impossible notion, but this is typical of Madicken and her lyrical disposition: She wants so much to capture the moment that it almost becomes too much for her. It’s the same urge that gave her her near-fatal concussion in an earlier chapter, and while she doesn’t bring herself into danger in the Christmas chapter, her pursuit of the true Christmas spirit does leave her very upset towards the end of Christmas Eve:
The day of Christmas Eve is long, but it ends after all. The candles burn out, everyone has had their presents, everyone has cracked nuts, everyone has eaten apples and Christmas sweets, and everyeone is too tired to dance around the Christmas tree again. Then Madicken suddenly hides her face in her hands and bursts into to tears: ‘Oh, now it’s over! To think that it’s over so soon!’”
Significantly, Madicken is also dismayed as she visits her neighbours, the teenage boy Anders and his poor parents the Nilssons, the day before Christmas:
“…[she finds] Anders lying on his knees, scrubbing the floor! He stops abruptly as Madicken enters. ‘I was just mopping up something’, he explains. But he has already scrubbed half of the floor. (…) Madicken takes a look around. Apart from that there isn’t much Christmas preparation visible. The curtains and the chrocheted shelf trimmings haven’t been cleaned, everything looks as it always does, and it shouldn’t on the night before Christmas Eve, Madicken thinks.
‘Haven’t you tidied up yet?’ she asks.
Anders looks confused.
‘Tidied up? How do you mean?’
Madicken doesn’t really know what to say.
‘Well, it’s… it’s Christmas tomorrow.’
‘Ah, yes, well, that’s all taken care of!’ says Anders, ‘Come and see!’
He leads the way into the small room next to the kitchen. Here is a paper cloth hung up on the wall, full of bearded Christmas gnomes.
‘How do you like that?’ he asks triumphantly. ‘Father and mother haven’t seen it yet, but they’ll be gaping when they see it – you can bet on that!’
Madicken thinks that the paper cloth with the bearded gnomes is nice, but it only spreads Christmas cheer in one little spot. Madicken wants for the Christmas cheer to spread everywhere.
As emphatic a character as she is, there is something let-them-eat-cake-ishly spoiled about upper-middle-class Madicken’s scrutiny of poor Anders’ home. Astrid Lindgren seems aware of this, and while she definitely celebrates Madicken’s artistic streak, she doesn’t let her protagonist get away with this privileged purely aesthetic approach to her surroundings. Madicken’s father is the editor of the local newspaper and is depicted as a highly socially conscious person who makes sure that Madicken understands that there is a big, harsh world outside her cherished June Hill – a world with which she needs to deal. “I think the children ought to know that there are many different kinds of people in this world,” he says at one time, as Madicken’s mother voices her concern that Madicken is spending so much time with Anders and his alcoholic father, “Then maybe they will learn that they’ll learn that they shouldn’t be to quick to bring out the heavy armour”. In another Christmas-related chapter we learn that Madicken’s father always takes Madicken for a walk around the poorer parts of the town on Christmas Eve:
“The church bells are chiming so that they can be heard all over the town as Daddy and Madicken walk out. They take the same route as always on Christmas Eve. Down crooked, narrow alleys past houses that are (…) so low that Madicken can scrape the snow off of the roof if she wants to make a snowball. The streets are dark, but almost all the houses are lit. The people who live there probably don’t have blinds, or maybe they don’t care that you can look right through their windows into their rooms.
‘And we are impertinent enough to be peeking through their windows,’ says daddy. ‘I’m sure you can tell that they don’t really have what we have at June Hill in there?’
No, they certainly do not! But it still looks kind of cosy, Madicken thinks. In some places anyway. Even if it is a bit cramped and poor and even though there isn’t much furniture and not much room for all the children, playing and romping about in there. They do seem to have tried to decorate the house for Christmas, you can tell. But in some places it looks too miserable.
‘I wouldn’t want to live in there.’ says Madicken.
‘I’m sure you would’t.’ says daddy.”
But it is possible to make a difference, so Madicken’s father’s message seems to be, by relating to the poverty around you and recognising it, and, possibly, bearing witness to it. And Madicken’s father’s dry response notwithstanding there’s no sense of reproof from Lindgren. Madicken may not master her own narrative voice quite yet, but her sense of lyrical beauty and her childish sensitivity to her surroundings makes her capable of recognising things that the adult world would overlook or dismiss as irrational. In a later chapter in the book revolving around Mrs Nilsson’s selling her body to science, Madicken is the only person to see how gravely Mrs Nilsson is troubled by this action. And in the Christmas chapters, too, Madicken manages to spread some joy – like when she gives Anders a Christmas present and is able to respect and delight in the modest Christmas celebrations of the Nilsson family:
The Nilssons are in the kitchen as usual, and Mr Nilsson is on the kitchen bench as usual. But the kitchen is unusually birghtly lit. The new lamp, but Anders’ eyes almost shine more brightly every time he looks at it. He ill not take his eyes off the lamp. He hardly even notices Madicken and Elisabeth. But Mr Nilsson nods at htem from the bench.
‘Here’s the little Madicken and the little Elisabeth of June Hill, and they have arrived at exactly the right moment!’
He points to the lamp.
‘How do you like that? How do you like this glorious item that my son has purchased? What light! What pleasance!’
‘Yes, it’s pretty.’ says Madicken.
‘Look into the little room! How do you like the funny littile Christmas gnomes with which my son has decorated the wall? And the Christmas tree that he has got just to make his old father happy, how do you like that? Anders, Anders, you are a good son!’
Mrs Nilsson is sitting as close to the lamp as she can, drinking coffee. Now she puts down the cop and pats Anders on his head.
‘As if he didn’t do it for his mother as well! Yes, you are surely a good boy, little Anders.’
Anders is embarrassed by all this praise and turns towards Madicken and Elisabeth.
‘What did you want by the way?’
Madicken produces the present that she has kept hidden behind her back.
‘I just wanted to give you a Christmas present, Anders.’
‘Me?’ says Anders. ‘A Christmas present? How come?’
Mrs Nilsson clasps her hands in horror. ‘A Christmas present for Anders! Oh, but we forgot about that!’
She looks reproachfully at Mr Nilsson on the bench. ‘Did you by any chance remember to buy a Christmas present for Anders?’
Mr Nilsson is silent and glares grumpily at Mrs Nilsson. Finally he says, with some annoyance:
‘I may have both a house and a farm, but I’m still a little short on cash at the moment. So I couldn’t get Anders a Christmas present this year. Are you sad about that, Anders?’
Anders doesn’t look sad in the least.
‘Never mind about that, we have the lamp!’
‘And Madicken’s Christmas present.’ Elisabeth reminds him.
‘Gee, yes, that’s right, I got a Christmas present from Madicken.’ says Anders.
He opens the present and finds the harmonica. Mr Nilsson is jubilant.
‘A harmonica, I must say! Now you can play something pretty for your old man, can’t you, Anders?’
It isn’t a fine or expensive harmonica, but Anders can still make it play a few melodies.
And Madicken and Elisabeth walk away happy and relieved.
“It was nice in there.” says Elisabeth.
‘Yes, it was.’ says Madikcen. ‘And what a nice lamp, I wish we had a lamp like that.’
The progress of a country boy
Moving on to another Lindgren character, Emil of Lönneberga, we find a very different description of Christmas. Emil is not the child of a newspaper editor, he’s the young son of a farmer, living with his parents, his little sister Ida, a maid and a farm hand on his father’s farm Katholt. Emil is infamous in the parson for his mischief which time and again enrages his father and sends him to the farm woodshed where he is to atone for his misdeeds. The thing is however, that Emil never means to misbehave. He always means well, but like Madicken he has a knack for getting into trouble.
Emil - one of Björn Berg's illustrations for the Emil books
The similarities between Madicken and Emil don’t go much further than this, though. Being a handy, practical farmer boy Emil is much more in tune with the elements and the conditions of nature than Madicken the editor’s daughter, and the imagery and plots of the Emil books tend to have a baser, more textural sense to them than the ones in the Madicken novels. In one book, Emil accidentally swallows a coin of his father’s and it is described that Emil dutifully paid back his debt after nature had taken its course with the coin in question. Another plot is kickstarted as Emil “has a stomach ache and had to go to the outhouse” one night. And the plot of one of the most dramatic stories focuses on the aggressive blood poisoning of the farmhand, Alfred. That’s the way it goes in the Emil stories. Bacteria invade people’s bloodstreams, and people have bowel movements. The third-person narrator of the Emil books is also notably unceremonious, recounting the stories in a language that is closer to that of an oral than of a written narrative tradition.
Emil as portrayed by young Jan Olsson in the Swedish series based on the books
Thus it is not surprising to find that the Emil Christmas chapter is devoid of Madicken’s preoccupation with a certain Christmas atmosphere. Emil isn’t overly excited as the holidays approach, and when Christmas Eve finally comes along, it is described in two simple sentences, without any superlatives:
“Emil and [his little sister] Ida went home, and then it was Christmas Eve. It was very nice at Katholt that evening as well as on Christmas Day.”
Similarly, as Emil rides a sleigh to church on Christmas morning, Emil is not lost in thoughts about the beauty of the snowy landscape the way Madicken probably would have: He is merely satisfied that the Katholt horses prove to be faster than than the horses dragging the neighbouring sleighs. At a farm in Småland, Sweden, Christmas is mostly a time for taking stock. Through the year, the farms have strived to accumulate enough for the winter and now the result is contemplated with satisfaction. Not an aesthetic satisfaction with fancy garnish like white newly starched tablecloths and fragrant hyacinths, but of solid things, like heavy, filling traditional fare in the pantry:
“Now everyone at Katholt was busy, because at Katholt Christmas was celebrated with a vengeance. First there was the big clean-up. Lina and Lingon-berry Maja knelt on the icy bridge by the Katholt brook and did the laundry until Lina was crying and breathing on her freezing fingers. Then the Christmas hog was slaughtered, and once that was done there was almost no room left in the kitchen, said Lina, because of all those black puddings and Cumberland sausages and oatmeal sausages and minced sausage, and potato sausage and salamis taking up space along iwth hams and headcheeses, and pork roastes and I don’t know what all. Juniper ale was also a must for Christmas. Emil’s mother brewed it in the big wooden vessel in the scullery. And pastry and breads needed to be bake, enough to make a person’s head swim, rye bread and treacle bread and fine black bread and saffron bread and ordinary white bread and gingerbread and a special kind of small, delicious cakes in the shapes of pretzels and puff pastry cakes, yes, it is impossible to mention all of it. Candles were also required. Emil’s mother and Lina spent an entire night making candles, big candles and small candles and Thee Kings Candles, for now Christmas was almost there. Alfred and Emil harnessed Lukas [the horse] and drove into the woods to get a Christmas tree, and Emil’s father went to the barn to get two sheafs of oat that he had saved for the sparrows.
‘It’s sheer madness,’ he said, ‘but the sparrows should know that it’s Christmas, too.’”
Indeed they should. Emil and his family certainly aren’t materialists after all. If Christmas is the time of year to showcase what goods one has produced out of the earth’s soil, it is also the time of year to give thanks to remember the ones that nature has been less kind to in the year that has passed. The birds – but also the old, poor, and lonely paupers of the village who reside in a measly, crowded little workhouse run as a charitable institution by the parish counsil. Emil’s mother prepares a special basket full of food for these poor people.
Unfortunately, the paupers’ strict matron, a mean old woman called the Commander, sees fit to eat all the food by herself, and when Emil finds out about this, he decides to take matters into his own hands. While his parents are out away at a Christmas party in the village, Emil prepares and hosts an extravagant Christmas feast for the paupers all by himself. Significantly, the feast takes place on December the 26th, boxing day. Emil’s wellmannered little sister anxiously asks Emil if giving away their parents’ food won’t count as mischief, but Emil assures her that the feast is something “that God’s angels will clap their hands at, as much as they must have been crying at the wretched Christmas that the paupers had to endure.”
This is probably as poetic as it gets, and there seems to be a recognition that the paupers will have less use for this kind of pretty imagery than for good old fashioned, solid food. Emil certainly understands that getting some food into the paupers is more important than any idea of heavenly reward, as the loquacious narrator informally lets us know:
“…when [the paupers] entered the kitchen at Katholt, prepared for the holidays as it was, and lit by five big Three Kings Candles that Emil had lit, the shimmer of which were mirrored in the newly polished copper saucepans hanging on the walls, so that everything was bright and shiny, they were at first completely silent, and old Nitwit Jokum thought that he had gone to heaven. (…) But then Emil said: ‘Now we will have a Christmas feast!’ And a Christmas feast it was. Emil and Alfred and little Ida helped each other carrying in all they could manage from the pantry. And I feel you should know what was on the table in the Katholt kitchen on Boxing Day when everything had been brought in.
A dish of black pudding
A dish of Cumberland sausage
A dish of headcheese
A dish of paté
A dish of smoked sausage
A dish of meatballs
A dish of veal cutlets
A dish of pork roast
A dish of oatmeal sausage
A dish of potato sausage
A dish of salted meat
A dish of slightly salted ox tongue
A dish with the big Christmas ham
A dish with the big Christmas cheese
A bowl with herring salad
A tray with rye bread
A tray with treacle bread
A tray with fine black bread
A pitcher of juniper beer
A pitcher of milk
A roaster of rice pudding
A kind of cheese pudding
A bowl of prunes
A bowl of whipped cream
A bowl of strawberry jam
A bowl of ginger pears and
A roasted whole hog, decorated with sugar icing.
That was all, I think. I can’t have forgotten more than three things, four at the most, oh, well, let’s say five just in case, but to be on the safe side, but then I’m sure I must have remembered everything.”
If the Madicken books are about an aspiring writer learning how to use her artistic streak constructively, the Emil books are about learning how to be a good person. But Astrid Lindgren never assumes a moralistic adult voice in her children’s books. She celebrates Madicken’s artistic streak, and I find it significant that in the Emil books it seems to be Emil’s surroundings who need to learn to understand Emil’s good deeds – and not Emil who needs to learn how to please his surroundings. As the Emil narrator discloses, Emil later grew up to be elected head of the parish counsil, so we know the rest of the world eventually caught on. Lindrgen had that rare talent for speaking on behalf of child protagonists in a manner that has nothing overbearing or patronising in it, and her Christmas descriptions are no exceptions. Christmas is often described as a the children’s holiday, and Lindgren takes the consequence of this in her children’s books and depicts Christmas as a time when children have a chance of showing adults the way.