Saturday, December 24, 2022

All about Christmas Eve...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/Saturday, 12-24-22

Well, it’s arrived — Christmas Eve. “Finally,” go the excited children; “already?” think the harried adults making preparations. But here it is, and there’s no turning back, except in golden memories of Christmases past.


As a child, Christmas Eve was always the most anticipated part of the holiday for me. That’s when Santa Claus came. In the flesh, right to our porch door, ho-ho-ho-ing as he emptied his pack full of gifts through the open door, greeted by one of the adults in the two-family gathering.


Out on the lawn, from where a clatter arose, you could hear the tinkling of sleigh bells (real ones) as we imagined eight tiny reindeer prancing and pawing each little hoof waiting for Santa to hop back into the sleigh, give them a whistle, and off they’d go like the down of a thistle. They’d be heading for other communities like Hibbing, Chisholm, Eveleth and, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus heading your way.


Exciting time for the children in our family. We weren’t bothered by the lack of fireplaces in our homes. We knew he’d come right up on the porch with our gifts as we excitedly reacted, adults restraining us from running to the door to actually see him. Good thing. Had we escaped we’d have seen a couple of adult men of the family carrying out the magic in shirtsleeves.


We were — and are — big Santa Claus people. Due to the theatrics described above, I was a firm believer in Santa Claus far longer than most of my friends. Eventually, it became apparent to my parents, so my father sat me down for a serious talk. I was concerned he was going to tell me about the birds and the bees. I knew all about them. No, the message was that maybe it was time to realize the truth about Santa.


Hold it. Did that happen or did I dream it?


So the magic was over for me and the other kids in the extended family as we moved into our teens. A couple of us were the youngest — no younger siblings waiting in the wings for whom to enact our Christmas Eve drama.


Sad, but it didn’t last long. In the twinkle of an eye, suddenly an older relative, who had married, showed up on Christmas Eve with a baby, soon a toddler, soon joined by more of that next generation.


Off we went again on our Christmas Eve theatrics, more wide-eyed children restrained by parents as the Jolly Old Elf showed up on our porches. Out came the sleigh bells, older relatives disappearing briefly to assist Santa.


And so it continues, but there are complications. My generation married and started families, and then the next generation — our kids — did the same. Family Christmas obligations inevitably become divided, with each young family heading off in different directions for part of the holiday.


In the case of my immediate family, our traditional gathering was moved from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. How’s that going to play for the young grandchildren and our Santa theatrics?


Never fear. Perhaps you didn’t realize that after Santa makes his rounds on Christmas Eve in the northern hemisphere, he must also see to the children of South America. Yup, he heads down over the equator and brings gifts to excited children down there. This takes time, of course, and by the time he’s finished in Chile and Argentina, Christmas Day is already dawning when he heads back up to the North Pole, his rounds complete. Almost.


On his way back up north, he shows up at our Christmas Day family gathering after the evening meal, pounding on the porch door, opened by one of us adults, another having disappeared into the cold, and pouring gifts into our arms, the little ones restrained by moms and others.


I was concerned that this scenario might even be coming to an end as the kids two generations down from me began to age out of being true believers. But, guess what? Our extended family celebration this year is welcoming a new set of little ones, prime for our Christmas theatrics.


And so it goes. Christmas and children go together like a sleigh and reindeer. As Charles Dickens put it: “… it is good to be children sometimes, never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”


Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays everyone.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Let's get that A out of lutAfisk...

Lutefisk serving, courtesy of Wikipedia
Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/12-10-22

Well, the holidays have arrived, ready or not. I like the holidays but there are, of course, problems with them.

I’m not talking about how busy they increasingly become, or how expensive they can be, or how much weight we can gain eating all of those holiday goodies. I’m talking about a problem largely unique to people living in areas populated by ancestors who hailed from Scandinavian countries. Like around here. Like me.


Oh, I know Finland and Denmark are Scandinavian countries, along with Sweden and Norway, in the minds of most, but my research has shown that Denmark is really sort of Germanish. (I had a grandmother from a far northern German province and the family wasn’t sure if she was German or Danish, depending on the direction of the 20th Century’s two major world wars, labeled I and II to tell them apart.)


I read once that Finland was originally populated by ancient tribes hailing from east of their spot on the map, linking them more to the steppes of Central Asia, but they are part of Scandinavia in the minds of most and Helsinki sure felt like it when I visited there once. Oh, that gollamoijaka (or however it’s spelled).


It’s complicated, and why should we care? Well, one reason is that many of our holiday traditions are handed down through the generations going all the way back to the original immigrants from the various northern European countries who populated this region.


Which raises the problem of lutefisk. We all know that lutefisk, like fruitcake, can be a holiday joke wherever it is served, like in what used to be known as our “Upper Tri-State Region” where so many Scandinavians settled. This region also used to be known as the “Northwest” until somebody pointed out where Seattle is on the U.S. map. Oops, sorry.


But it is here in the upper U.S. that lutefisk is king, and considered either a delicacy or a joke. It was served each holiday season (but not ON Christmas) in my growing-up home by my Swedish-heritage mother. My father liked it, although he was not Scandinavian at all. He considered himself Irish although his mother was from either Germany or Denmark depending on those world wars. The Irish actually have a past in Lutefisk. More on that later.


I never cared for lutefisk. Too slimy for me. But at least I know how to pronounce its name, which is the problem I cite today after this long introduction.


I have noticed that many — actually most — people around here incorrectly call it luteAfisk when the subject comes up. They do this innocently with all good intentions and no malice toward lutefisk.


But it’s time now to correct this travesty. So once and for all, it’s lutefisk — two syllables. Not luteAfisk, with that rogue A inserted, bringing the name of the food way up to three syllables. So, let’s all start at least pronouncing it correctly, whether we like lutefisk or not.


Now back to the Irish involvement in lutefisk. There are many tales of how lutefisk was invented, most of them pointing out that up in Norway or over in Sweden many centuries ago somebody took cod fish, dried it out on wooden racks, soaked it in lye for many weeks, salted it down so the lye wouldn’t kill people and cooked it up in various LutAran churches — sans the meatballs.


Now we hear the tale that none other than Irish St. Patrick is credited with employing lutefisk to poison Vikings when they raided Ireland several centuries ago. Instead of going ahead and dying, the Vikings liked it, brought the idea back home and it became a holiday staple.


This history has been brought into question by Google, when it points out that St. Patrick was driving the grasshoppers from the Emerald Isle centuries before the Vikings raided. Details, details.


Well, that’s my treatise on lutefisk. Pronounce it correctly and enjoy it while (if?) you can because it disappears in a couple of weeks. So will sylta, my favorite Scandinavian delicacy. It used to be called “head cheese” because it was made out of the brains of whatever slaughtered animals were too stupid to avoid their fate. Those old Scandinavians were frugal folk and wasted not a thing.


They don’t make sylta out of brains anymore, though, and it’s starting to show up in education results. (Yes, I know, that’s as nutty as a fruitcake.)


Well anyway, Happy Holidays, in spite of all this.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at