by Leah on December 21, 2012

By Leah Odze Epstein

Every year, I look forward to celebrating Swedish Christmas with my extended family. We’ve been celebrating with the same family friends for years, and each year we alternate homes.

At both houses, the night before Christmas, we have an elaborate, multi-course meal, and this is how it goes: First comes the cheese and herring course. My favorite part is the Wasa bread crackers topped with a thin slice of Vasterboten cheese and a few dilled cucumber slices soaked in white vinegar. I also love the hard-boiled eggs, but I take the squeeze caviar off the top. Then comes the piece-de-resistance: the meatballs with lingonberry sauce, the salami with mustard, the potatoes with sour cream and the stuffed cabbage, caramelized with molasses. Following that, the hostess brings out Swedish ham, a  casserole called Jansson’s frestelse, which I loved until I found out it contained anchovies along with the potatoes and cream, and spare ribs. If you’re not too stuffed after that, there’s dessert—pepparkakor (gingersnaps), Cardamom cake, coconut macaroons, Swedish style, and assorted cookies, plus coffee and tea.

And then we open presents.

There are benefits to being at each house, but at our friend’s house, I look forward to hearing the Jackson Five Christmas album every year (now a CD—that’s how long we’ve been doing this). My husband and sister? They look forward to the Aquavit.

Did I forget to mention the Aquavit? In between bites, little shot glasses of the chilled liquor are served, and everyone who partakes raises his or her glass and says, “Ja, skal,” which basically means “Yes, I toast you,” (Or yes, I’m toasted) as far as I can make out.

In case you don’t know, Aquavit is alcohol distilled either from grain or potatoes. It is usually flavored with caraway seeds, and can taste like rye bread, but it can also come flavored with anise, coriander, dill, fennel or paradise (pungent and peppery).

Here’s the weird thing: I’ve never tasted it.

Granted, it’s generally only on the table at our friend’s house, though sometimes they smuggle a bottle into my parent’s house. Since my mom stopped drinking back in the 70s, we haven’t had much liquor in our house. It makes my mom uncomfortable.

My husband took to the ja-skal-ing right away, joining in with gusto, clinking glasses with my sister and our family friends while I looked on, slightly envious. It’s not that I don’t like Aquavit—it’s never even crossed my lips.

So why don’t I partake? I honestly can’t say for sure, but I think it has something to do with being the daughter of an alcoholic, and being THE ONE IN CONTROL. Each person in a family plays a role, and mine has always been (at least in my eyes) to be the one who keeps it together. The Good One. The Temperate One.

Multiple shots of Aquavit can make you silly. Giddy. Out of control.

Multiple shots of Aquavit look kind of fun.

I’m thinking maybe this will be the year I try Aquavit, the year I whisper in my own ear—“It’s okay to ease up, just a little bit.” The roles we play are self-imposed. No one ever told me not to drink the Aquavit. I made that arbitrary rule myself.

“Ja, skal!

Note: This post originally ran in 2010, before I tasted the Aquavit at our table. I can now happily report that I have tasted it–but just a few sips. This year, I swear I will loosen up and have at least a full shot so I can skal with the best of them! (Update to follow). 

Leah Odze Epstein is the co-editor of Drinking Diaries and writes fiction for young adults and tweens.

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