My great-great-grandfather grew up near Fortun, in Norway. Three families owned the entire valley, so he would have been a tenant farmer, a day-laborer, or a servant. Since he could not marry into one of the three land-owning families, he had no way to raise his station in life or make more money. In the 1850’s he came to Vernon County, Wisconsin, where he worked hard as a laborer on dairy farms, starting his days at 4 am milking the cows by hand. He saved his money, so that my great-grandfather could own his own farm. They ran the farm, said their prayers, and sang their hymns in Norwegian.
By the time of my grandmother, they spoke Norwegian on the farm and in church, but mostly English everywhere else. By the time of my mother, she could say the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian but was an English major as the first member of her family to go to college.
One of my regrets is that I did not learn more Norwegian from my grandmother and great aunt. Now the only Norwegian words I know are the names of food. I think that is why making Norwegian cookies at Christmas is so special to me, because it is something that connects me to my ancestors. Like Proust’s petite madeleine, one bite of a Norwegian spritz cookie brings back my memories of Christmas.
With only three percent of Norway’s land good enough to farm, and very few industrial jobs, thousands of young people were forced to emigrate to find work and feed their families. Between 1820 and 1920 more than 730,000 people emigrated from Norway to the United States. This meant that Norway had lost a larger proportion of her total population by immigration to America than any other European country except Ireland.1
When my ancestors came from Norway, the men brought their knowledge of caring for cows and the women brought their knowledge of how to cook with butter. Over the generations, this is what has stayed in the family. The best time of the year was the weeks before Christmas when we would make cookies and hear the stories of growing up in rural Wisconsin, like commuting to school on cross-country skis. No car pools for them!
We would make spritz cookies shaped like wreaths or Christmas trees, buttery sandbakkels, or Norwegian krumkake rolled into fragile cones. These would take hours to make, because you made a simple batter, ladled it on your special krumkake iron, cooked it 45 seconds on the first side, and then flipped it to cook 30 seconds on the second side. Then you rolled it up on the handle of a wooden spoon.
I am blessed to have a few things my ancestors brought from Norway: the family Bible and a small trunk, as well as a basket made in Wisconsin that I still use for church pot lucks. The photo above shows Norwegians in Wisconsin at a church picnic sometime after 1873. So they would look much like my great-grandparents. The basket on the right is just like the one I use now. Things like this basket and making Christmas cookies help me to remember that at one time my ancestors came to America as laborers, willing to work hard to make a better life for our family. We knew how it felt to be a stranger in a strange land. At this time of the year, I hope that our memories remind us that it is time to show generosity to newcomers and hospitality to strangers.1. Norwegians in Wisconsin by Richard J. Fapso. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1977. Photo Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 2371, Norwegian Community Picnic 1873(after) by Andreas Larsen Dahl, 1844-1923 Joan Flanagan is the fundraiser for the Center for New Community. As a child, she enjoyed her summer vacations on a dairy farm in Vernon County.