If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
From the book, “Christmas in Dairyland,” copyright 2003 by LeAnn R. Ralph. Most of you will recognize Ralph as our wonderful reporter, she covers most of Colfax and Dunn County for the Tribune.
COLFAX — “All right,” Mom said with a sigh. “Let’s try it again.”
For several weeks now, I had been working on learning how to sing “Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld.” (Yea Air Sa Glod Vair Yoola-kveld; just like it looks, of course.)
Fortunately, I knew the tune quite well: “I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve.”
It was singing the words in Norwegian that presented a much greater challenge. Especially since the only Norwegian I had ever heard spoken was the occasional saying uttered by my mother. Her favorite was, “if it wasn’t stolen and it didn’t burn up, it’ll turn up someday.” I didn’t know how to say it in Norwegian myself although I ought to — I had heard it often enough.
My mother was born in Wisconsin in 1916, but both of her parents were immigrants from Norway. When Mom was a little girl, they spoke only Norwegian at home.
“Whose idea was this, anyway?” I grumbled as I looked at the Norwegian words my mother had written on a sheet of notepaper. Not that seeing the words helped me very much.
“Never mind whose idea it was,” Mom said. “Please just try to learn the song, would you?”
Ever since my mother had informed me that I was going to sing “Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld” as a solo for the Sunday school Christmas program, I had been walking around with butterflies in my stomach.
I liked to sing, but to my way of thinking, there was a mighty big difference between singing in a group with the other kids and singing all by myself — in front of a whole church-full of people, too, no less.
If I could have heard Mom sing “Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld,” it might have been easier to learn. But — as my mother claimed — she couldn’t carry a tune in a tin bucket. And she was right. I had sat next to her in church many times, so I knew she wasn’t exaggerating when she said she couldn’t sing.
“Let’s try the first verse again,” Mom said.
And so we did. And the second verse. And the third verse. And a repeat of the first verse.
“No, no,” she said. “It’s not ‘ya’ like you’re saying ‘yes.’ It’s ‘yea’ — but not like you’re saying ‘yippyyyy!’— it’s got a shorter ‘a’ sound than that. And it’s not ‘sew’ like with a needle and thread. It’s ‘sa.’”
She heaved another sigh. “At this rate, it’ll be summer before you learn to sing it.”
I briefly considered pointing out that a person could really get to hate “Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld.” But then I decided it probably would be wiser not to.
By the time the night of the Christmas program arrived, my stomach felt like the butterflies had turned into caterpillars. Great big fuzzy ones that were squirming and crawling around. Up and down and back and forth. And up and down and back and forth.
“Just try to remember what I’ve told you,” Mom said, right before the program started.
As if I could forget. We had only practiced the song about a hundred times.
“Who decided that I was supposed to sing all by myself?’ I whispered.
My mother lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug. “The Sunday school superintendent,” she replied in a low voice. “Lots of people around here have Norwegian blood, so she figured maybe they would enjoy hearing ‘Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld.’”
Personally, I wasn’t convinced that anyone would enjoy hearing me sing in Norwegian. Why would they? Other than Mom, I had never heard anyone else say a single word in that particular language.
I looked around at the inside of the little white country church. All of the pews were filled, with the exception of two toward the front. Only one elderly lady sat in the front pew.
Next to the piano stood a tall spruce tree decorated with colored lights, ornaments and tinsel. The spicy smell of the spruce needles mingled with the aroma of coffee brewing downstairs that would be served with lunch when the program was finished.
Mom said I wasn’t old enough to drink coffee, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the way it smelled.
A short while later when the Sunday school superintendent stood up to introduce the first class, the murmuring voices of the congregation grew silent.
For fifteen or twenty minutes, the Christmas program went along uneventfully. Each of the Sunday school classes recited the Bible verses they had memorized and sang songs such as “Away in a Manger,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The First Noel” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
Finally, it was my turn.
On trembling legs, I walked to the front of the church and turned to face the audience.
Before I had time to figure out whether I was actually in danger of fainting, the accompanist began playing the piano.
I drew a shaky breath.
“Jeg er sa glad hver jule-kveld, for da ble Jesus fodt. Da lyste stjernen som en sol, og engler sang sa sott.”
When I reached the end of the first verse, I looked at the elderly lady in the front row. She sat only a few feet from me, and I could see tears trickling down the deeply etched lines in her face.
As I drew a deep breath and started on the second verse, the elderly lady wiped her eyes with a white handkerchief she had taken out of her purse, and then she smiled and nodded.
“Det little barn i Betlehem, han var en konge stor; som kom fra himlens hoye slott ned til var arme jord.”
Somehow I made it through the third verse, too, and then a repeat of the first verse, and then another miracle occurred, because my shaky legs were carrying me back to my chair.
After the program was finished and we had gone downstairs to eat lunch (by which time my legs had finally stopped trembling), the elderly lady from the front row stopped to speak to me.
When she smiled, her faded blue eyes lit up and small dimples appeared in her wrinkled cheeks. A jeweled brooch pinned to the front of her coat reminded me of the pin that my mother’s aunt was wearing in a picture that Mom said had been taken in Norway.
Now that I was close to the elderly lady, I could smell her black wool coat. It gave off the faint aroma of moth balls, and it smelled just like my mother’s “good” coat did for the first half of every winter, until the moth ball scent finally faded away.
“My goodness, but I haven’t heard that song in years. Mange takk… thank you,” she said, reaching out to cup my chin with a hand that looked as though it had endured many years of hard physical labor.
Then she leaned forward, put her arm around me and held me close to her for a moment.
“Mange takk” (pronounced “munga tuck”) was another phrase I had heard my mother use — it meant “many thanks.”
“Mom taught me how to sing it,” I explained.
“Oh,” she said, “I should have known that Norma would have had something to do with it.”
She smiled once again and then turned toward the kitchen where my mother was helping the other Ladies’ Aid members serve lunch. A minute later, I overheard the elderly lady carrying on a conversation in Norwegian with my mother.
It was the first time that I had ever heard Mom speak Norwegian with someone. Even though I could not understand the words, my ears really perked up when I heard my name mentioned.
As it turned out, it wasn’t until we arrived home later in the evening that I was able to ask my mother about it.
“What did that lady say?” I inquired as I unbuttoned my coat.
“What lady?” Mom replied, carefully lowering herself onto a kitchen chair so she could remove her snowboots. “There were a lot of ladies at church tonight.”
“That lady who talked Norwegian with you,” I said.
Mom bent forward to pull off one of her short black boots.
“She said that hearing ‘Jeg Er Se Glad Hver Julekveld’ was the best Christmas present she’s gotten in a long time. They used to sing it at home every Christmas Eve when she was a little girl.
“Why was she crying?” I asked.
My mother paused, looking startled. “She was crying?”
I nodded. “She cried the whole time I was singing. I even saw her take a handkerchief out of her purse so she could wipe her eyes.”
As I slipped out of my coat, I wondered what it was about “Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld” that made ladies cry because now Mom’s eyes had tears in them.
“I am so proud of you,” my mother said, holding out her arms.
I laid my coat on a chair and went over to her.
“I know you were scared to sing by yourself,” she said, as her arms closed around me, “but I hope you realize what a wonderful gift you gave to a nice lady who has worked very hard all of her life.”
I pulled back to look at her.
“There are so few of us around anymore who speak Norwegian,” my mother continued, “so I suppose she thought she’d never hear another little girl sing that song.”
“Another little girl?” I asked.
My mother nodded. “Another little girl like she was. She said you reminded her of herself.”
I had a hard time picturing the elderly woman with gray hair and wrinkled cheeks as a little girl.
“Now aren’t you glad that I taught you how to sing it?” Mom asked.
I still wasn’t sure whether I was happy that I had learned to sing “Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld.”
But I can tell you this.
Nothing would ever again make me sing it all by myself.
Not even a whole crowd of elderly Norwegian women who were as nice as the lady at church. Because just the thought of singing it again made my legs feel weak. And started the butterflies fluttering. And the caterpillars crawling.
On the other hand, I did have to admit I was wrong about one thing. I never thought anyone would like the song so much that it would make her cry. Or that she would say it was the best Christmas present she had gotten in a long time. Or that I would get a hug out of the deal.
Maybe learning how to sing “Jeg Er Sa Glad Hver Julekveld” wasn’t that bad after all.