Lyssna, Lyssna, Kalle Anke

by Elder M. Lindahl

Special sentiments surround us all during the Christmas holidays. As Christian families gather in their homes and churches, traditional customs, foods, carols, and rituals are in evidence. Old memories flood.in, and we sing, or at least think to ourselves, “It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.”

I’m sure we all wonder at times just what are the authentic traditions of the Holy Season? In thoughtful moods, we try to sort out the genuine from the many commercial manipulations of Christmas. At times, however, the difference between the real worship of the baby Jesus, God incarnate, and the trappings—the Jul tree, gifts, and smorgasbords—becomes clear when the authentic appears.

In my home Church, Grace Covenant in Stambaugh, Michigan, founded by Läsare (readers) in 1883, we have always had a good music tradition. We sang the old pietist songs in Swedish into the 1940s. Some of the young people in our church then were bilingual; others like me, though we couldn’t “speak Swede,” could sing it.

Proof that the Holy Season had in fact arrived came especially from the singing of two songs. One, which the congregation in my day at least would sing only at Julotta on Christmas Day morning, was “Var hälsad, sköna morgonstund, Som af profeters helga mun är oss bebädad vorden . . .” (Sions Basun, #39, “All Hail to Thee Oh Blessed Morn,” The Covenant Hymnal, #124). I remember the time when a newly-installed pastor of our church led the worship and announced this hymn on one of the Sundays preceding Christmas morning. We were stunned—it was simply beyond us, unthinkable, in bad taste—and no one sang. Our dismayed pastor found that it is a tough one to do as a solo.

The other song, which for us in our authentic Swedish Christmas tradition was sung by the men’s chorus at Julotta in a quiet, joyful, mysterious, expectant way, was “Lyssna, Lyssna! hör du änglasängen? Lyssna, Lyssna, Ära vare Gud . . .” (“Listen, Listen! Do you hear the angel’s song? Listen, Listen, glory be to God,” words and music by John Holstedt). My personal contact with angels was never, before or after, so close as it was on those dark, cold, snowy Christmas mornings. Though barely able to keep my eyes open, I knew in a profound way that Christmas morning was unlike any other morning of the year.

During a sabbatical in Sweden in 1963-64, with some careful planning and furious driving in left-hand traffic, I had the unusual opportunity to attend three Julottas on the same Christmas morning —in Gamla (old) Uppsala, at the Cathedral in Uppsala, and at the Covenant Church in Uppsala. I am not certain of the order or exact hours of the services, but I think the first was at 5 am, the second at 6 am, and the last at 7 am. (Should I ever try to enter this (dubious feat into the Guinness Book of World Records, I’ll have to be more precise.) What struck me that. morning was the absence of Lyssna at each service! Three times I plodded through Var Hälsad (All Hail), but where in the world, or, the heavens, were the angels?

My perplexity became ·even greater when our good Swedish friends, even after my attempts to sing it for them, confessed th.at they had never heard of the song! I can now, on the basis of further personal experience, report that Lyssna was not sung at the Julotta service we attended at Sophia Kyrkan in Jonköping, Christmas morning, 1988. More extensive research, I am confident, will support the sad conclusion that the Swedes celebrate Christmas without the joyful notes and lyrics of Lyssna. Hur kan det vara? (How can it be?)

Many of the Swedish Christmas traditions, however, are similar to our Swedish-American ones. The usual preparations of shopping, cleaning, and baking are followed. The first Sunday in Advent is celebrated with the lighting of an advent candle and special music. On December 13, Santa Lucia Day, young girls serve early morning coffee and cakes to commemorate a Sicilian maiden who gave her life for the Faith. Special music, foods, and rituals mark the other Sundays in advent.

Still, I found that none of the expected traditional activities or customs really give Swedes absolute proof that the Holy Season has arrived. The authentic Christmas event for Swedes of all ages and all faiths or lack thereof, from Kiruna to Malmö, from Öland to Göteborg, bypassing no place in between, comes in the form of a television offering—a Donald Duck program shown annually without fail from 3 pm to 5 pm on Christmas Eve. No Swede, unless there has been some terrible emergency or some such thing, would fail to be watching because, when Kalle Anke (that is, Donald Duck) appears on the tube, Christmas has come! The Duck is big, he’s right in there with trolls, Jultomten (Santa), lute fisk, julkorv (Christmas sausage), stjärngossar (star boys), and doppa pä grissen (dip in the pot).

Thure Stenström, in a tongue-in-cheek article in Svenska Dagbladet, February 1, 1991, contends that the Duck plays an essential role even in Swedish identity as such. He asks:

What is it that is authentically and is altogether genuinely Swedish and that exists in Sweden and in no other place, that we would be able to contribute, in case we—at some time during the next millennium, or at some time thereafter—happen to enter the European Common Market?) . . . . The moment I reflect on this (the question of Swedish identity), whether I am in high or low spirits, the first thing that comes to mind is Donald Duck on Christmas Eve. Swedish children will agree with me on this . . .

Disney certainly has made his mark on our American culture, and we can understand his wider impact on Europeans. Children of all ages enjoy the clean, romantic adventures of the animated kingdoms. Swedes are no exception.

I asked my friend, Kurt Mathiasson, Swedish restauranteur, historian, and authority on Scandinavian culture and folklore, how the Kalle Anke thing really got started. His answer, not as profound as usual, was that Swedish TV has a limited fare and that they just happened to fill an empty two hours one Christmas Eve with some Disney material. Children, bored prior to opening gifts, picked up on it, and a firm tradition was born. Other Swedes I have questioned have little to add. Whether or not there is a better explanation of the origins of the tradition, there is no question that Kalle Anke means Christmas and Christmas means Kalle Anke.

But the adventures of Kalle Anke or the sounds of Lyssna are only surface ripples that appear and disappear, that surprise us at Christmas as much by their presence as by their absence. Be it the quack-like sound of a human voice, or the fervent strains of pietists singing, or something else that signals for us the start of the festivities, it is the message of the angelic choir that arrests, surprises, and calls us to consider anew the Prince of Peace. The presence or absence of the Christ Child in our Holiday Season is what determines finally the difference between authentic and inauthentic Christmas traditions.