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A somewhat smelly Christmas for the Swedes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Chris Lee   

Not many people enjoy spending an entire day getting a holiday meal ready in the kitchen only to have the house smell like stinky fish. But for Swedish families, a fishy house is just part of the Christmas holiday.

The culprit, Lutefisk, a traditional dish of the Nordic countries and parts of the Midwestern United States. Lutefisk is made from stockfish (air-dried whitefish) or dried/salted whitefish and lye.

Ulene Sagehorn remembers her mother, Hannah Swedberg, fixing Lutefisk as part of every Christmas meal. She also recalls many other family traditions, some of which, she still carries on today.

The process of preparing Lutefisk isn’t done in just one day. The fish arrives dry and needs to be soaked for days at a time in advance.

“It has a strong odor,” Sagehorn said. “By the time you get it fixed for Christmas dinner, it isn’t that way.”



This Lutefisk “license” is proudly displayed in Ulene Sagehorn’s
kitchen. Although it’s not an official license, Sagehorn knows the
ins and outs of preparing Lutefisk for a Christmas meal.  
—Enterprise photo


The fish is purchased dried and a saw is used to saw it up, just as one would saw a board. Next, the fish is washed and put into water to soak for five-six days.

After the initial soak, the fish is taken out of the water, washed and soaked again for four-five days in water and sal-soda, a carbonate of soda. It is then placed in clean water and soaked for about a week, with the water getting changed every day.

After all the soaking, the color turns from yellow to white.

Next, the Lutefisk is cooked in the oven or on the stove. Sagehorn said it must be put in cheesecloth if cooked on the stove because it will fall apart.

Once finished, the meat can be picked off the bones. A white sauce is made and lastly the creation can be served with mashed potatoes or as a side dish with salt and pepper.

Some people even like it with mustard, according to Sagehorn.

Other Swedish family traditions Sagehorn remembers growing up include such goodies as cookies, turkey and deserts. Cookies were made each and every year by her mother. Sugar, ginger, oatmeal and spritz were just a few.

A common part of any Christmas meal is the turkey. Sagehorn’s family raised their own turkeys and prepared one every year. She remembers the turkey being placed in the grainery after it was dressed so it would keep cool since they didn’t have a refrigerator.

Ost kaka was a piece of the meal that was never forgotten in Sagehorn’s home. Ost is cheese and kaka is cake, Sagehorn said. However, it’s not like a normal cheesecake, it’s more custard-like, Sagehorn said. It is topped with whipped cream and Lingonberries or strawberries. Lingonberries grow in Sweden, Newfoundland and Norway.

Knäckebröd and pickled herring are two other dishes that were prepared for the holiday meal. Knäckebröd, or a flat and dry type of bread made with rye, wasn’t one of Sagehorn’s favorites.



Ulene Sagehorn lines the doorways in her home with Christmas cards
received from friends and family each holiday season. The tradition
has been carried over from her childhood. She has many unique cards
that have been sent from Sweden that she likes to hang on to.  
—Enterprise photo


Christmas morning would begin with Julotta, an early morning Swedish Christmas service. It was the most popular church service but now Midnight Mass has become more popular around the United States.

Julotta was held at 5 a.m. but today it is held at 7 a.m. at Fairfield Church. Sagehorn remembers her father, John, always attending Julotta. She attended when she was a little older, she recalls.

Sagehorn remembers decorations such as greenery covering both the doors and windows around the house. Also, Christmas cards and photos were taped to door frames for people to enjoy throughout the holiday season. The photos usually remained hung until the next batch of photos were received a year later. Cards came down sometime in January.

The family tree was always decorated with old family ornaments, many of which Sagehorn still uses on her tree today. The family also remembered to mail off a card to family in Sweden as well as other friends and family.

Christmas Day was spent with her mother’s sister and family. It was never a large gathering and the families traded off hosting Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Sagehorn plans to spend this Christmas with family as well as carry on a Swedish tradition with Lutefisk. She said her granddaughter, Elisa, is excited to come home from college to help prepare the smelly food this year!