In my family, traditions play a big role in the Christmas preparations. They have survived for generations within the extended family, and despite the disappearance of our foremothers they remain marginally unchanged as the torch is passed on to the next generation.
One family tradition that has continued year after year for as long as I can remember is the annual get-together of my mom, her sister and their children in early December.
The purpose is simple: to bake piles and piles of the crispy-but-waif-thin laufabrauð (‘leaf bread’).
I am sworn to secrecy as to never reveal the true content of the family recipe but a simple search on any search engine is enough to find several different recipes for laufabrauð.
I can however elaborate on a traditional gathering.
Up until this year, we met at my aunt’s place for the baking, flattening, carving and frying of the legendary laufabrauð.
This year, a minor geographical change was made and my cousin, a mother to four children and a gifted midwife, hosted the event at her beautiful home in Akranes.
I never participate in the actual baking part. I can cook a wicked chicken and have a very high success rate in cooking off-recipe but when it comes to baking, I am without the necessary skills required as I always stray off recipe in one way or another.
My mother, aunt and younger sister arrived at my cousin’s around half past ten on Saturday morning, during which time I had just crawled out of bed.
While they made three batches of dough, each one weighing an exact 35 grams (I think), the carving team leisurely got ready in the capital across the bay.
When my older sister, her three children and myself arrived at my cousin’s, a buffet of Christmas cookies, a carrot cake, Italian bread and the traditional serving of mandarins awaited us on the kitchen table.
After a little refill, we sat down around the dining room table, a quaint old wooden table that fits perfectly in the soft décor that is a mix of wooden furniture and ornaments. The snow-white walls light up the open space that once upon a time was three separate rooms and a kitchen.
The whole event is very relaxed and each and every family member is free to go as he or she pleases. In my family, it’s just the women, along with their children, who attend the event.
This year, the family dog carefully vacuumed the floors in between looking after the toddlers, who are still too young to actively participate in the tradition, and gave me a generous dose of her dog time when available.
When the last batch was flattened and delivered to the carving team, the frying began. This year, we inaugurated a member of the youngest generation to fry the finishing product in palm oil, as my younger sister, the mistress of the art form, has finals to prepare for and could only spend half a day with us.
Her successor was my niece, a mother, student and full-time worker who today celebrates her 21st birthday, and did a splendid job as was to be expected.
After the last batch has been fried and split in to four piles for my cousin, her mother my aunt, my mother and my older sister, we sat down to enjoy hot coffee, chocolates and Icelandic Christmas ale (a mixture of orange soda and malt).
My younger sister and I get a few pieces from my mother to take home but most of it is eaten on Christmas Eve when the immediate family celebrates Christmas.
This year, each pile contained 20 pieces, of which I received three.
I am actually not a big fan of laufabrauð but the tradition is one that I cherish. I will never be anymore than a carver whereas both my sisters and mother are far more active in all stages of the production.
I suspect in the years to come, this tradition will continue and the primary organizers will be my sisters and cousin.
I was particularly happy with my carving this year, and with each year I hope to improve my carving skills a little more. The vast improvement from a few years ago to now is at least noticeable.
Traditions such as these are what give the holiday season its true meaning. Whether we believe in Jesus, the Santa Claus or nothing at all, it is the season to be jolly together. It is the season to crack a smile when snow falls and the days are short.
The gathering is a wonderful opportunity to see my aunt and discuss our mutual passion, literature.
It is an opportunity to see my cousin, whom I rarely see these days with our busy schedules and distances between.
It is the perfect opportunity to share a ride with my older sister whom I also see far too seldom considering we both live in Reykjavík, albeit at opposite ends.
It is an opportunity to see my mother and younger sister, both of whom I’ve also not seen enough of lately. If for no other purpose, these little Christmas traditions bring the family closer if only momentarily.
With a family of my own (husband and a puppy girl), new traditions are born, one being that we also celebrate South African traditions and have our own Christmas on Christmas Day. Therefore, I only see my mother’s siblings and their descendents for an hour or two at the annual family Christmas party.
In my mind, this tradition is set in stone as the one tradition where I know I have at least a day with a family I genuinely wished I saw more often.
Text & Photos: Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]
Júlíana is a freelance writer and translator. She was among contributing writers in the Reykjavík edition of World Film Locations and translated Iceland 360°, a photography book by Vilhelm Gunnarsson. She is currently working on her first novel as part of her MA studies and loves to travel when she’s not spending time with her husband and puppy Emma.