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Three score and ten or more

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christmas Ham

Christmas Ham
I said at the conclusion of my last post that I was going to tell the story of my production of Rebel Without a Cause at Twin Falls High School In 1959. I lied. Actually I will tell the story sometime, but I was caught up in the season and decided to try a different tack.

In 1966 or 67 (I could look it up, but I am a bit lazy tonight) I packed up my family (four boys, the youngest was just under a year old, the oldest almost eight) and went to Finland on a Fulbright-Hayes grant to complete my dissertation, which involved a translation of one of the great plays of Finnish literature, some productions of it, and –other stuff. To be honest, I had finished my dissertation the previous spring, but when the Fulbright grant came through, I scrapped the last half of it and went to Finland to work in the Finnish National Theatre, and at the offices and archives of the Aleksis Kivi Association. There are lots of things that happened there in Finland that I could write about, but I am going to stick to a couple of Christmas experiences. I must start out by noting that we lived in a multi-story apartment complex in Puotila, a suburb of Helsinki. By the time Christmas came along, we had adopted a fifth child, an exquisitely beautiful little half-gypsy girl, through the good offices of the Save the Children Federation. I probably will write about a several Christmas experiences before the season is over, but I will mention only two.

Since our new daughter had been born within a couple of months of our youngest son, we called them the “twins” and bought one of these “twin” strollers to provide mobility.
One day we packed up the children for a walk (In Finland, at that time, you became a walker almost by default) down to the little group of stores that served our apartment complex and the two that were next to us. As we approached the little shopping center, our three year old began pulling at my hand and chanting, Santa, Santa, Santa, (actually, I think he was using the word Joulupukki which technically means Christmas goat, but which is the Finnish word for Santa.) I thought he was just excited about the season, but finally I looked in the direction he was pulling me and coming down the road, in a sleigh, with only one reindeer (and though Clement Moore said “tiny reindeer” there is not much tiny about a Finnish reindeer). Santa arrived at the little “shopping center” just as we did. He had two or three little passengers in the sleigh, and they all jumped out into the arms of their parents as they arrived. There was a lot of sleigh bell ringing as Santa got out of the sleigh, patted the reindeer and fed it some hay. He then turned to our three year old, extended his hand to the boy and said, in Finnish, “Would you like to have a ride in my sleigh?”. Ryan backed up a little and grabbed my leg, but as I translated the message he excitedly went to Santa and jumped up in the sleigh. I actually can’t remember if the other boys went too. If they were with us, I’m sure they did, but the oldest may have been in school, and I don’t remember the second son’s participation very well. I just remember that three year old, glowing and grinning and bouncing up and down on the seat. The “twins” were too young to go by themselves, but they held out some hay for the reindeer from their seats in the stroller and were also excited as the reindeer snacked from their hands. There were some local children who got up to ride, and Ryan, after I convinced him that he should quit bouncing on the seat, went out and rode around the block in Santa’s sleigh. It was quite wonderful.

A different experience involved an article in the Helsingin Sanomat, the local newspaper.
They had one of these pre-Christmas stories that every newspaper has about the people in the city who were going to have a sparse Christmas. One elderly man who was quoted in the newspaper complained that things were so difficult that year that he and his family were not going to have a Christmas Ham (The Finns in those years weren’t big on turkeys or geese, ham was the generic Christmas dish, and Finnish ham is really remarkable anyway.) I read that to my family, and they universally decided that we had to get that man a Christmas Ham.

I called the newspaper office to see if I could get the man’s name and address, which they refused, but when I went there personally, and pointed out that I had given one of their reporters a lengthy interview a month before, and I told them our motive, they gave me the name and address of the man.

We bought the largest ham that we could afford, and plotted our trip to the man’s house early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. (Christmas Eve is when everything “Christmas” happens in Finland). We bundled the children up in their warm clothes and then took the streetcar to the closest stop. As we got out of the streetcar, the conductor expressed reservations about these Americans who were taking their children into, what he described as, a “huono” or bad neighborhood. I felt like we would be fine and told him so, then we started walking. The temperature was WAY below freezing, (as it usually in during a Finnish December) and we walked for close to a mile before we even reached the right street. I will have to tell you that, for the children, the romance of our good deed had pretty much deteriorated even before we arrived at the street, and we still had to walk a couple of blocks to the address. When we arrived we debated how to do this. We thought about just placing the ham on the porch and leaving, but we decided that, if the man weren’t at home, the ham could end up eaten by local dogs. We finally decided to put the ham on the porch, ring the bell, and walk a little distance away to see if the door was answered, and if someone came to the door we would just be walking away as if we didn’t know a thing.

Now doorbells in Finland at that time were mostly not electric, it was not just push a button and run. The doorbells were round bells fastened to the inside of the door, and the doorbell was rung by twisting a butterfly shaped knob that was connected to the center of the door. With the children and Janet down on the sidewalk, I placed the ham next to the door and twisted the button. Before I could retreat, or even breathe, or for that matter stand up straight, the door jerked open and there inside was a skinny red faced man with white hair and some sort of a cudgel in his hand. “What do you want?” he shouted, then he proceeded to inform us that he had been watching through the window as we stood in front of his house, and he was sure we weren’t the kind of people who lived in his neighborhood. I backed slowly away, and pointed to the ham. I told him that we hadn’t planned to disturb him but that we had read his comments in the Sanomat, and had determined that he should have a ham for Christmas. He became redder in the face, picked up the ham and shook it at me screaming a bunch of things that, even though I was very fluent in Finnish at the time, I didn’t fully understand (I suspect that he was using language that I wouldn’t have wanted my children to hear, if it had been in English). I got the gist, that I didn’t need to think that the Finns were so poor or so lacking in pride that they had to take charity from rich Americans (Oh if he had only known the truth about rich doctoral candidates), then he threw the ham at me and slammed the door. Janet and the children were absolutely crestfallen. They couldn’t understand much of what he said, but they got the point. If they hadn’t been standing there, freezing, I don’t think that they would have been so disappointed. I grinned and said something on the order of “Well, it looks like we have a nice ham for Christmas.” And Jan pointed out that we had our Christmas Eve dinner all fixed at home and that the ham was supposed to be a gift. We walked disconsolately but quickly back to the streetcar stop, and when we got there, waited in the cold for the next car. When it came, after we had everyone aboard, I explained to the conductor what had happened, and asked him if he knew of a charity that could use a big ham. He knew of one that was on our route home, so he stopped at the place (I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was the Salvation Army) and held the car in place until I could go in and give them the ham.

We rode the streetcar home, went up to our apartment to wait for Santa’s arrival (He comes to visit the children on Christmas Eve, and gives presents to all, it is quite a ceremony.) It was then, I think, that our children, as they thawed, learned that no good deed goes unpunished.


At 10:38 PM, Blogger Thotman said...

honestly this blog was so great...no good turn goes unpunished has long been a motto that makes me feel better when a lot of effort turns to disaster...
I love stories like this because they are so true to life...and teach us lessons unlike the ones that end up in church magazines where there are tears and warm fuzzies...actually I think what you described is by far the most memorable...and something that made you realize yet again that its not in the result but in the effort that we become the "our best selves" we can recall...never been to finland but I loved Kari Limo...byu basketball...and have spent my share of time navigating the various 5 points in TWIN....thanks for this great story...yesterday I found a ham on our front lawn...obvously left for a neighbor, but who never saw it cause of the "roming dogs" you mentioned...the utah kind tho...

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

He may have taken the ham if you had been an agent of the socialist government.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

Thotman, Thanks for coming by. I have admired your blog for a long time. I never knew Kari Limo. When he came along I was long gone from both Finland and Utah, but he was a logical extension of the system. I don't know if you know that basketball was first introduced to Finland by Mormon Missionaries. The coach of the Finnish Olympic team in 1952 was a missionary elder, and when I went there as a missionary in 1954, the two primary ways to go to Finland were:
1. Be a good college basketball player, particulary at U of U or BYU, because the LDS had a team in the Rinnish National league. or
2. Have a background in the Russian language (some of the people in the missionary office had the mistaken idea that Russian was related to Finnish. (I got in in the latter category. If my missionary work had been dependent on hand-eye coordination, I would have been a missionary to a hospital for the physically disabled.

Patrick, I wouldn't be surprised at the truth of your comment.


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