by Pia K. Hansen

I moved to the United States from Denmark in the summer of 1991. I'd never been here before but expected my stay to be of some length -- as in at least a couple of years -- and to be much like a long vacation. The Immigration and Naturalization Service framed my future life clearly: I couldn't work, I couldn't go to school, I couldn't start a business -- but I could spend my days by the pool, shopping at the mall and cooking elaborate dinners for the new friends we made.

I love to cook, and what are holiday traditions about if not about the food you eat? To me, food -- along with a few other things -- is the essence of life. My family has always celebrated birthdays, Easter, New Year's and especially Christmas with certain menus prepared in certain ways, and I do my best to carry on that tradition even this far from home.

We're all about: "No Christmas without Aunt Bee's spice cookies..."

Or: "Oh no! We can't have that for lunch on Christmas day. We've got to drive the 30 miles out to the coast and get fresh shrimp."

Or: "What do you mean store-bought cookies? I don't understand... you don't like my butter cookies?"

Or: "Marzipan. We've got to have marzipan, and we have to make it from scratch. It'll only take a day or two."

And nowhere was the concern about Christmas comestibles as strong as when the discussion turned to meat. For generations the battle raged: should we have pork roast or duck for Christmas? Or maybe both? The younger generation was for the pork roast, because it could be picked up at the store and was relatively easy to prepare. And it didn't contain any shotgun pellets because it hadn't been shot... I mean, not shot like a duck, out in the wild, with a shotgun.

The argument ended when my dad started raising his own free-range geese. Since then we've had goose.

But there I was in late December in the chaos of Christmas-

decorated, van-populated, suburban Maryland. It's illegal to

import a goose -- dead or alive, organic or hormone-

pumped -- so that was out of the question.

My newly acquired, yet also Danish husband was from a pork roast family, so I went looking for a nice roast and here's the kicker: it had to have the rind still on it. In Denmark, your reputation as a decent wife and Mom is pretty much determined by whether you can cook the roast to moist perfection, and at the same time keep the rind crisp and bubbly.

Yes, I know how to do that, but I couldn't find a single butcher who'd sell me a roast with the skin still on it. Can you imagine the horror? I'm making the first Christmas dinner for the love of my life, and I can't get a decent slab of meat? In certain countries, I'm sure that's grounds for divorce. Or stoning.

No, the butcher said, that's against health regulations. No, the other butcher said, you can't order one. No, they said at Safeway, we've never heard of that.

And that's how it all started. From then on my Christmas has turned into a strange mixture of American and Danish traditions. In some ways Christmas has become better this way, because I have been able to sort through our traditions and hold onto the ones I like and discharge the ones that were ridiculous.

All right, so I abandoned the pork roast and proudly replaced it with that American bird of birds: a corn-fed turkey. Yet the bird is still served with the traditional Danish side dishes of butter-glazed potatoes, gravy, red cabbage and poached apples. And I still make the rice and almond pudding for dessert, in which an entire whole almond is hidden (the finder gets a special present).

For the traditional jule frokost (very big Christmas lunch) on Christmas Day, I found myself searching for pickled herring, blood sausage (I swear, that's my husband's idea) and pork liver pate. And hard dark rye bread and fresh head cheese. It's not easy being an immigrant -- it's incredible how little understanding and empathy you get at the store when you ask for delicacies like this. Some of the clerks look like they are going to throw up.

So as the years have passed, I've resigned to making most of this stuff myself -- except the blood sausage. That's just too cruel and unusual. I mean, it's not Dracula we're celebrating, right?

Aside from the food, there were also certain logistical issues

we needed to address, at least after our son was born. The

thing is, we celebrate Christmas on the 24th in the evening

(on the 25th,, like most other Americans, we just eat all day). The obvious problem is Santa's schedule: how's he going to make it on the 24th at our house? Huh, mom? Huh?

Well, he still drops presents off overnight -- but there's only one gift for everyone in the household on Christmas morning. Some of the other presents are taken care off by the elf (no relation to Uncle Santa) and we get those on Christmas Eve.

The elf? Yes, many Danish households have elves, and the elf travels with you when you move (ours has got quite a few frequent flier miles). The elf lives in the attic and is usually somewhere between 600 and 800 years old. He'll help out in all sorts of ways like feeding the animals during a blizzard or putting out fires that have started in unattended haystacks. But you've got to keep him happy. He's got all sorts of magical powers, so he can really screw things up for you. Considering he is less than a foot tall, he's a lot of trouble if he's mad. To keep him happy, you feed him once a year, on Christmas Eve. He gets one big dish full of rice pudding and a large glass of dark beer, and he's good to go until next Christmas. Our elf has been really happy the last couple of years. If we put our socks up early, he'll drop in a little something every Sunday in December.

So we got the elf and big old Santa coordinated -- but for the next nine years, we messed up royally on the tree.

I'm used to buying the tree on December 23rd -- also known as Little Christmas Eve. The adults get the tree and in some households they are also the ones doing all the decorating. The kids have to wait until the afternoon -- or even the evening -- on the 24th before they see it.

Ever tried buying a Christmas tree on December 23? There's about two left in the lot: the one with the big bald spot and the one that has two tops. I don't know why it took us so long to smarten up, but last year we finally caved in and got our tree a whole week before Christmas. Whoa. That was daring. This year we may try getting one as many as two weeks ahead.

And then there's the matter with the candles. My tree has to have real live candles on it. Several friends have threatened to call my home insurance company, but really, no Christmas Eve without real candles. For convenience, I add strings of white electrical lights we use up until the big day.

Along the way we have also created a few new traditions of our own. On the evening of the 23rd, we always have a Christmas open house where friends come by for Gl & oslash;gg (spiced red wine, served hot) and & aelig;bleskiver (little ball-shaped pancakes) served with jam and powdered sugar. We also usually make a gingerbread house, a three-day project we begin in the days after Thanksgiving. And we've adopted the big American breakfast on Christmas morning, complete with bacon and eggs, French toast and lots of coffee. Later in the day, the menu consists of cold leftover turkey and Waldorf salad.

I guess with everything taken into consideration, we have slowly built the best Christmas we can imagine, borrowing a little here, sharing a little there and bringing most from our home country. Except the blood sausage -- and there's only one person at my house who misses that!

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