It was Mørketid according to Kristen’s father. The dark time, as they had called it in the old country, when the sun showed its face for only an hour or two each day. But for Kristen it was Christmastime. Every door that she opened on the Advent calendar brought her a day closer to Christmas, that magical time, the night when they lit the candles on the tree, Midnight Mass, then Christmas morning when they opened presents and she found her stocking laden with little gifts. This year, she had written a letter to Santa asking for a real horse. Every night, and often during the day, she dreamed of her little pony in the stable in the barn.
But then things had changed. The first week of December, Kristen’s mother had taken ill and a few days later, she had to go into the hospital in town. Then to the big hospital in the city. Kristen’s father was frazzled trying to keep up with his job, taking care of the house and driving into the city. Kristen did what she could, getting herself up and to school by herself, doing the dishes, cleaning the house. She had even tried to cook a meal but that hadn’t turned out too well.
And now, Christmas was close. Only three more days of school, then it would be vacation. Her father had suggested that she go stay with her cousins, but they lived far away and Kristen wanted to be near her parents.
“Well, there won’t be any Christmas here,” he warned her. “Just Mørketid. I don’t want to hear any grumbling.”
“That’s okay,” Kristen assured him. “I don’t believe in Santa anymore and we can have turkey when Mom is better. I just want to be near you and Mom.”
The day after school ended, Kristen went with her father into the city. She barely noticed the bright lights and the big tree in the plaza. She did not look at the decorated store windows. Her mind was only on her mother. When she saw her, she could not speak. Her mother lay pale, semi-conscious on the stark white hospital bed. She managed a wan smile for her daughter but could not speak. Kristen took her hand. It was cold. She wished she could climb into the bed with her mother and warm her body. But there were tubes surrounding her. And a nurse bustled in and began to change the tubes, turn her mother, talking all the while. Kristen shrank away and stood against the wall in the dark corner. Her father sat helplessly in a chair by the bed. He looked old and weary. Why didn’t he do something, Kristen wondered angrily. Why didn’t he make her mother feel better?
“I must be growing up,” she thought to herself. “I always thought my father could do anything, like he was Santa or a superhero. But now I see he’s just a person and he is as helpless here as I am. He belongs in the woods, on his snowplow. Here he is a nobody.”
She fought the tears that bleared her sight.
Kristen and her father drove home in silence. He offered to take her to dinner in the city but she declined. She just wanted to get home. So they stopped at a drive through for a hamburger and drove home as fast as possible on the snowy highway.
“It looks like I’ll have to work tonight,” he told her. “The snow is coming down pretty fast.”
“But you are tired, Daddy. You can’t work tonight.”
“It is my shift,” he answered. “And there is no one to take my place. If I don’t work, the roads won’t get plowed.”
“Let them stay like that,” she pleaded. “Then maybe everyone will stay home.”
“And what if a woman goes into labor?” he asked sternly. “Or someone needs an ambulance?”
She shrugged in silence. She knew he took his job seriously.
He dropped her off at the house and went immediately to his job site. Kristen entered the cold, dark house, took off her jacket and sat in the dark awhile. She could watch TV, if just to hear another voice, or she could begin her vacation homework, or she could message her friends. But she didn’t feel like doing any of these things. She heard a ping from the computer and went to check her email. There was a message from her grandmother in Norway.
“Here it is mørketid,” her grandmother wrote. “But we are used to it. The snow is high and beautiful. We have brought in our tree and decorated it. Tonight I am baking cookies. I wish you could be here, kjaere. Give your mother my love and tell her I hope she gets better soon.”
Kristen barely remembered her grandmother. Kristen had moved with her mother to be with her father in North Dakota when Kristen was only five. When she was seven, her grandmother had visited them. Then her husband had died and she said she didn’t want to travel alone. But why was she so cheerful, when she had no husband anymore? Kristen felt she would never be cheerful again if anything happened to her mother. Her grandmother had gotten a dog, then a young woman moved in to help with the chores. And that seemed to work well.
Well, if her grandmother could be cheerful, then she would be too, Kristen decided. She replied to her grandmother, then went down into the basement. Here she found the boxes of decorations and lugged them upstairs. She pulled out the lights. It was her father’s job to untangle them. Kristen shrugged. It would be her job tonight. Awhile later, she had finally gotten the lights untangled and they lay strung out on the rug. She found the special clips and with the stepladder, she was able to string a strand around the doorway. Then she wound another string around the front window. Their light would greet her father when he returned.
Kristen suddenly remembered the tree. They had gone into the forest and cut it themselves the day before her mother fell ill. Her father had leaned it against the shed saying they would bring it in the next day. Instead, he had spent the next day and night tending to her mother then finally taking her into town to the hospital. The tree was forgotten. Kristen wasn’t sure she wanted to see the tree. A part of her blamed it for her mother’s illness, but she knew that was just a silly thought. The tree had nothing to do with it. So she put on her jacket and boots, took a flashlight and went into the snowy night. It really was a beautiful night, she thought. Cold and quiet. But tonight, the quiet made her feel alone. She hurried to the shed, found the tree, shook off the snow, and dragged it to the door. It was a large tree and she had trouble getting it into the house. How would she ever get it into the stand? Her mother and father always did that together, laughing as it tilted first this way then that. And sometimes arguing, her father cursing.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” her father always said. And he told her stories about his childhood in Norway and the tough Norwegians who never let anything stand in their way. She would find a way, she decided. And if not, well at least she would have tried.
An hour later, Kristen had to admit defeat. She made herself a cup of instant cocoa and turned on the television. Then she fell asleep.
Hours later, Kristen awakened to stamping on the porch. Her father came in, shaking the snow off his clothes, making no attempt to be quiet. Kristen immediately sensed that he was in a bad mood. She jumped up to help him hang up his clothes.
“It’s a mess out there,” he grumbled. “Idiots on the roads. Dressed in street clothes, without snow tires, skidding all over the place, cursing me because I didn’t plow the road soon enough.”
He stomped into the kitchen. He didn’t even see the Christmas lights, she thought. Perhaps she should turn them out. But she liked them; they made her feel better. She decided not to follow her father into the kitchen and instead went to bed. “Good night, mother,” she whispered in the darkness. “I hope you get better soon.” And to herself, she added, “because I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.”
Early in the morning, Kristen awakened to her father’s shouting. “Kristen, what is this? Come out here this minute!”
Kristen crawled out of her warm bed reluctantly and went into the living room to see what the shouting was about. Her father was looking at the tree that was now leaning against the wall.
“Did you bring this tree in?” he demanded.
“Yes,” she answered proudly. Then less proudly, “but I couldn’t put it in the stand.”
“Of course not. It takes two adults to do that. What were you thinking? You could have hurt yourself out there in the snow and then what? I’d have two invalids on my hands.”
“I thought the tree might cheer you up,” Kristen replied quietly.
“I don’t need cheering up!” he almost shouted. “I need your mother to get well and I need you to take care of yourself, so I don’t have to worry. You chose not to go to your cousins’ house and I warned you there wouldn’t be any Christmas.”
“But Daddy, what harm does a tree do?”
“It’s one more thing I have to worry about. As if I don’t have enough to do going to see your mother then working all night. And now I have to go plow the roads again for all the idiots who just have to go into the city this morning to do their Christmas shopping.”
He put on his winter clothes and stomped outside without another word. Kristen sat on the couch and tried not to cry. She heard her father start the truck then heard his footsteps on the porch again. He poked his head in. In a quieter voice, he said,
“I should be home by supper. I’ll stop and get some fried chicken, so you don’t need to prepare anything. Take care of yourself, Kristen. Why don’t you go visit Mrs. Larsen? She could use some company.”
Kristen nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
Later that morning, she decided to take her father’s advice. She walked down the snow-covered road to the neighbor’s house. It was a beautiful day, she thought. The sun shone on the snow that had fallen last night and the air was quiet. There were no cars on the small road, for it was one of the last to be plowed. She was glad. She was glad also that it had stopped snowing and her father should have an easier job plowing today. She thought of her mother. How was she today? Could she sit up and see the snow? Her heart contracted with an almost unbearable loneliness.
“I was just getting ready to bake Christmas cookies,” she exclaimed. “How wonderful to have a helper! Come in, Kristen. And how is your mother?”
Kristen’s arms were soon covered with flour, as she rolled and cut out cookies. The kitchen was warm and smelled of Christmas spices. If only her mother were better, she would be happy right now, she thought. Mrs. Larsen talked with her about her mother and Kristen soon found herself spilling out all her feelings. She even told of her attempt to put up the tree.
“Well, that was a fine thought,” Mrs. Larsen said. “But Kristen, some things are too much for a child.”
“Father has always said the Norwegians can do whatever they set their minds to do.”
Mrs. Larsen laughed. “Well, I’m Swedish myself and I do not mind asking for help. What do you say that this afternoon, we find my godson Sven and ask him to help us with the tree? He’ll be glad to have some cookies in payment.”
Kristen nodded happily.
That afternoon, Sven lifted the tree easily into its holder. And they all decorated it. Mrs. Larsen pulled out a straw star. “Where did you get this?” she asked.
“I made it at school for my mother when I was five,” Kristen said. “Just before we left Norway. And when we came here to be with my father, she was homesick. At Christmas, she put the star on the tree and said it was a little bit of Norway come to visit us. She has always put it on the tree first, before we start decorating. Then she sings Jul med dine glede.” Kristen turned back to the boxes, hiding the tears in her eyes.
“Well, here, Sven will put it on the top of the tree,” Mrs. Larsen said. “I’m sorry, Kristen, I don’t know the song. We Swedes sing other songs. We’ll leave that to your mother when she comes home. But there is your little bit of Norway on the top of the tree.”
She hugged Kristen, but Kristen just continued to hang ornaments silently. She had lost interest in the tree.
“I have an idea,” Mrs. Larsen exclaimed suddenly. “Let’s call your mother when we are done.”
Kristen shrugged. “I don’t think she can talk,” she mumbled. “Yesterday, she had tubes everywhere and was hardly awake.”
“Well, here, let’s take a break. You and Sven can have some cocoa and cookies while I call the hospital to see how she is doing.”
Sven and Kristen ate their cookies in awkward silence. Kristen was trying to hear the phone conversation. She caught only snatches.
Mrs. Larsen came back into the kitchen. “Good news, Kristen. Your mother is better today. She ate breakfast and she is able to sit up.”
Kristen looked at the woman in relief. But she wasn’t sure she trusted the news. Didn’t people get worse after they seemed to be getting better? Mrs. Larsen insisted that Kristen call her mother that afternoon. She was glad she did. Her mother was able to talk and sounded just like she always did. She told Kristen she missed her, asked her to help her father, said she was feeling better. Kristen almost broke down. She wanted to tell her mother how miserable she felt, but instead she told her that she and her father were managing just fine. “And we have the Christmas tree ready for you,” she told her mother. “Maybe you’ll be home by Christmas.” Her mother hadn’t answered.
That evening, when Kristen’s father returned, he was in a better mood. He and Kristen ate their fried chicken and he told her about the day’s events. “And when I came home,” he said, “I saw lights on the house. That made me so glad.”
Kristen smiled. “That’s not all,” she said. “Come into the living room.”
He stopped when he saw the tree. “How did you-?”
“Mrs. Larsen and Sven helped me,” she answered. “I’m not afraid to ask for help. Maybe I’m not a Norwegian after all.”
“You’re a Norwegian American,” he answered after a moment’s thought. “And the Americans are always helping each other. As a young man, I went to many a barn raising.”
Kristen went to bed happy that night. Her father was in a better mood, her mother was better, and Christmas was only two days away. Maybe she would get the pony after all. But if not, that’s okay, she thought. Just as long as Mommy is well.
On Christmas Eve, Kristen and her father drove into town. It was a cold, clear night, with stars sparkling brightly in the black sky. Kristen found the brightest star and made a wish on it. She liked to pretend that it was the Christmas Star, even though she knew it was really a planet. Stars twinkled, planets emitted a steady light. Her mother was sitting up when they arrived.
“I’m sorry I can’t be home for Christmas,” she told Kristen and her father. “The doctors said I’m not quite ready to go home.”
“That’s okay. We brought Christmas to you,” Kristen said. She set down the sacks and began to pull out decorations.
“Well, we don’t have a tree, but we can hang them on the bedposts,” her mother said.
“Who says we don’t have a tree?” Kristen’s father asked. From the large bag he had toted in, he pulled a small, freshly cut sapling nailed to a block of wood.
“Oh Lars, I’m not sure that’s allowed,” her mother said, her eyes glowing.
“Well, I think it is. And here, Kristen, I brought your star. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Kristen took the star and put it on the top of the little tree. Her mother began to sing quietly and they both joined in.
“Now, it’s Christmas,” her mother said softly when they had finished. “Oh, Lars and Kristen, thank you so much.” Her eyes glistened as she hugged them both.
The dinner tray arrived. Kristen and her father watched her mother eat. Then they slipped her a Christmas cookie for dessert and gave her a few little presents. They saw she was tired so they left soon after. Kristen’s mother pulled her father aside and whispered something to him. He nodded.
They drove home in silence. But this time, it was a comfortable, happy silence. Kristen looked out at the dark sky. A Christmas sky, she told herself.
“The sky is so dark tonight; it almost seems magic,” she ventured to say to her father, even though she knew he frowned upon any mention of fantasy or magic. To her surprise, he answered in a soft voice.
“In the old country, a sky like this meant Aurora Borealis.”
“The Northern Lights.”
“I’ve heard of them, but what are they really like?”
“It can’t be described. They must be experienced first hand.” He looked over at his daughter. “Maybe some day you will visit Norway and can see them for yourself.”
She nodded. Norway seemed so far away.
When they returned home, Kristen’s father lit the fire. “Kristen,” he said, “I know it’s Christmas Eve and we always go to Midnight Mass. But I am so tired. Perhaps you could see if Mrs. Larsen is going.”
“No, that’s okay, Daddy. I am tired too. And we had Christmas with Mom. That’s enough. I don’t want to go to church without her anyway.”
He nodded. “I need to go get more firewood” he said and he went back out the door. Kristen made cocoa for them both and a late supper of cheese and bread. Her father came in with his arms full of wood.
“Kristen,” he said quietly. “Put on your jacket and come outside. Best to put on your hat and mittens too; it’s very cold.”
She did as he said, wondering. Maybe there was a pony after all in the barn? Was that what her mother whispered about? But no, that was impossible.
She stepped out onto the porch. The entire sky was aglow with an eerie, beautiful light. Blue and green stretched across the sky, shimmering. Kristen stood mesmerized.
“The Northern Lights,” her father said. “Just in time for Christmas.”
This was better than Midnight Mass, better than Santa Claus, even better than a pony in the barn, Kristen thought. And sharing it with her father made it even better.
They stood outside a long time in silence until the cold forced them back inside and to bed.
The next morning, Kristen awakened early. She took her largest sock and crept into the kitchen. Into the stocking, she put a walnut, an orange and some of her candy from school into it. Then she took out a card she had made in school and added a note, using the little Norwegian she had been taught: Jeg gleder meg til julefest og til mamma og pappa. God Jul! She hung the stocking on the mantel. Then she saw the other stocking hanging there. Her stocking, the one her grandmother had made for her from red felt, with white embroidered snowflakes all over it. It hung full. She pulled it down and reached in to pull out a tangerine, some chocolate, a coin she recognized as a Norwegian krone, and a few little trinkets. At the very bottom, she felt something else. She pulled out a little package wrapped in white tissue. She unwrapped the tissue to find a little wooden horse, painted red, with a colorful saddle and reins.
As Kristen was staring at the horse, her father entered the living room. “Good morning, early bird,” he said. “Trying to catch Santa at work?”
She held up the horse without a word.
He tried to smile but instead his eyes filled with tears.
“Santa couldn’t bring you a real pony this Christmas,” he said. “But you’ve been such a good girl, he-I wanted to give you this. It was- it belonged to my sister Kjersti.”
Why was he crying, Kristen wondered?
“She was only fifteen when she died,” he continued. “During the Mörketid. My sister had given me the horse the Christmas before she died. And she told me to think of her whenever I held it. She knew I would be leaving home soon. And I did. I couldn’t face life at home without her. I left your grandmother and came to America.”
He fell silent, sitting with his face in his hands. Kristen went over and sat in his lap. She kissed his head. “Takk, far,” she said in Norwegian. “Jeg elsker deg.”
He held her close, still crying. After awhile, he roused himself. “Just look at me,” he said, trying to laugh. “On Christmas! I should be a jolly old elf and instead here I am, crying and carrying on. I’m sorry, Kristen.”
“No, Daddy, It’s alright,” she answered. “But now I’m going to make you breakfast.” Her face fell. “I don’t know how to make a Norwegian Christmas breakfast. Would oatmeal be alright?”
Later that morning, Mrs. Larsen came over to see how things were. It had begun to snow heavily and Kristen’s father had to go out to plow. They would not be able to visit her mother for Christmas Day. Mrs. Larsen pulled out a bag filled with straw sticks.
“In the old country, we made decorations from straw too,” she told Kristen. “Your star reminded me of that. I thought we could make some more straw ornaments. But Kristen,” she added as she went in to look at the tree. “Where is the star you made?”
Kristen smiled secretly. “It flew into the sky.”
That afternoon, Kristen made a new star, much more ornate and neater than the old one. Her mother would like it, she decided, as she proudly placed it at the top of the tree. Then she and Mrs. Larsen made little goats and Nisser, which Mrs. Larsen insisted on calling Tomtar.
But we didn’t make any porridge for them on Christmas Eve.” Kristen remembered. “They must be hungry.”
She wasn’t really worried. She no longer believed in the Nisse. Still, she and Mrs. Larsen mixed up a large bowl of rich grød made with cream and put in the requisite almond. Mrs. Larsen went home for a few hours then returned that evening with a pot of pea soup and homemade rye bread. By then, Kristen’s father had returned. The plowing had been easy that day and there was little traffic on the streets.
“Not much of a Christmas feast, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Larsen said. “But since my husband died, I don’t cook large meals.”
“This is fine,” Kristen’s father answered. “I haven’t had such good pea soup since I left Norway.”
Then Kristen brought out the grød. “Don’t forget to put some aside for the Tomte,”Mrs. Larsen said.
“Tomte?” Kristen’s father said in mock horror. “There is no Tomte in this house, only a Nisse.”
“Well, this grød was made by a Swede and a Norwegian, so I guess the Nisse and Tomte will have to share this year,” Mrs. Larsen laughed.
“Just as we’re doing,” Kristen answered quietly.
They looked at her. “Spoken like a true American,” her father answered proudly.
After supper, they went into the living room. Kristen’s father placed real candles on the tree in their holders. “Just for a moment,” he whispered, placing a bucket of water nearby. “Kjersti always loved the candles best. Take a picture for your mother, Kristen.”
She pulled out her cell phone and took a picture then texted it to her mother. They stood in wonder then Mrs. Larsen began to hum. Together they sang Silent Night, which of course all knew. Kristen felt the horse in her pocket, where it had been all day.
“Father, this horse is so special. I will treasure it always. And it will make me think of Norway too. And Grandma-and Kjersti.”
He nodded without speaking.
“But I wish I could do something special for you also,” Kristen added. “This month has been so hard on you.”
He looked at her lovingly. “You have, Kristen. You have helped so much. During the day, when I am working, I don’t have to worry about you. And I look forward to coming home to a warm, lit house, with my favorite daughter at home. Do you know what it would have been like to come home to a dark, cold house and be alone every night? I’m glad you decided to stay.”
He hugged his daughter and held her close, overcome with emotion.
The day of New Year’s Eve, the doctors said Kristen’s mother was well enough to travel. That afternoon, she and her father drove to the hospital and, bundling her mother in blankets, brought her home. Mrs. Larsen brought over another pot of soup and a loaf of bread then left immediately. As they sipped the soup, Kristen’s mother said tentatively,
“Lars, do you think we should move? To California maybe?”
“You don’t like the cold, dark winter and your job makes you go out into the snow and ice. You could find another job in California.”
“But you like it here,” he answered. “You say it reminds you of Norway.” He turned to Kristen.
“What about you, Kristen?”
She shrugged. “I like the snow and the cold. But I’ll go wherever you two go. I just want to be with my family.”
They both hugged her. “Yes, that is most important,” her mother said.
“I’ll go get more firewood,” her father said, standing up.
“No, Daddy, you sit down with Mommy. I’ll get it.”
He looked at his wife, who nodded. Then he sat down. “Okay, Kristen. It seems you are a big girl now.”
Kristen put on her coat and mittens and went out. It was another clear, dark night. No moon. But a green and blue glow filled the dark air. The Northern Lights again. Kristen hardly breathed. For a moment, she just stood there, savoring the lights by herself.
“I’ll bet there are no Northern Lights in California,” she said to herself. She gathered up the wood and went in to tell her parents. Her father turned out the lights and they stood together in silence at the window.
“How beautiful,” her mother breathed at last.
“And tomorrow is Christmas,” Kristen added.
They both looked at her. “Tomorrow is New Year’s Day,” her father said sternly.
“For us it’s Christmas,” Kristen said. “The sky knows. The Nisse put it off for us.”
“Kristen, don’t get any ideas. You know there will be no horse under the tree.”
“No, he is in my pocket.” She looked at her father. Then she added slowly, “Daddy, what brings the Northern Lights? Why do we only see them in the Winter?”
“They need cold, clear air to be seen,” he answered.
“And darkness?” Kristen asked.
“You know, that reminds me of an ancient Chinese proverb I once read,” her mother answered. “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. Or maybe we could say, there is no light without darkness.”
“Do not curse the darkness,” her father whispered. “Light a candle.” Suddenly he turned to Kristen. In a happier voice, he said “Yes, Kristen, tomorrow is Christmas. We will celebrate. As much as your mother is able at least. I’m sure Mrs. Larsen will help us. We’ll even let her bring her Tomte with her.”
Kristen smiled happily, as he mother looked confused.
“And Kristen,” he added. “Maybe there is no pony this time. But you have shown that you are responsible enough to have a horse of your own now. And your birthday is coming up.”
She smiled. “Yes, and it’s easier to train a horse in the Spring anyway.”
“Light a candle,” Kristen’s mother said. “And put some logs on the fire. I am cold.”
He hurried to do as she said. Kristen made cocoa. As they sipped it, her father hefted his mug.
To all our health and wellbeing in the New Year,” he said. Then he added, “To the candle that brings us light. To the Northern Lights. And-and to Mørketid, without which we would not have the lights.”
Kristen and her mother lifted their mugs in reply. And Kristen fingered the horse in her pocket. A horse she would keep forever.
-MW Christmas 2019