Santa pulled out a box wrapped in animal gift paper and read out a name. In front of him, my son Herman and a pack of mostly blonde-haired 3-year-olds dressed like Santa Claus and gingerbread men waved their arms. One by one, with a gift in hand, they ran to their parents who opened their eyes wide and feigned surprise. I watched from the side and began to panic.
My Swedish wife had the flu that night. So I was at my son’s Santa Lucia and Christmas party without my full-time guide who makes sure I don’t make any missteps on the slippery Swedish etiquette slopes. “Please come with me,” I begged her before I left the house.
I’ve lived in Sweden for nine years. I get six weeks of paid vacation and have had months of paid paternity leave. But it’s not all good. A Swede can sit next to you on the couch and keep their mouth shut for hours. Forget about small talk – they don’t know how. And the Swedish language challenges me at every tongue twist and turn. After all these years, I still have to think about what comes out of my mouth. When I speak, people often squint their eyes and tilt their heads slightly.
Recently, when my 6-year-old daughter corrected my Swedish, it dawned on me that I’d turned into that immigrant father, the one who’s always embarrassing his “native kids.”
Inside Herman’s daycare, the sweet smell of warm mulling wine and home-made saffron buns drifted through the air. I stood in the back of a dark room while the kids sang songs about Lucia and Christmas.
Swedes might be the most irreligious people in the world, but they are zealous about Santa Lucia day. The week before Christmas, cities, towns and schools elect a Lucia, who wears a crown of candles and stands at the front of a choir procession. Her lit crown leads the way through the winter darkness.
After Herman’s concert, I battled through conversations with shy Swedes. My son has blonde hair and blue eyes, so that gave me some Swedish street cred. But he’s no great conversationalist. “I’m a bunny rabbit,” he whispered. All night he hopped around on all fours.
Once I captured him, we sat down to eat. I had already planned our exit strategy by the time I had digested the second Swedish meatball. But then Santa appeared on stage, and the kids ran to him. He began to hand out presents.
I turned to one of Herman’s teachers. “How generous. Who bought the presents for the kids?” I asked.
“The parents were supposed to bring gifts for their children,” she said.
I looked up at Herman, dressed in a gingerbread man outfit with a floppy brown hat. He waited for a gift that didn’t exist. Could I take a toy from daycare and wrap it up? No, that wouldn’t work. No time. And he’d probably recognize it, I thought.
I’d been so busy trying to prevent disaster that I hadn’t noticed that a mom had appeared by my side. Her super mom radar must have spotted something near the stage. She asked me if I needed a gift. “Yes, thank you, I don’t know what happened,” I babbled.
She had run away before I finished speaking. Herman now stood alone with Santa on stage. “Hmmm,” Santa said, “Let’s see,” and then froze when he found no more presents in his sack.
At that moment, the mom tapped my shoulder and handed me a little package. I distracted Herman and dropped it into Santa’s bag. Once again with a purpose, Santa dipped his arm into the sack. He whispered something to Herman and pulled out the gift.
Herman ran to me, and we opened it. “I hate this gingerbread man book,” he screamed. I forced a smile and thanked the mom one last time. Finally, we could get out of there.
When we got home, I took him upstairs to read. But I left the gingerbread man book downstairs. It was too soon.
He picked a book in Swedish about a hedgehog whose mom sends him out on his own to fend for himself. I usually only read to him in English, but that night I was too tired to fight.
After we read I kissed him and said good night. A few minutes later I came back upstairs to shut off the lights. He lay passed out under a heap of books scattered on his bed. That’s when I saw it. I was extremely proud. Leaning on the side of his pillow, just next to his head, lay the classic children’s book “Go Dog Go”, and it was in English.