Musician, writer, pop music scholar and nostalgicist Dr. Gunni (born 1965) pays a visit to The Ghost of Christmas Past
The family bought a Grundig console cabinet stereo in 1976. I know what year it was because I remember the LPs that came with it: ‘Horft í roðann’, the debut solo album by Stuðmenn’s Jakob Frímann Magnússon, and ‘Einu sinni var’, wherein beloved poems and verses from the ‘Vísnabók’ (“The Rhyme-book”—a popular tome of traditional Icelandic children’s poems) were translated into pop hits by genius of the craft Gunnar Þórðarson and superstar singer Björgvin Halldórsson. ‘Horft í roðann’ contained a smash hit, “Röndótta mær” (“Striped maid”), which justified its invitation into our household, while ‘Einu sinni var’ went on to become Iceland’s best-selling album ever, shifting more than 20,000 units before Christmas of 1976 alone—an unheard-of number at the time.
Christmas was—and remains—merchants’ time to shine. Christmas can make or break a shop’s existence. Today, record sales are next to nothing compared to book sales, but in the ’70s—and the ’80s and ’90s—the season was categorized as either a “Book Christmas” or “Record Christmas,” depending on which medium sold in greater numbers that year. “Will this Christmas be a ‘Book Christmas’ or a ‘Record Christmas’,” newspaper articles would earnestly ponder.
I never got any records for Christmas; for me, it was always Book Christmas. The Tintin books were coming out in Icelandic translation at the time, and I would get the latest one every year. Tintin books are really the only thing I remember getting for Christmas as a child. I guess I did receive clothes and some toys, but I just can’t remember anything about it. I do remember that my brother-in-law Jón once promised to give me a book that he was sure “young boys like you” would love. It was a thriller by either Sven Hassel or Alistair MacLean—two authors who were extremely popular at the time. Of course, I didn’t even read it, because I wasn’t the kind of boy that my brother-in-law took me for. For me, everything was all about music since I was aged eleven or so, and learned to strum my first guitar chords.
The only time I was nice to my grandmother
My grandmother Guðrún would come from the gruesome retirement home Grund to spend the holidays with us. We sometimes went to visit her art the old folks’ home. Out of all those visits, I only remember one, because I got a new type of ice cream from Kjörís, a small white plastic ball with vanilla ice cream inside. My grandmother was always going to the toilet while we were visiting her. Having a piss was probably the most fun she had, and her toilet business was what she talked most about. I guess I can say that I found her quite boring. In all of my memories of her she is tense and anxious. If I was late to return home, she would be looking out the window when I came back. When I went out she would force me to wear thick gloves and woollen hats. She was 82 when she died, on New Year’s Eve of 1980. She was back at the old people’s home when death got her. In my diary I wrote: “Grandmother Guðrún Lára dies. Perfectly normal New Year’s Eve.”
I should have been nicer to my grandmother. I was always kind of grouchy towards her. Only once, that I can remember, was I nice to her. That’s when I played “Silent Night” for her on my guitar. The old people’s home Grund was a pretty horrid place (and still is?). Especially “The final ward” that my grandmother spent her final days at. I remember all the old people sitting in silence, staring vacantly at nothing.
The weeks before Christmas are a thrilling time for a kid. They’re probably better than Christmas itself. In the ’70s, the mechanized Santa in the Rammagerðin storefront was the first public sign of Christmas. His appearance announced that Christmas was formally on. TV commercials got people into the right mindset. The most Christmas-y ad was for Coca Cola, where young people of all races belted out The New Seekers’ “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” with Coke in their hands on top of a hill. To this day, many of my generation can’t get into the Christmas groove until they’ve seen this ad.
Cookies of all sorts were baked. The “air cookie” was my favourite. Fruit also play a role in Icelandic Christmas tradition. Clementines were eaten in large quantities (as they are today), and older people told stories of the red apples they got to have for Christmas in their youth—only half an apple per person or something, as apples were such rarities back in the ’40s and ’50s.
The patriarchy’s stranglehold
The day of Christmas Eve is when Christmas officially begins in Iceland, at precisely six o’clock. Every home would blare the National Radio broadcast loudly. At six, after church bells had been chiming for some time, a live broadcast from Mass would start, and the family began stuffing itself with food while the Christmas gospel went on in the back.
In my family, the dinner would always start with asparagus soup. Tinned asparagus was not so common at the time, so my dad would use his connections to score a tin of Green Giant asparagus from some guy who worked at an import company. The main course was a lamb or a pig, and for dessert we would have something funky like a sherry “fromage.” Something was lost in the translation from French (fromage means cheese in French) to Icelandic (frómas means parfait in Icelandic).
The patriarchy had a stranglehold on my family. The women ALWAYS washed the dishes while the men lay down, usually unbuttoning their shirts after all the gluttony. Nobody could open a present until the dishes were clean, but sometimes the cat had managed to rip his one open, as it always contained a bag of foul-smelling dried fish.
We fear change
For me, Christmas means revisiting old times, chilling and eating so much that you must unbutton. That Nói Síríus assorted chocolates rush is also a vital part of the feast. In my opinion, Christmas should be an old-fashioned and well-versed routine. All the decorations should be old and corny. The older and cornier, the better. They should have been part of the family for decades. That plastic Santa that you forget about for 11/12th of the year is a well of good memories. You remember when you as a kid dragged his trousers down to reveal a flat black plastic groin. My ’70s Christmas tree was fake and tiny, and sometimes it was covered with webs of “angel-hair.”
I hate “modern” Christmas decorations. During the bubble years, a few idiots even decked their halls and trees with “tasteful” shiny black ornaments and shit. Even black Christmas trees. What dismal stupidity! Jesus Christ is surely rolling in his grave over such Christmas blasphemy.