Karma Walker loves Christmas. Her delight in the season gains momentum each December as she dresses her 1917 Minneapolis Craftsman in its holiday best, decorates trees, and entertains friends and family. The celebration culminates in the family dinner she hosts on Christmas Eve. She comes by her passion quite naturally as a member of a Danish-American family. “As a child growing up in a tight-knit Danish community, we always celebrated Christmas is a very big way,” she explains. “A lot of the Danish and the Danish recipes I know are tied up in Christmas.
She remembers trees decked out in traditional Danish ornaments of yarn, paper, and straw. Little yarn nissemænd (sort of a Danish version of Christmas elves, though more tricksters than helpers) were scattered throughout the house. On Christmas Eve, the candles on the tree lit, the family danced and caroled around the tree. “It was magical,” Walker says. “Just magical and wonderful.”
Today, her holidays continue to be served with a generous helping of Danish tradition. The menu for a typical advent season brunch, for example, consists of smørrebrød, open-faced sandwiches. Courses of fish, meat, and cheese must be eaten in order (otherwise, tradition holds, you’ll get seasick). French and rye bread laden with salmon, herring, hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, parsley, and asparagus spears compose the fish course. Aquavit and Carlsberg beer are always on the table. On Christmas Eve, Walker and her husband Pete Goss host 20–30 members of the clan for a traditional dinner of goose and/or roast pork, spicy sausage, red cabbage, potatoes, and gravy. The first course—always—is rice pudding. “Rice pudding is a holdover from our peasant ancestors,” Walker explains. “It was served first to make the meat go further.” Another tradition: One serving of pudding holds an almond. “If you get the almond, you win a prize,” she says. After dinner comes caroling and dancing around the Christmas tree. Each member of the family, from youngest to oldest, gets to select a song, but the singing always ends with the Danish song, “Nu har vi Jul igen” (“Now It’s Christmas Again”). Christmas and the advent season (the 24 days preceding Christmas) are seminal events during dark Danish Decembers, Walker notes. It’s a time for gathering friends and family, and chasing away the gloom with food, music, and the ritual celebration of rebirth and hope of spring. Though she’s a third-generation Danish-American, Walker maintains a fond allegiance to the traditions she grew up with, which she, in turn, enjoys passing down to her three boys.
And then there’s her own tradition and year-round hobby: collecting Christmas-tree ornaments. She willingly admits to a bit of an ornament obsession—and that’s not part of her Danish heritage. She caught the ornament-collecting bug from a lifelong friend, whose family Christmas trees, bedecked in sparkling glass creations passed down from generation to generation, were very different from her own family’s modest, traditional Danish trees. “We didn’t get ornaments every year, or make them,” she says. “It was not the focus.” (Right: Santa ornament by Patricia Breen.) But ornaments are definitely in the spotlight at her house. After collecting all her adult life—and seriously hunting for the past decade—her ornament collection numbers in the hundreds (she demurs to make an estimate and suggests, “too many to count”). She and a couple friends who are also collectors take annual shopping trips to search out new ornaments for their trees (see “Karma’s Collecting Tips”). She also trolls eBay and other sites to watch for her favorite ornament designers, John Toole of Austin (even more collectible to those in the know because he no longer designs ornaments) and Patricia Breen.
She typically decorates two trees with her treasures: an enormous, sparkling beauty in the living room and a kids’ tree upstairs in the master bedroom. The theme for the upstairs tree changes—this one was a beach theme, with mermaids, fish, and water-skiing Santas. She’s got a rainbow tree in mind for her next creation, starting with purple on the top and working down to blue, green, orange, and red. The 9-foot tree in the living room—the centerpiece of the Christmas Eve caroling and dancing—is a natural Frasier fir. It’s not groomed (like most Frasiers) so its branches are spaced and allow ornaments to hang. Walker usually buys a 12-foot tree so it will have bigger branches, then trims it top and bottom to fit in the room. Her boys, Calvin, 9, Emmett, 8, and Arno, 5, help with the decorating—at least with the upstairs tree. Husband Pete maintains a bemused tolerance for it all. When the tree in the living room is complete—a three-day process that requires wrapping the branches in lights, hanging first bulbs, then other ornaments, and finally, glass icicles and candles—she sometimes just sits and gazes at it. “Pete will say, ‘Boys, let’s go upstairs. Mommy needs some quality time with her ornaments.”
Her hobby also launched a new tradition: Every Christmas, she gives each of her children, and another 20-some children among family and friends, an ornament that commemorates an event in their lives that year. Her nephew who plays baseball receives a baseball Santa, for example, and a niece who started dance lessons gets a sparkling glass ballerina. “This year, Calvin will get a dog ornament,” she says, nuzzling the family’s new puppy, Iguanaman Wonder Shadow, a.k.a., Iggy. “And probably Arno will get an iguana ornament, since he named the puppy. Emmett will get a Seattle-themed ornament because we went out there to collect Iggy. They can’t get the same one.” All this ornament giving requires her to keep careful lists so she doesn’t repeat herself and give the same child the same ornament. Fortunately, ornament designers are endlessly imaginative, and Walker is always on the lookout for their latest creations.
Karma’s Collecting Tips
Karma Walker knows how to increase the odds of a successful ornament hunt. She and her friends have traveled to Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, and New York in search of tree-trimming treasures. (Above: Royal Copenhagen angel ornament.) Her recommendations:
- Christkindlmarket Chicago for a good selection of Ingle blown-glass ornaments, christkindlmarket.com
- Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, bronners.com
- Patricia Breen ornaments, justbreen.com
- Callisters Christmas, seasonal stores in shopping malls
- Patina, patinastores.com
- The Bibelot Shops, bibelotshops.com
- Neiman Marcus, neimanmarcus.com
- High-end florists, nurseries, and small boutiques for unique ornaments
- Antique stores aren’t usually a good bet. “People don’t get rid of ornaments,” she says. “They’re sentimental, and they’re small and easy to store.”
- Check out the big-box stores (Target, Michael’s, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, West Elm, etc.) and you might get lucky. “It depends on the buyer that year,” says Walker.
Web Extra: Throw a Julefrokost, a Danish Christmas Brunch
Smørrebrød Danish Open-Faced Sandwiches
Fish course: Smoked salmon with asparagus For each sandwich: 4 pieces of smoked salmon 2 stalks of asparagus, blanched ½ tbsp. caviar 2 long, thin slices of cucumber 2-3 thin strips of tomato, without seeds dill Bibb lettuce French bread Butter sliced French bread. Lay down lettuce leaf. Fold slices of salmon and lay on the bread. Garnish with asparagus and rolled slices of cucumber stuffed with caviar. Top with sprigs of dill and tomato strips. Meat Course: Roast beef with pickles and horseradish For each sandwich: 4-5 slices of rare roast beef thin-sliced pickles crunchy fried onions tomato Bibb lettuce flat-leaf parsley rémoulade grated horseradish Danish rye bread butter Direction: Butter sliced rye bread. Lay down lettuce leaf. Top with slices of roast beef. Garnish with a spoonful of rémoulade, fried onions, pickles, and horseradish. Top with sprigs of parsley and strips of tomato. Cheese course Blue cheese with radishes, peppers, and lettuce For each sandwich: blue cheese, sliced radishes, sliced red and green peppers, sliced in rings Bibb lettuce French bread butter Butter the sliced French bread. Lay down lettuce leaf. Top with sliced blue cheese. Garnish with rings of peppers and radishes Intersperse courses with plenty of toasts of aquavit and pilsner to complete the hyggelige festivities. Skål!
Styling by Michelle Havens, Style-Architects