Writer and artist Tove Jansson was best known for creating the Moominland stories. In this extract from her celebrated memoir she recalls the enchanted Scandinavian Christmases of her childhood...
There outside is the studio which is very big and very cold. The only warm place is close to the stove with the fire and the shadows on the floor and the pillar-like legs of the statues.
The studio is full of sculpture, large white women who have always been there. They look straight past one because they are uninterested and sad in quite a different way from my angels.
The studio window must never be cleaned because it gives a very beautiful light; it has a hundred little panes, some of them darker than others. There are stout shelves and on each shelf white ladies stand, but they are quite tiny. All of them get dusted just before Christmas. But only Mummy is allowed to touch them.
Apart from Daddy’s women, the window and the stove, everything else is in shadow. The middle of the room is empty. There is only a single modelling stand with a woman. The stand has three legs and they throw stiff shadows across the concrete floor and up towards the ceiling which is so far away that no one can get up there, at least not before the Christmas tree arrives. We have the finest, tallest tree in the town and it’s probably worth a fortune because it has to reach right up to the ceiling and be of the bristly kind. Other sculptors have small and scruffy Christmas trees, not to mention certain painters who hardly have what you could call trees at all. People who live in ordinary flats have their tree on a table with a cloth on it, poor things! They buy their tree as an afterthought.
On the morning, Daddy and I get up at six o’clock because Christmas trees must be bought in the dark. We walk to the other end of town as the big harbour is just the right setting for buying a Christmas tree. We spend hours choosing, looking at every branch suspiciously. It’s always cold. Once Daddy got the top of a tree in his eye. The early morning darkness is full of freezing bundles hunting for trees and the snow is scattered with fir twigs. There is a menacing enchantment about the harbour and the market.
Then the studio is transformed into a primaeval forest where one can make oneself unget-at-able deep in the Christmas tree. Under the tree one must feel full of love, particularly when the glass balls have been hung. They are store-places for love and that’s why it’s so terribly dangerous to drop them.
As soon as the Christmas tree was in the studio everything took on a fresh significance and was charged with a holiness that had nothing to do with art. Christmas began in earnest.
Mummy and I went to the icy rocks behind the church and scratched around for some moss. We built the Land of the Nativity with the desert and Bethlehem in clay, with new streets and houses; we made lakes with pieces of mirror and placed the shepherds and gave them new lambs and legs because the old ones had broken. We filled the whole of the studio window. Then we took out the manger with the thatched roof which they had got in Paris in 1910. Daddy was very moved and had to have a snorter.
Mary was always in the front but Joseph had to be at the back with the cattle because he had been damaged by water and, besides, in perspective he was smaller. Last of all came the Baby Jesus who was made of wax and had real curly hair which they had made before I was born. When he was in place we had to be quiet for a long while.
Once Poppolino [Daddy’s pet monkey] got out and devoured Baby Jesus. He climbed up Daddy’s Statue of Liberty, sat on the hilt of the sword and ate up Jesus. There was nothing we could do, and we didn’t dare to look at each other. Mummy made a new Baby Jesus of clay. We thought that it turned out too red and too fat, but no one said anything.
Christmas always rustled. It rustled every time, mysteriously, with silver and gold paper, tissue paper and a rich abundance of shiny paper, decorating and hiding everything and giving a feeling of reckless extravagance.
There were stars and rosettes everywhere, even on the vegetable dishes and on the expensive shop-bought sausages which we used to have before we began to have ham. One could wake up at night to the reassuring sound of Mummy wrapping up presents. One night she painted the tiles of the stove with little blue landscapes and bunches of flowers, on every tile all the way to the top.
'The feeling of love under the branches of the tree was almost unbearable'
She made gingerbread biscuits shaped like goats with the pastry cutter and gave the Lussekatts [saffron buns] curly legs and a raisin in the middle of the tummy. When they came here from Sweden the Lussekatts had only four legs but every year they got more and more until they had a wild and curly ornamentation all over.
Mummy weighed sweets and nuts so that everyone would get exactly the same amount. During the year everything is measured roughly, but at Christmas it has to be absolutely fair. That’s why it’s such a strenuous time.
In Sweden people stuff their own sausages and make candles and carry small baskets to the poor and mothers sew presents at night. On Christmas Eve they become Lucias [a Scandinavian saint dressed in white] with a great wreath on their heads with lots of candles in it. The first time Daddy saw a Lucia he was very scared, but when he realised it was only Mummy he began to laugh. Then he wanted her to be a Lucia every Christmas Eve because it was such fun.
I lay on my bunk and heard Lucia starting to climb the steps and it wasn’t easy for her. The whole thing was as beautiful as being in heaven. Then she sang a little and climbed up to Daddy’s bunk. Mummy only sings once a year because her vocal cords are crossed.
There were hundreds of candles on the balustrade round our bunks waiting to be lit just before the Story of the Nativity. They flutter in all directions round the studio like so many pearl necklaces, maybe there are thousands of them. These candles are very interesting when they burn down because the cardboard dividing wall could easily catch fire.
After dinner there was a long pause to allow Christmas a breathing space. We lay on our bunks in the dark listening to Mummy rustling down by the stove, and in the street outside all was quiet. Then the long lines of candles were lit and Daddy leaped down from his bunk to make sure that the ones on the Christmas tree were all upright and that the candle behind Joseph wasn’t setting fire to the thatched roof.
And then we had the Story of the Nativity. The most solemn part was when Mary pondered things in her heart and it was almost as beautiful when they departed into their own country another way. The rest of it wasn’t so special. We recovered from this and Daddy had a snorter. And now I was triumphantly certain that Christmas belonged to me.
The silence afterwards was unbelievable. And Mummy said: ‘Actually, that ball has always been the wrong colour’. And so night came and the candles had burnt down and the fires had been put out and the ribbons and paper had been folded up for next Christmas. I took my presents to bed with me.
Every now and then Daddy’s slippers shuffled down in the studio and he ate a little pickled herring and had a snorter and tried to get some music out of the wireless he had built. The feeling of peace everywhere was complete.
Once something happened to the wireless and it played a whole tune before the interference came back. In its own way interference is something of a miracle, mystifying isolated signals from somewhere out in space. Daddy sat in the studio for a long time trying to get proper tunes on the wireless. When it didn’t work he climbed up on to his bunk and rustled his newspapers. Mummy’s candles had gone out and there was a smell of Christmas tree, burning and benediction.
Nothing is as peaceful as when Christmas is over, when one has been forgiven for everything and can be normal again.
After a while we packed the holy things away and burnt the branches of the Christmas tree in the stove. But the trunk wasn’t burnt until the following Christmas. All year it stood next to the box of plaster, reminding us of Christmas and the absolute safety in everything.
A FINNISH START IN LIFE
Tove Jansson was born in 1914 into a Swedish-speaking family in Finland. Her father Viktor was a sculptor, her mother Signe a graphic designer and illustrator, and the family lived in a studio flat in Helsinki. Tove studied book design in Stockholm and painting in Paris and Florence before returning to Finland.
She was best known as the creator of the Moomin stories for children which were first published in English 60 years ago. The adventures of these intriguing hippo-like creatures have been translated into 43 languages.
Tove’s first book for adults, Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir, draws on her memories growing up. The original version is now being republished for the first time since 1968. Tove died in 2001, aged 86.