Mulled Wine and Waning Family Ties

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Around this time of year, Swedes like to throw little brief daytime parties with mulled wine and ginger bread cookies. Usually they’re on weekends, of course. In my mother’s family there’s been a tradition for decades of organising mulled-wine parties for the descendants of my maternal grandfather’s parents.

This year my mom sent out invitations for the family mulled-wine party to take place at two o’clock on a Wednesday. This made little sense to me at first, since it would mean that hardly anyone with a job or kids would come. But then I thought about it and realised that, yes, this is of course completely in line with how a sense of family is constructed.

A family (Sw. släkt) is a temporary thing. (Unless you’re keeping track of an aristocratic patrilineage, a House of this or that.) In practice, it’s almost impossible to keep any sense of genealogical cohesion for more than three generations. These time-hallowed mulled-wine parties have been gatherings of generation 2 (one surviving member) and generation 3 (almost all of whom are now retired and free to party at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday) — but myself and the other members of generation 4 aren’t very interested or interesting to generation 3. In fact, while generation 3 are first cousins and played together all the time when they were kids, me and my second cousins in generation 4 have hardly ever met and have no strong bonds, not to mention the kids in generation 5 who have never heard of each other unless they’re on the same branch of the family tree.

What will happen in the next few decades is of course that generation 3 will go the way of their forebears and us members of generation 4 will no longer think of each other as family. Maybe we will still have family mulled-wine parties, but they won’t use the couple in generation 1 as a reference point. Instead the various branch-forming couples in generation 2 will form the anchors of independent families, which will live as social constructs for a few decades and then evaporate too, giving rise to new families. Genealogical continuity is an illusion.

Comments

  1. #1 Sharon Astyk
    December 10, 2009

    It is hard unless there is a compelling reason or committed person in the group. For example, my husband’s family still has strong ties to second cousins multiply removed, and their children, simply because the family endured the holocaust together. As the generations pass on, generation 3 and 4 are still inculcated in the story of “they saved our lives, they came with us out of Germany” etc… and it seems to be mostly sticking. I’m sure it will pass, but there can be useful contiguities. The other time that this seems to work is when people stay in reasonably fixed localities.

    I’ve observed a slightly different but related phenomenon occurring in our family – the blurring of biological and non-biological ties. My mother is a lesbian, and her marriage has no legal or biological status with us children, although obviously, my Mom’s partner is also my Mom. Our own children, raised with lesbian grandmothers as yet only dimly grasp that Grandma and Grandma are not equally biologically related to them (this is also true of step-grandparents). We are close to non-biological Grandma’s family, and their kids and my kids are of similar age and are being raised in close proximity – my guess is that by the time I have grandkids, only a few elders will have any memory that we aren’t biological family at all.

    Sharon

  2. #2 Janne
    December 10, 2009

    It must depend on the mobility of the family too. It sort of seems there’s a real difference between not just individuals but families that keep moving and that stays put. People that move about will tend to marry other mobile people, while those that stay put make families with other steady, well-known people in the same area.

    You can probably easily have 4-generation, and maybe 5-generation, continuity if everybody still mostly live in the same cluster of villages. Whereas we haven’t ever had more than fleeting connections across three generations. As a child I’d typically meet my grandparents once a year or so as they lived far away. As an adult I met them perhaps half a dozen times before they passed away, since I lived far away at university, and now on a different continent. My mother, maternal grandmother and siblings are similarly far-flung.

  3. #3 Kevin
    December 10, 2009

    Do you have any thoughts on why the generations are no longer interested in each other? Your family seems to have fractured about the same time mine did. For a while we had four (almost five) generations alive within the same area, but as as soon as my grandma died we stopped seeing each other.

    The past three years I’ve had Thanksgiving with my friends rather than my family, mostly because I’m so much closer to them that to be with anyone else at that time would be unthinkable. Every time I see my family, we have very little to say to each other beyond basic news: I am not dating anyone, I drive the same car I’ve driven for the past seven years, I have the same job I’ve had for ten — I’ve threatened to get a t-shirt printed to speed things along. I have read some glögg-party satire from Sweden that makes me believe it’s much the same thing. Is cultural evolution speeding up so that each generation is a stranger to the next?

    This year, I’m having a glögg party with my friends again. It will be in the evening, and I will make a whole vat of it in a huge copper pot my friend bought for the purpose last year. That’s how we do it in this corner of America at least. God Jul, Martin.

  4. #4 Martin R
    December 11, 2009

    Kevin, the reason that generations 4 and 3 have so little interest in each other is that they hardly ever meet. Generation 3 are the children of a tight sib group, and since these generation 2 sibs hung out together a lot back in the day, generation 3′s members really know each other. Whereas generation 4 has rarely met outside of mulled-wine parties.

    Of course, in a more general perspective, Swedes don’t need family because of our high-tax, strong social security society. If I get into trouble I don’t call my second cousin. I call the authorities and my insurance company. Or, as you suggest, my chosen friends.

  5. #5 John
    December 11, 2009

    Mmm, mulled wine. I’ve never had but that sounds delicious.

  6. #6 Don
    December 11, 2009

    Martin: I am surprised that you did not refer to mulled wine as Glögg. Our family has gone two and more generations since immigration to America from Sweden (probably from what is now Denmark). Some of the women are avid Swedish Americans, and acquire such paraphernalia as herds of red Darlana horses for the window sills, tre kroner flags, photos of the queen, & cet. However, without question, the Glögg party at Christmas is the centerpiece of our self image of being descendants of Swedes. Aunts send their Glögg mixtures to each other through the post, and transcontinental phone calls are made during the Glögg party. Tak for the post, I will share it with my family.

  7. #7 Martin R
    December 11, 2009

    John, it’s easy to make. Wine, sugar and spices. Google a recipe.

    Don, judging from your spelling, it seems the Scandy family heritage is kind of slipping… (-;

  8. #8 DianaGainer
    December 12, 2009

    In Texas many extended families still have reunions, getting 4 (or occasionally 5) generations together, especially where they all live fairly close together. That means within 2 days’ drive. But this mostly happens in the summer nowadays, because the weather is too dreadful around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those are for close-by relatives. Or, we fly to visit far-off kinfolks in our immediate families (parents, kids, siblings).

    Mulled wine parties sound like more fun than “Secret Santa” gift-exchanges with acquaintances at the office.

  9. #9 Kaleberg
    December 14, 2009

    I was always taught that a family is something you make, so I’ve always been big on creating family traditions. People tend to forget that there was a first mulled wine party or whatever, and that someone had to take the initiative and invite some friends and relatives to share the seasonal joy.

    The big thing out here among Scandinavians is lutefisk, which is some kind of white fish preserved with lye. I can imagine this being an argument for emigrating from the old country. You don’t mention it. Perhaps it has been eliminated as part of the humane policies of modern state socialism.

  10. #10 Martin R
    December 14, 2009

    Lutfisk is still sold every December in Swedish grocery stores. But the only one in our house who even half likes it is my Chinese wife.

    Also, let me point out that none of the Scandy countries considers itself to be socialist. From our point of view, the US is an extreme right-wing state, though.

  11. #11 Barn Owl
    December 14, 2009

    From our point of view, the US is an extreme right-wing state, though

    That would be my point of view as well, and I live in the US. It was a major act of sedition recently, for me to decorate my lab door in a Winter Solstice nature theme, without using any purchased Xmas tinsel crap. Next year, I think I’ll try a “Happy Consumermas from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” theme, and use only discarded items to decorate the door.

    My family has shared holiday meals and celebrations with Norwegian-American friends for many years, so we usually have lefse and other Scandinavian treats. My favorite is the rice pudding with lingonberries. I won’t touch the lutefisk, though – ugh.

  12. #12 Martin R
    December 15, 2009

    I guess a lab door like that would mark you as a pinko commie hippie. (-;

    Lingonberry jam with the rice porridge is a new one to me. In southern Sweden, the porridge is eaten with sugar and powdered cinnamon.

    The Chinese like rice porridge as well, but they cook it with water or pork broth, never milk, and sometimes add small beans that are allowed to dissolve into mush. At dim sum places, you may find strips of salt pork, fish, quartered thousand-year eggs and spring onions in the porridge.

  13. #13 Don
    December 15, 2009

    Martin: Regarding your comments on my spelling, it is much better than my speaking or reading of Swedish. This is a great deficiency ,especially now, because I am unable to decipher much about Tiger’s mother in law in the Swedish newspapers. My kids did their junior year of college at Lund. The daughter is hemidemi conversant in Svensk. My son became pretty good at it and has a number of Swede friends with whom maintains these skills. Both my kids ridicule my efforts to even attempt to say something in Swedish, and warn that each of my utterances rolls Mor Mor over in her grave. The dear woman persecuted any and every of my attempts with a severe “Nej.”

  14. #14 Barn Owl
    December 15, 2009

    The lingonberry jam might be an American modification, Martin. The rice pudding is baked with embedded cinnamon sticks, so there’s no real need for added cinnamon. We also pour milk or cream on it sometimes.

    Thousand year eggs make me think of the stinkbomb egg prized by the rat in Charlotte’s Web. I’ve never actually tried one, though.

  15. #15 Martin R
    December 15, 2009

    Don, sounds like your granny maybe felt that speaking Scandy would be counteradaptive in your new habitat.

    Owl, the milk poured onto the porridge goes without saying. And in Sweden we have a cinnamon stick in the porridge and a healthy sprinkling on top.

    The ancient eggs don’t actually smell much. The whites are the colour and opacity of sunglasses. The yolks are greenish and have a faint aroma of fermented herring.

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