by Jackie LaPenta || AHL On The Beat Archive
Whether you hear God Jul, Glædelig Jul, S Rozhdestvom or Merry Christmas in the San Antonio Rampage locker room, the holiday season is here.
The team boasts six players from European countries including Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Czech Republic and Russia. And even though every year they spend the holidays playing hockey in North America, these players still celebrate their native holiday traditions and reflect on what makes their holiday season extra special.
In Sweden, the Christmas season begins on December 13 with the celebration of St. Lucia Day. Lucia was martyred after she was killed for helping the persecuted Christians in Rome.
“St. Lucia Day is mostly for the kids,” said Rampage defenseman and Swedish native Jonas Ahnelov. “They dress up as different biblical characters and sing Christmas carols. We celebrate Christmas Day on December 24, known in the States as Christmas Eve.”
Children awake on Christmas morning to find presents left under the tree by Tomte, a Christmas gnome with a long, white beard and red hat. He is said to live in the forest and deliver presents by walking through the front door.
“My Dad dressed up as Tomte when I was little,” said Karlskrona, Sweden, native Oliver Ekman-Larsson. “This is what made me believe in him every year.”
After the presents are opened, the family gathers for the meal referred to as a smörgåsbord.
“For dinner we cook meatballs, sausage, fish, pork and hams,” said Ahnelov. “Potatoes, eggs and cabbage are common side dishes.”
“Glögg is a big holiday drink,” adds Ekman-Larsson. “It is a warm red wine usually seasoned with cinnamon.”
Rampage left wing and Brondby, Denmark, native Mikkel Boedker says that the Christmas season in Denmark begins on December 1. Every major network airs TV calendars that play until Christmas Day, also celebrated on December 24, to help spread the holiday spirit.
“Each day there is a different Christmas themed show that counts down until the 24th,” explains Boedker. “It is usually a cartoon for kids.”
The Danes also decorate a Christmas tree and believe in Santa, known as Julemand, who travels by a reindeer-drawn sleigh and goes down the chimney to deliver presents.
Once the presents are unwrapped, the holiday meal commences.
“The main meat served is usually pig, duck or goose,” said Boedker. “We also have a special tradition over dessert. In Denmark, we prepare ris a la mande [rice pudding with one almond in it]. Whoever finds the almond in their bowl gets an additional gift.”
To conclude the festivities Boedker’s family sends a single firework into the sky to signify the end of the celebration, a tradition only to Mikkel’s family and not necessarily a Danish custom.
December 24 also marks the celebration of Christmas in the Czech Republic, home to Rampage right wing Petr Prucha. Fish is the main item served during the holiday dinner as it is prepared for soup and the main dish with a side of potato salad. The Czechs believe in Ježíšek to leave them presents under the tree. The name translates in English to “Child Jesus” and he looks like the American version of Santa Claus.
“Being a kid at Christmas was the best,” said Prucha. “I remember waiting up all night for Ježíšek to come, and couldn’t sleep because I was so excited to open my presents.”
In Russia the holidays are celebrated a little different than the American Christmas traditions. Christmas was banned from 1917 to 1991 during the era of the Soviet Union, causing New Year’s Eve to be the more heavily favored holiday. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Christmas was re-instated for the 1992 holiday season. It is celebrated on January 7, as the Russian Orthodox Church recognizes the old Julian calendar.
“Even though Christmas is on January 7, most people still celebrate on New Year’s,” said Rampage right wing Viktor Tikhonov. “We have a tree like Americans do, called a yolka, and a Santa-like figure named Ded Moroz which translates directly as ‘Grandfather Frost.’ He looks very similar to your image of Santa, but he wears blue instead of red. He also always has his granddaughter by his side to help pass out presents. Her name is Snegurochka.”
While Ded Moroz and Snegurochka deliver presents on New Year’s, the holiday meal occurs on Christmas Day.
“With Christmas being banned for so long we don’t have any set holiday foods, it varies between families,” said Maxim Goncharov, who hails from Moscow. “My family eats chicken and meatloaf for our Christmas dinner with different salads on the side. We also always have a special dessert called rahatlukum, which is a chocolate covered candy.”
Despite the cultural differences, Christmas is truly a universal holiday that spreads the same meaning throughout the holiday season. Many of the players who are unable to return home for the holidays find joy and peace through the American customs as they celebrate with their Rampage family.