A Christmas paradise at Concordia Language Villages: Ringing in the holidays the Nordic way
BEMIDJI — When it comes to our five Nordic friends of the world, there’s a lot they’re doing right.
It’s hard to argue with consistently high happiness rankings, superior educational systems and a musical repertoire that continues to inspire individuals the world over to feel like 17-year-old dancing queens (I’m looking at you ABBA).
But unbeknownst to many, these European countries in the North Atlantic are also doing something else right: celebrating the holiday season in a back-to-basics style with a whole lot of R&R mixed in.
If it’s a wholesome activity that encourages warm and cozy feelings and an appreciation for the holiday season – crafting homemade ornaments, baking cardamom-filled sweets or lazily dozing around a roaring fire with a hot spiced beverage – then there’s probably a Norwegian grandmother already leading the charge.
And while many Americans were out stress-shopping last weekend – fighting their way through crowded shopping malls while feeling guilty for ignoring Salvation Army bell ringers – one lucky bunch experienced the relaxing delights of a Nordic-style holiday paradise – minus the cost of transatlantic airfare.
With two days of baking, crafting, immersive foreign cuisine and holiday traditions awaiting them, guests arrived at the fourth annual Nordic Cool: Holiday Weekend last Friday evening – tucked away from the outside world in the Norwegian Village of Skogfjorden at Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji.
“This program pulls in all the Nordic villages, so it’s special because it’s like taking a little tour of Scandinavia,” Alexander Arguelles, a group director of Concordia Language Villages’ Immersion Language Programs, said.
By Sunday’s end, guests dispersed back home with a head full of Nordic knowledge and a car load of holiday goodies. But perhaps their most notable gain from the weekend was a considerably less-stressed demeanor and a kinder approach to the holiday season following a joyous time spent with friends and family.
On one December school day as a child, my elementary teacher instructed my class to take off our shoes and place one from each pair in the hallway. After an hour or so, we were told to retrieve them – only to discover an orange and chocolate coin placed inside each one.
A simple demonstration of Saint Nicholas Day, the activity was the small but powerful push toward a life’s study on cultural awareness: to realize holiday traditions consisted of more than tree decorating and stories of a gift-bearing Santa sliding down chimneys was both a mind-boggling and exhilarating lesson I sought to experience further.
And to my surprise, nearly 20 years later, I felt that same exhilarating feeling of discovery when I took a trip to Concordia Language Villages’ Nordic Holiday Weekend in the Northwoods of Minnesota.
Since learning of Concordia and its villages, I knew it was a special place. Here, utmost attention is given to both cultural and language immersion – with each village designed to give an authentic depiction of the country one is visiting.
Upon arriving in Skogfjorden – a place many guests would liken to a winter wonderland throughout the weekend – I imagined I had jetted off to the distant Land of the Fjords.
With architecturally-accurate designs, the cabins and buildings of the Norwegian village offer a slice of the motherland on a 200-acre expanse of wooded area. But the true star of the village’s design prowess is Gimle – both a dining hall and an art exhibition. Elaborate rosemaling covers the hall’s arched wooden ceiling while painted portraits of Nordic mythical creatures give a sense of fantasy to the great room.
Throughout the weekend, guests would be immersed in four of the five Nordic cultures by tasting authentic cuisines and singing holiday carols in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish.
On this particular evening, a Norwegian carol kicked off the weekend’s festivities as did a Norwegian meal, which featured a poultry dish glazed with lingonberry sauce. It was accompanied by a side of cooked carrots, hearty boiled potatoes sprinkled with dill and vinegary sliced cucumbers also seasoned with dill.
“There’s two main spices in Nordic cooking,” Jessica 'Dina' Korynta, the weekend’s program leader, explained. “If a dish is savory there’s bound to be dill, and if it’s sweet you know it’ll probably have cardamom in it.”
And while not much of a drinker, I was excited to sample the gløgg, a type of warm mulled wine, which I found to be delicious but also ideal for a festive winter’s nightcap.
Once dinner was cleared, guests transitioned to the crafting of a nisser, a little mischievous creature from Nordic folklore that is said to protect and help around the home. Similar in image to a gnome, the little guy (or girl) is traditionally fed porridge on Christmas Eve by the family whose home he occupies.
Admittedly, art class was never my strong suit in school, and I was concerned with the crafting portion of the weekend. But I quickly learned that there’s something incredibly satisfying about creating something from the ground up – in this instance, the ground being a knitted sock, rice and panty hose.
Yet despite never having used a hot glue gun prior to that evening, I managed to create a fat-nosed nisser doll with a tall pointy hat and a thick, fuzzy beard. He later found his place with friends along Gimle’s fireplace mantle for the remainder of the weekend.
And as I returned home with a sense of unfamiliar satisfaction and a belly full of foreign cuisine, I likened the lighthearted evening to finding an orange in my shoe: an enlightening glimpse into an unfamiliar world I was eager to see more of the following day.
Before the Nordic Holiday Weekend, it had never occurred to me that mayonnaise could come in tube form. I suppose it was a bit ignorant, considering that I had seen those alien grocery store images of Canada’s infamous bagged milk.
Yet nevertheless, I still wouldn’t have guessed that one early morning I’d be assembling a smørrebrød with a swirl of mayo – like the squeeze of toothpaste – from an aluminum tube.
After initial confusion, I created my Danish open-faced sandwich – what many Americans would simply refer to as toast – coating the dark piece of rye with cold cuts and cheese and then finishing it with sliced cucumber.
And once guests finished munching on their own smørrebrød, a holiday baking session commenced with an assortment of sweet recipes to tackle. While my group worked on a large batch of salted rye cookies, different groups were off tending to woven heart sugar cookies, sour cream bread and spiced candied nuts, among others.
By midday’s call to lunch, it became apparent that the weekend wasn’t just a holiday paradise; it was a food paradise, which revolved around that next delicious meal and those freshly made treats in the oven.
Being one that unconsciously partakes in the trend of intermittent fasting, I was feeling overwhelmed by – but certainly not complaining about it – the sudden boost to three meals plus multiple snacks in a 12-hour period. However, our Swedish lunch was fabulous and came with two courses: a cauliflower soup served with bread and then meatballs in a dill cream sauce with a side of mashed potatoes and lemon peas.
The end of the meal signaled the start to an afternoon brimming with crafts and more baking, and for a weekend scheduled with activities from sunrise to sunset, Saturday was turning out to be very cool – as the program’s name suggests – and very go-with-the-flow.
At any time, guests could cozy up around the crackling bål in Gimle whilst enjoying a warm mug of gløgg or take a stroll to Concordia’s Shop the World event. And while participation was encouraged in activities, there remained a sense of freedom with how each individual chose to spend their time.
If crafting an origami star wasn’t to one’s liking, they could easily transition to watching Nordic skiing in Switzerland on an expansive pull-down screen nearby.
“You’re productive here, but you can also be relaxed and laid-back,” Dina said. “You’re so busy with the holidays, but it’s important to take time to relax and do something for yourself.”
I, for one, couldn’t remember the last time I had been so productive without any hint of looming stress – and in hindsight, that freedom allowed me to be as creative as I wanted. For instance, one craft included carving a rosemaling design into a wooden spoon. But not feeling floral patterns at the time, I chose to carve my dog’s face instead, which resulted in a heartwarming, personal design to take home.
Later, as the sun began to set over Skogfjorden, we did another round of baking, and then – without fail – there was more delicious food ready to be indulged.
A rich Finnish main course of savulohikiusaus (a baked casserole dish of salmon, potatoes, onion and cheese in a dill cream sauce) was served, contrasted by a side of roasted root vegetables, a light salad tossed in a tangy vinaigrette and ginger poached pears with cardamom whipped cream for dessert.
Our last craft of the evening, the construction of a beaded pine tree, proved to have a deeper meaning than I initially realized. The activity, which was selected to symbolize growth, allowed each tree to be customized by its maker and stand at the height they chose.
And just when we thought the fifth Nordic country would go ignored that weekend, Dina surprised guests with the Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition of gifting books.
As she handed out our individualized presents – wrapped in green paper with a wood-burned name plate ornament attached – she told us how she had scoured thrift stores in search of literature possessing the names of Nordic authors.
While some received the traditional Nordic crime thriller, others showed off titles of classic fairy tales and contemporary fiction. And upon opening my gift, the avid reader in me was delighted to learn of the writer Lorna Landvik and her humorous novel “Once in a Blue Moon Lodge.”
On the last day, I couldn’t help but feel bittersweet on my final drive down the icy rural roads leading to Skogfjorden. For many of us, the village had really become a hidden holiday oasis in the woods, and I was sorry to be leaving it behind for reentry into the real world.
Upon arriving, it was no surprise that the weekend’s final meal would be scrumptious, and in true Nordic fashion, brunch was served with an assortment of sweet and savory options to appease anyone’s cravings that morning.
Open-faced sandwiches were still on the menu, but a broader assortment of their accoutrements were available along with decadent pastries and fresh fruity cereal toppings.
Even after the leftovers of brunch were carted away, the sweet fragrance of baked goods still lingered throughout Gimle, hinting at the weekend’s final activity. Platters upon platters overflowing with mountains of our sweets made the day before had been laid out in preparation for the assembly of our take-home goodie boxes – and by boxes, I don’t mean your standard restaurant to-go boxes.
These were big cardboard ones that were to be filled with a good 5-pounds or more of baked holiday treats and candied nuts. Various ladies could be heard murmuring sighs of relief that their holiday baking was already complete prior to returning home.
And as the weekend came to a close, we unhurriedly strolled back to our cars with weighty boxes in hand, understanding that the contents were to be shared with our loved ones – just as guests shared cherished moments with those they had accompanied to the magical weekend.
“It’s exciting to see how it’s grown to be this thing that people celebrate – whether with family or a group of friends,” Dina said.
Once attracting less than 10 participants in its inaugural year, the weekend has come to embody the dreaminess of the holiday season, appealing to many looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the outside world and wishing to celebrate the joys of wintertime in its purest form.