For me, Carl Larsson, the inspiration for IKEA, was the master visionary of everything quintessentially Swedish. The survivor of a poverty-stricken childhood in a home with little supervision—mom worked at menial jobs for unsurvivable wages and dad was an often absent, well-meaning if useless alcoholic—Carl employed his talent for drawing beginning in his early teens, contributing to family coffers with his illustrations. In his penury, Carl imagined a life of warmth, love and interdependence, abundance, and beauty. Simple and natural beauty, not the ‘imitate the 1%’ aspirations of his compatriots, with its selfish materialism, emotional emptiness, and competitive, never-satisfied spirit.
Larsson held his vision of the future constantly at the forefront of his mind and worked toward it assiduously; it unfolded pretty much as he’d hoped. What were the chances that this boy, a step away from being a street urchin, would become his country’s richest and most beloved artist? Like French icon Jacques Louis David, who failed to win the coveted Rome Prize (a four-year scholarship to study in Rome) the first four times he entered, finally succeeding on his fifth attempt, Larsson kept his eye on the prize, working doggedly toward his goal of transitioning from contract-dependent illustrator to creative artist. Envision your future, work to make it happen, and it will.
At a time when the falling prices of manufactured goods made it possible for Sweden’s middle class to furnish their homes (and themselves) in cheap imitations of the luxury taste enjoyed by the small, affluent ruling class of bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, merchants, and nobility, Larsson rejected this path, which leads to eternal discontentment as one competes to satisfy aspirations promoted by those who profit from marketing-motivated cravings and establish their own lifestyle and taste as the valid one, the one to be imitated. Instead, Larsson advocated authenticity, functionality, and the principle that one’s domestic environment should reflect one’s individual identity, inspired by the idea that living things thrive only in native, nurturing environments. A palm tree planted in Stockholm wouldn’t survive the winter, nor would birch trees planted in Rome survive the summer.
When his wife inherited a cottage in the province of Sweden most attached to the past (Dalarna, where inhabitants militantly refused circa 1800 to give up village life for family life on isolated farms with their new, red houses), where one still finds medieval-looking hamlets of one-story log cabins with tiny, leaded-glass windows, he, Karin, and their children created a domestic environment that reflected their taste, interests, lifestyle (it included an artist’s studio), and its rootedness in the local, handicraft-friendly environment. ‘To thine own self be true’ was their motto.
In this Christmas scene, many wear the traditional costumes of their villages with their varied headgear, and the little boy wears Sami boots with their distinctive, upturned toes, made from reindeer skin, which functions as a natural cold barrier. (A reindeer tushie pad is essential gear for winter hikers/skiers planning to sit on the snow. Seated on one, your backside becomes neither wet nor cold.) A ‘live’ nativity scene in the background and the evergreen tree remind viewers of the twin reasons for the season, as do the candles, reminding viewers of the daily increase of daylight (5-9 minutes per day depending on one’s latitude) after the solstice. The biggest reason for the rejoicing of Scandinavians at Christmas is not linked to religion or even to family and friends, but to increasing rather than decreasing daylight.
The painting’s symmetry, bifurcated by the woman coming to greet us, suggests balance and harmony—in this home with its authentic values and in a Sweden guided by the principles of honesty, authenticity, and ‘do unto others’. Larsson represents the social democratic ideal of the nation as a ‘family of the people’ (notice the little flags on the tree), with each contributing according to their abilities and receiving according to their needs, a relationship celebrated at this singularly important time of year. Karin smiles at us from the far left corner and the aproned legs of Carl project from behind the tree. He enjoyed including tongue-in-cheek self-references in his paintings.
I confess to wanting to live in this idyllic world, one attainable through self-creation. The Larssons do-it-yourself, be yourself ethos guided me once I learned about it while conducting dissertation research in Sweden several decades ago. Especially at Christmas/Hanukkah/Winter Solstice time, all holidays where light plays a key role. I, too, have candles on my tree and throughout the house. Every ornament has a memory attached to it, conducting me to treasured moments in my past as I enjoy a cup of glögg or cocoa in the quiet evenings before bedtime. Living with the furniture I grew up with in the homes of my parents and grandparents and surrounded by the naive carvings of my woodworking father generate a sense of peace and well-being through connectedness to the past, which feels more reassuring than sad, even if they evoke never-to-be-repeated moments. These are all things that somehow feel a part of me.
I didn’t grow up with candles on the tree, but rather strings of colored lights, like everyone else in the 1960s. I’d only seen images of such magical trees on television and on cards. While in graduate school I confessed my desire to have a candle-embellished tree to my only Swiss friend, appropriately named Heidi, and she, when she returned from a visit to her native Basel, brought me a shoebox filled with candleholders that had belonged to her grandparents. I’ve used them every Christmas since and think of her fondly when I do. Although we’ve never spent Christmas together, Heidi transformed mine into the magical one I imagined as a child. You just never know when or how your dreams will be fulfilled, but it’s important to understand that they will if you truly believe. For me, that’s the lesson of the season – believe in the magic. Create fertile ground for it and it will arrive and thrive.
An important phase of dream-realization occurred for me during the pandemic in Paris, and I wrote about it in An American in Pandemic Paris. A Coming-of-Retirement-Age Memoir, in case you’d like to learn more. Or, if you’d just like to find out how Michelle’s Perfect Paris Day unfolds, sign up for my missive (extremely sporadic; click HERE) and receive a link to my holiday gift to you.