Let There Be Light
Loving Swedish Charm for the Holidays
Photos by Wendy Carlson
Winters in Scandinavia are long, dark, and cold, which led Edie van Breems to observe there are two kinds of Swedes: the winter Swedes, those brooding, dark, existential Ingmar Bergman types; and the summer Swedes, those embracing light and warmth no matter the weather. Edie is decidedly the latter. Even on the harshest of winter days, her 1700s Swedish-style vintage farmhouse radiates love, life, and light.
The rustic home in pastoral Greenfield Hill becomes a gathering place for friends and family, especially with the arrival the winter solstice and St. Lucia Day. The aroma of Glögg, a mulled Swedish wine, and Aquavit, distilled liquor flavored often with fennel or cardamom, mingles with the scent of fresh-cut evergreens. Canapes of salmon topped with cream cheese and dill sprigs, and pickled herring served on rye or “ruis” bread are a prelude to a sumptuous smorgasbord. Vanilla, almond and cinnamon cookies; marzipan and honey cakes presented in the traditional Scandinavian Christmas heart-shape motifs are prepared by Rhonda Eleish, Edie’s partner in Eleish van Breems Ltd., an antique Scandinavian furniture and decor business.
The two women first forged a friendship in grade school when they both attended Green Farms Academy in Westport. But it wasn’t until decades later as adults when they delved into their Swedish heritage that they discovered they both shared a deep passion for Scandinavia. Rhonda had connections in the antique world through her Swedish aunt, a well-known dealer whose father was C.W. Gullers, a famous photographer on whom Stieg Larsson, author of the Millennium crime novels, based his main character.
Before long Edie and Rhonda became the Swedish version of American Pickers, rumbling across the Nordic countryside in a beat-up old Volvo station wagon hunting for rare and wonderful vintage pieces, often logging in 12- and 15-hour days and plying those gruff winter Swedes with the occasional gift of a bottle of whiskey.
In 1998, the two opened an antiques gallery in Woodbury that showcased the Scandinavian lifestyle featuring Gustavian formal and country Swedish folk antiques. They eventually moved their storefront online and by appointment, using Edie’s house as a design studio. “We’ve had success with it because we’re both in love with Scandinavian culture, the food, the furniture, the design, and just their clean, refreshing way of life,” says Edie.
Together, they have written three books on Scandinavian furniture and interiors, but their personal lives are also entwined. Edie is godmother to Rhonda’s eight-year-old daughter Kari, and Rhonda is godmother to Lars, 18, the eldest of Edie’s two sons. “The children have all grown up together, so we’re very much like family,” says Rhonda. Come December, Edie and Rhonda, who lives in Southport, draw from their favorite Swedish Christmas traditions for the holiday.
“I had a Swedish nanny growing up in Fairfield who lived across the street, and I would spend the afternoons making Christmas cookies with her and that’s how I learned all about Swedish baking,” says Rhonda.
For Edie, the holiday season has a special meaning. She was born on December 13, which marks the celebration of St. Lucia. According to legend, on that day in 1764, a young gentleman was awakened from his sleep by a young woman in white, singing and dancing through his room. She had wings and carried a candle. St. Lucia brought light, food, and wine for comfort on what was in the Georgian calendar, the longest night of the year. But she also came to symbolize the Nordic struggle between light and dark.
Throughout the house though, in keeping with St. Lucia, Christmas decor is light and bright. The dining room features their line of reproduction Gustavian furniture, a style that dates back to the king of Sweden, Gustav III. After returning home to Sweden after staying at the court of Louis XVI at Versailles, he was influenced by the neoclassical style and sought to recreate it in Sweden. Gustavian furniture initially was reserved for royal palaces, but the style became popular in country homes where furniture was either white-washed or painted gray or soft cream. The light-painted finish provided a reflective quality during the long dark winters, and older pieces have the unique patina of the aged, painted wood. “I sort of have a fondness for things in decay,” concedes Edie. Indeed, it was raw authenticity that originally drew her and her former husband to buy the house, which was once owned by the Anatole Broyard, a literary critic and editor for the New York Times.
But when she first saw the clapboard farmhouse nearly 18 years ago, it had been partially destroyed by a fire. She fell in love with the place despite its crumbling walls. “I just had to have the house, and then it turned out the current owner was a Swedish photographer so it was somewhat serendipity,” she says.
No surprise, Edie’s home is filled with Swedish antiques. A beautifully hand-painted trunk from Lapland graces a corner next to the fieldstone fireplace where stockings are hung and elf cookies are left for the Nisse on Christmas Eve. According to Scandinavian lore, the Nisse is the Scandinavian version of Santa Claus, although he is somewhat naughty, opting to play tricks on people who don’t provide him with the requisite sweets. If he’s pleased, the Nisse will stuff your winter boots with presents. While he looks very much like Santa with his long, white beard, he is generally no taller than three feet. He doesn’t come down the chimney, or drive a sleigh pulled by reindeer. And, he is neither fat nor jolly. “A true winter Swede,” quips Edie. n