Jerry Johnson's great-grandmother came to the U.S. from Sweden when she was 15. Her own mother would make periodic visits back to the old world with her own grandparents. Other great-grandparents came from Norway.
As a young woman, Johnson, now grandmother of two, fell in love with the paintings of revered 19th-century Swedish artist Carl Larsson. He drew on his own family life for inspiration, and his beautifully designed and decorated home in Sundborn figures in many idyllic paintings that came to epitomize Swedish life.
Johnson began collecting Larsson prints and later added works of another great Swedish painter, Anders Zorn, to her collection, all the while subtly weaving the Scandinavian aesthetic through her own Santa Rosa home. Simple Kosta Boda and Orrefors crystal and glass, damask print furniture and gingham checked linens, along with accents of bright reds and yellows, subtly draw from the Scandinavian motif without appearing contrived.
Every Christmas she reaches back to her Scandinavian roots with the same kind of decorations that those ancestors might have used to brighten the yuletide during those long dark December nights in the far north. There are few hours of daylight.
"Even then, it's not really light," says Johnson, who has made pilgrimages back to the land of her forefathers on several occasions, including winter. "The sun never gets high in the sky. It's low on the horizon and circles and dips back down."
Because they live a good part of the year by night, Scandinavians must learn to survive not just the bite of Jack Frost but also the severe deprivation of light.
That may explain why the tradition of candelabra glittering through the windows is practiced so religiously, and why Scandinavians are so attracted to bright colors, said Johnson, who keeps these now electric candelabra glowing in her own windows.
Her Shiloh Estates home, with its charming herds of painted Dala Horses, glass ornaments and other traditional Scandinavian d?or and collectibles, is one of the featured stops on the Holiday Home Tour on Dec. 8 sponsored by The Junior League of Napa-Sonoma.
The tour is a chance to see how Christmas can be conveyed in so many diverse ways. Tour-goers will get a peek at a new 6,000-square-foot Santa Barbara-style estate decorated with designer touches.
They can also visit Casa del Leone, the home of Ron and Laura Allen and their four kids, with its 30-foot ceilings featuring elaborate woodwork. Laura has partnered with Jerry Bolduan, a renowned hydrangea specialist who has done a lot of design work for Martha Stewart, to dress the house with seasonal wreaths and arrangements.
For her Christmas displays, Johnson takes great care, in Scandinavian style, to keep it tasteful and constrained. Small glass ball and pewter ornaments dangle from ornament hangers and tabletop trees in small visual pops of color.
On her mantelpiece and piano perch the Tomten, Nordic gnomes with tall hats and beards. She buys her handmade wool and felt Tomten figurines from a Swedish artisan. The Tomten are cranky little men who live in houses and barns, eating snitched food scraps.
"There's a tradition of leaving porridge out for them, so they don't steal your gifts," Johnson says.
Johnson grew up with few traditions herself, re-learning the old ways on her own. Immigrants of earlier generations were eager to be Americanized. Johnson's mother grew up with her Swedish grandparents, who never spoke their native tongue. And yet, when they took her to Sweden when she was 9, they spoke nothing but Swedish, telling the confused girl, "Now we are in Sweden, so we'll speak Swedish."