Keith Lindquist keeps the secret recipe for Grandfather's Christmas sausage at home in a safe. Although it's not like he ever actually locks the safe. "It's mostly so I don't forget where the recipe is from year to year," he admitted, laughing.

Grandpa Harry Lindquist was a butcher by trade, as his recipe shows with its call for 9¼ hands of salt. What's a quarter-hand of salt?

Grandpa knew, directing the relatives who helped him make sausage each December before he died in 1989. Devoting a weekend to the task has had to adapt to the times, though, and today a butcher is entrusted with making the centerpiece of the Christmas Eve meal.

Whether it's making sausage, baking cookies or singing carols in four-part harmony, tradition takes on a heightened importance this time of year. Here's what one tradition means to one Minnesota family.

• • •

Harry Lindquist loved being a butcher in north Minneapolis, in a time when meat counters were as common as Starbucks is today. So it was natural for him to fiddle with a sausage recipe until he came up with a winner; in this case, a mixture of mostly pork, some beef, handfuls of salt and a generous infusion of allspice, a nod to his Swedish heritage.

For years, the recipe was his secret, jotted on a small piece of notepaper that his son, Earle, 91, of Crystal, keeps in his own similarly unlocked lockbox.

(A quick digression into the nature of family traits: To show what a gentle soul his father was, Earle told how they were disciplined as children. If Mom was dishing out punishment, "she'd have us cut our own lilac switch. But dad had a strap and he'd take us up to the bedroom and start hitting the bed -- whap, whap -- then tell us, 'Start hollerin'!'"

(The middle-aged nephews listening to this story burst into laughter, all but Keith, who stared at Uncle Earle and said, "That's just what my dad would do!")

The secret recipe was revealed as the boys grew old enough to help, clomping down into the basement "where there was a big long table, all varnished up, with the butcher tools and grinders," said Keith, who lives in Hopkins. Grandpa's two daughters, Charlotte and Alice, weren't involved. "It was entirely a boys' deal," said Alice (now Lundblad), 98, of Minneapolis. "I imagine my mother was around to help clean up the vessels, although my father was a very good cleaner."

Over time, the girls edged their way into the event. Alice's daughter, Janet Vanfossan of Minneapolis, remembers helping in the basement, but credits the uncles for keeping up the tradition as kids went off to college. "It really became a wonderful way to honor Grandpa," Vanfossan said.

Honor proved a double-edged cleaver, though, for as more relatives, friends and neighbors requested their own coil of Christmas sausage, even the most diligent of sausage-stuffers couldn't keep up.

The search for a proper butcher began. Despite there being a recipe, directions such as 9¼ hands of salt were open to interpretation. One butcher trimmed too much fat, while another left too much on.

Then Dave Hansen, Charlotte's son, shared the recipe with Tim Faacks, who for 30 years has worked in the meat department of Tim and Tom's Speedy Market in Hansen's St. Anthony Park neighborhood. Using the secret recipe, Faacks' batches passed muster, "and it just bloomed out from there," Faacks said. Any customer can buy the Christmas sausage at the St. Paul market, and he figures he'll have made about 1,500 pounds of it by the time he wraps things up around New Year's Day.

A Scandinavian delicacy

Today, the sausage gets shipped around the country. It was the one thing that Hansen's daughter, Britta, requested when they visited her in Bolivia during her stint in the Peace Corps. (And this was during her vegetarian years.)

The sausage has a Scandinavian personality, more aromatic than spicy, a firm and taciturn mixture sold in spirals of hog casings. (Beef casings are for potato sausage, of course, which is the sort of thing you learn from the son of a butcher.)

It's not just the flavor, but the smell that wafts through a house as it's being fried. And while the sausage may be best when baked (40 minutes at 375 degrees), Keith likes frying "because then you can hear it," he said, adding that his sister likes to eat healthy "but this is the only thing she just has to fry." At their father Rodger's funeral in 2002, there was Christmas sausage.

For the past five years, customers at the Hansen Tree Farm in Ramsey have been able to enjoy the sausage. Dave and Mark Hansen (Charlotte's sons) serve it in buns to hungry tree-choppers, making it part of their holiday tradition, as well.

While the Lindquists, Lundblads, Hansens and Vanfossans have been eating Christmas sausage all month, its most honored serving comes on Christmas Eve. Kitchens will fill with the sound of sizzling, and the air will smell of allspice.

Each generation will have a different memory, some recalling the feel of paring fat from a hog's great haunch, while others will remember feeling dwarfed by a heaping plate of sausage being passed down the table.

"Partly what makes the sausage special is that everything from our childhood comes back," Keith said. "I mean, things flash before your eyes, one little episode that would never have come up, and all of a sudden, there it is."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185