Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 14: Lussekatt

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Lussekatt‘ which is a traditional saffron bun.

Generally, I love Swedish pastries but the lussekatt is not one of my favourites I’m sorry to say. However, the sight and smell of them screams Advent and Christmas in Sweden. The lussekatt, is a rich, spiced yeast-leavened sweet bun that is flavoured with saffron and contains raisins.

The buns are baked into many traditional shapes, of which the most common is a reversed S-shape. They are traditionally eaten during Advent, and especially on Saint Lucy’s Day, December 13. This could be the reason why it is called ‘lusse’ – a derivative of Lucy. However, there is a more sinister explanation.

In one theory, the lussekatt has its origins in Germany in the 1600’s. According to legend at that time, the devil used to appear as a cat, to torment children. To counteract this, people baked buns and colored them bright yellow to mimic the sun and scare away the devil. In West Sweden, the saffron buns were referred to as Devil’s buns and the theory is that the name Lussekatt, comes from the word Lucifer.

Whatever the origin, the lussekatt remains a clear favourite in Sweden to eat at Christmas with pepparkaka and washed down with glögg.

If you’d like to bake your own lussekatt, you can find a recipe here

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 13: Lucia

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Lucia‘ – a Swedish saint who is commemorated today.

At the darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning. Lucia has candles in her hair and is surrounded by her handmaidens and boys, and shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

Santa Lucia is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a martyr’s death in Syracuse, Sicily around AD 310. She was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes, in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result of this, Lucia became a devout Christian and refused to compromise her virginity in marriage. Officials threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her, even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her instead and set light to it, but she would not stop speaking. One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop her, but to no effect. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. Lucia was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrement.

The tradition of Santa Lucia is said to have been brought to Sweden via Italian merchants and the idea of lighting up the dark appealed so much that the tradition remained. The current tradition of having a white-dressed woman with candles in her hair appearing on the morning of the Lucia day started in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 19th century.

The modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. The initiative was then followed around the country through the local press. Today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread.

So, it might be cold and dark outside, but remember – after darkness comes the light.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 12: Julstjärna

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Julstjärna‘ which translates literally as Christmas star and is a plant. It is pronounced ‘yule hwaerna’ (ish).

The Christmas star – ”Julstjärna” – is a plant originating in Mexico, that is popular as a decoration at Christmas time in Sweden. Its English name is poinsettia, named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first US minister to Mexico and who was credited with introducing the plant to the USA in the 1820’s. Interestingly, today December 12 is international poinsettia day, the anniversary of the death of Mr Poinsett.

The ‘julstjärna’ is not a plant that one sees very often during the rest of the year in Sweden, but suddenly at Christmas it explodes onto the scene and is a feature in most offices, homes and public buildings.

The flower has dark green and red leaves which is why it is popular at Christmas I guess. It also comes with white leaves, pink leaves and speckled leaves. The leaves are shaped a bit like a star, and I am assuming that where the Swedish name ‘Christmas star’ comes from. In Sweden, approximately 9 million ‘julstjärnor’ are bought every year.

Other popular flowers and plants that Swedes decorate their homes with at Christmas time are, amongst others, the towering amaryllis, the fragrant hyacinth, the romantic mistletoe, the tempestuous red tulip, and branches with bright red berries on them.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 11: Nubbe

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Nubbe‘ which is the colloquial word for an alcoholic shot known as snaps.

Nubbe, or snaps, is a really popular drink that Swedes enjoy at Christmas time. At its base, it is a strong spirit (30-38% alcohol content) called ‘brännvin’ which is distilled from potatoes or grain.

It can be plain and colourless, or flavoured with herbs and spices. Sometimes it can be sweet and infused with, for example blackcurrant, elderflower or raspberry. Others can be so bitter they make your toes curl – flavoured with for example aniseed, wort or wormwood. If it includes caraway or dill, it can according to EU patent protection be called akvavit.

A mouthful-size of ‘brännvin’ is called a snaps or a nubbe and it is drunk out of small glasses. Usually it is consumed when eating traditional food, and may also be accompanied by a ‘snapsvisa’ – a drinking song.

One popular drinking song at Christmas is called ‘Hej Tomtegubbar‘ which translates roughly as:

‘Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Our time is brief upon the earth, with many troubles and little mirth

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

After a few snapses, the party atmosphere usually begins – with more singing, speeches and maybe even some dancing. For Swedes, snaps is such an important tradition that it is drunk not only at Christmas but at most festive times – such as Easter, Midsummer and autumn’s crayfish party.

According to The Swedish alcohol monopoly, Swedes have been flavouring their ‘brännvin’ since the 1500’s and the word ‘Nubbe’ as a slang word for snaps turned up first in 1892.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 10: Nobeldagen

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Nobeldagen‘ which translates as ‘Nobel Day’.

Nobel Day is not actually anything to do with Christmas. However, it is a traditional part of the lead up to Christmas. Every year on 10 December, since 1901, the Nobel Prizes are awarded. The date commemorates the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896.

With celebratory lectures, ceremonies and concerts, the day culminates with a banquet in the City Hall. The banquet lasts about 3 and a half hours and is televised. It is an extremely grand and formal occasion. Everything from the porcelain to the floral arrangements to the dresses, the entertainment and the menu are under scrutiny for the tv viewers.

The guests include not only the Nobel laureates and their families, but also Swedish royals and aristocrats, politicians, ministers, celebrities and other notable people. Even though there are 1300 guests, is virtually impossible for ordinary folk to get an invitation to the banquet. We have to enjoy it from afar, via the flat screens in our living rooms.

However exclusive the whole thing might be, it is still a welcome splash of glamour in the dark approach to Christmas.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 9: Julbelysning

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and the festive season.

Today’s word is ‘Julbelysning‘ which translates as ‘Christmas lights’.

Like others around the world, Sweden’s cities and towns install public Christmas lights this time of the year. These decorations illuminate the dark December days and are an important part of building up the Christmas cheer at an otherwise miserable time of the year.

Currently in Stockholm, one million lights have been lit and the city is populated with twinkling elk, reindeer, pine cones, angels, stars and fir trees. Gothenburg, on the other hand, has heavily reduced their Christmas decorations this year saving 2 million Swedish kronor in the process. In Malmö, 400,000 lights have been switched on and brighten up bridges, squares and streets.

Since 1996, on Skeppsbron in Stockholm, the city’s largest Christmas tree has been positioned. An enormous, impressive tree that towers over the buildings of the Old Town and spreads its light over the harbour. The tree in actual fact isn’t a real tree – it is constructed over a central pole with branches attached to it. In doing so, the tree is pleasingly symmetrical.

If you’d like to walk around and see the lights in Stockholm, the city has produced a map which you can find here.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 8: Ernst

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes (WtS) Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and the festive season.

Today’s word is ‘Ernst‘ which translates as, well… Ernst.

What on earth is an Ernst you might wonder? Well, the question should rather be ‘who’ is Ernst. Ernst Kirschsteiger is a person who, by many, is considered to be Mr Christmas in Sweden. He is a very popular interior designer who currently has a TV program called Ernst’s Christmas.

In his program he simply explodes festive spirit. He decorates and bakes and creates. He wallpapers and chisels and hammers. He sews and paints and he crafts. I would describe his design ethic as a nature-oriented retro scandi chic. He has a poetic, philosophical attitude to interior design coupled with practical solutions. This week he made, for example, Christmas decorations out of mandarin peel and wire and inspired us with a wreath of dried garden flowers, moss and brussel sprouts.

Some people find him very cheesy and goofy but he has definitely cornered the market on Christmas coziness. Many viewers see him as the idea of male perfection – a sensitive man who cooks, builds and decorates the home – all wrapped up in one sweet Christmas treat.

Since his tv debut in 2000, Ernst Kirschsteiger has grown to be a phenomena who only needs referring to by his first name, like Cher, Madonna and Prince. So popular is he that a book of his quotes and poetic wisdoms called ‘Ernstologi’ was released in 2006 and became a popular Christmas present that year.

If you want to witness the phenomena (in Swedish however), watch this YouTube clip and enjoy!