Chicago – Sweden’s second largest city…

I’m currently in Chicago, and intrigued to learn more about its Swedish connections.

During the 19th and 20th centuries there was a mass emigration of Swedes to the USA. About 1.3 million people, an enormous number, are estimated to have left Sweden due to starvation, poverty and oppression.

By 1890 the U.S. census reported a Swedish-American population of nearly 800,000. Most immigrants became pioneers, clearing and cultivating the prairie in the Midwest, but some forces pushed the new immigrants towards the cities, particularly Chicago. At one point there were more Swedish people in Chicago than in any Swedish city except Stockholm. Chicago was Sweden’s second largest city in terms of population!

In Chicago, there are some remnants of Swedish history left. There are a number of famous Swedes hiding in Chicago. Carl Linnaeus has two statues, one on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park and one in the Heritage Garden of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Another icon Emanuel Swedenborg has a bust on Lake Shore Drive.

To the north of Chicago, there’s a neighborhood called Andersonville. Andersonville’s roots as a community extend well back into the 19th century, when immigrant Swedish farmers started moving north into what was then a distant suburb of Chicago. Swedish immigrants continued to arrive in Andersonville through the beginning of the 20th century, settling in the newly built homes surrounding Clark Street. Before long, the entire commercial strip was dominated by Swedish businesses. Today, Andersonville is a popular place to live and has festivities such as the Midsommarfest – one of Chicago’s largest and most popular street festivals.

The Swedish American Museum was founded in Andersonville in 1976, by Kurt Mathiasson, to preserve and disseminate the history of the great contributions of early Swedish immigrants to Chicago. The Museum was opened to the public in a ceremony attended by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

Andersonville remains one of the most concentrated areas of Swedish heritage in the United States, but its residents and businesses represent a wide array of cultures.

Today’s Swedes in Chicago are usually tourists visiting the Magnificent Mile and taking selfies in the mirrored bean statue. But it’s fascinating to remember that centuries before, a very different type of Swede trod these city streets.

Why is May 1st celebrated in Sweden?

In Sweden, and in many other countries, May 1st has been embraced as the International Workers’ Day. In 1938, May 1st became Sweden’s first non-religious public holiday and has been an important celebration of labourers and the working classes since then.

But why specifically May 1st?

The answer is found in a massacre in the USA. On 1 May 1886, laborers in Chicago went out on strike for an 8 hour working day. On 4 May 1886, Chicago police and the demonstrators clashed and 11 people died. The event is called the Haymarket massacre. Seven of the demonstrators were sentenced to death, despite lack of evidence. To commemorate the massacre, the socialist organization suggested that 1 May should become day of demonstrations every year.

Around Sweden, traffic is shut off, huge flag-waving demonstrations are held and people gather to hear speeches from their politicians and representatives – most commonly from the political left.

Contrary to the stereotype however, not everybody in Sweden supports left wing political groups. Many Swedes lean towards the centre or the right. For them, today is just a day off work – an opportunity to perhaps nurse hangovers from the festivities of the previous evening or to relax, watch Netflix, meet friends and enjoy the day.

Nowadays, there is always a racist shadow over May 1st celebrations. According to the Swedish law, even their right to demonstrate is protected. This year, the extreme right-wing Party ‘Nordiska motståndsrörelse’ will also be marching in the small towns of Ludvika, Fagersta and Kungälv. This inevitably means a counter-demonstration will occur and a potentially violent exchange of opinions will develop.

If you’re in Stockholm, head to Humlegården or Medborgarplatsen around 12.00 ish to catch the start of two demonstrations.

Walpurgis Eve – when spring arrives in Sweden

Today, 30 April, is Walpurgis Eve, called Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish. The name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century Saint Walburga, and in Sweden this day marks the arrival of spring.

On this evening, Swedes gather to celebrate together. The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. Essential celebrations include lighting a large bonfire, listing to choirs singing traditional spring songs and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season. Walpurgis bonfires are an impressive thing to see and are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis, cattle was put out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators.

The weather is often unpredictable on Walpurgis Eve. This year looks like it could be a warm evening, and some bonfires have even been forbidden due to fire risk after the exceptionally dry April that has passed.

However, it’s not unusual that it snows on 30 April! Despite bad weather, Swedes still shiver around the bonfires and ironically celebrate the arrival of Spring.

Where does the Swedish word for Easter -‘Påsk’- come from?

The English word Easter has a mythical etymology. It originates from the Germanic goddess of fertility – Eostre. Prior to the 300’s, pagan festivities were held in her honour in the month of April. These festivities were slowly replaced by Christian traditions from the 400’s to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – and given the ‘recognisable’ name Easter.

But what about the Swedish word for Easter – Påsk? Where does that originate?

During the same period as Easter, the world’s Jews celebrate a holiday of Passover to mark their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the ‘Book of Exodus’, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. The name of this celebration is ‘Pesach‘.

Originating in this word ‘pesach’ is the Aramaic word ‘paska‘. And from ‘paska’ comes the Swedish word ‘Påsk‘.

So, interestingly, the more secular country of Sweden actually has the most religious origin of the word Easter.

Sweden’s Easter tree – wiping, witching or whipping?

In Sweden, they don’t only have Christmas trees, they also have Easter trees.

This Easter tree, known as ‘påskris’, is a handful of twigs and sticks (usually birch) installed in a vase with coloured feathers attached to the ends. People often hang painted eggs and other decorations such as chickens in their installation.

The Easter tree can be seen all over the country at this time of year: outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, in gardens, in the middle of roundabouts.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena – but where does it originate?

Wiping: Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Witching: Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

Whipping: But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. Swedish people, in the 1600’s, used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with them on Good Friday to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?

Sweden’s Easter Art Drive

Now it’s Easter break with 4 lovely days off for most of us. In Sweden, this is a time that many people go out to their country houses or travel abroad to warmer climes. If you’re still in Sweden, and looking for something to do, one suggestion is to head south to the county of Skåne, and the region within Skåne called Österlen. Every year, over Easter, this area hosts an Easter Art Drive, or ‘Open Studios Week’ where you can travel around and get a rare glimpse into the homes and studios of working artists.

This event started in 1968, when a few artists decided to open their studios to the public. Within six years, this had expanded to well over 60 artists welcoming people directly in to their places of work. Most of the artistic fields are represented – sculptors, painters, textile artists, glassblowers, silversmiths, ceramic artists, printmakers, handcraftsmen, wood and computer artists.

It is a fantastic experience. Driving through the beautiful Swedish countryside between villages, wandering amongst the studios built from renovated barns, drinking coffee in the temporarily opened out buildings and hen houses.  The artists themselves are usually there and it is easy to engage in conversation about their work and their inspiration. Everything is for sale, so you can also leave Easter week with a unique and reasonably-priced piece of art under your arm.

For more information, check out http://www.oskg.nu/english

A witchy pink Thursday in Sweden

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Today is ‘Maundy Thursday’ in English and in Swedish it has the unusual name of ‘Skärtorsdag’. The word ‘skär’ means ‘pink’. But does that make today Pink Thursday?Actually not. The word ‘skär’ has another meaning that might be more relevant – ‘clean’ – and it is a biblical reference.

If you know your bible stories, today being the day before Good Friday is the day when Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper, introduced communion, and was later betrayed by Judas, and condemned to death on the cross. Prior to the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And he washed them clean – a symbolic metaphor for purification and the washing away of sin.

So, today isn’t Pink Thursday – it’s Clean Thursday. In fact, in English ‘Maundy Thursday’ also relates to the same act in the bible – the act of ritual cleaning is known an The Maundy.

However, in Sweden, today isn’t that much about washing feet – it’s more about witchcraft! Today is celebrated by children dressing up as witches, rather like we do in the UK and USA on Halloween. Children go door to door in their outfits begging for sweets. Well, at least this is what I have heard. In the 20 years I have lived in Sweden, no witchy child has ever knocked on my door. Maybe that’s a city thing?  Perhaps the tradition is more popular in the suburbs and the countryside?

But why do they dress at witches in the first place? Well, this tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that the Skärtorsdag was the night of the witches, where these wicked hags would climb onto their broomsticks and fly to a mountain called Blåkulle. It was a night of danger and evil, and Swedish people would bar their doors to their houses and barns and leave outside gifts that would make the witches’ journey easier – food, milk, clothes, broomsticks. Today, that translates into the Swedish version of trick or treating.

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So if you celebrate by cleaning, or by dressing up as a witch or by eating candy – you’ll be kicking off your Easter the Swedish way!