Fish-eating Swedes

It’s no surprise that Sweden is a fish-eating nation given the amount of coastline the country has. Fish features heavily in a lot of the traditional and holiday time dishes. At Christmas there’s pickled herring, smoked salmon, whitefish in lye for example. At Easter, the herring comes out again. At Midsummer, well, herring graces the traditional menu together with cured salmon and shrimps. In August, the crayfish party happens, which is my personal favourite. 

Today is New Year’s Eve. Do Swedes eat fishy food today? Yes they do, and I have proof. 66 people in the queue before us at the fish shop! Over an hour’s wait! And what were most people buying? Well, in line with Swedish new year tradition, lobster!

Have a fun New Year’s Eve – whatever you are eating!

The banning of gingerbread in a tolerant society

gingerbread-manA short while ago an elementary school in the small town of Laxå placed a ban. The ban was preventing children, when participating in the annual Lucia celebration, from dressing up as gingerbread men, as is the tradition. The reason, it is claimed, was to not cause offense to anybody brown-skinned. This decision has caused a storm on social media and news media around the world. The school later backtracked and lifted the ban, claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding.

Whatever the reason, this is a great example of the fragility of a tolerant society. Sweden is a tolerant society in comparison to many countries around the world. However, in a tolerant society, the question always arises at what point should we say no to something in order to reinforce our own values, traditions and beliefs. It is my experience in Sweden that many people are afraid of standing up for what they believe for the fear of being labelled racist. Sweden is in a very sensitive political shape at the moment with the right-wing nationalistic party, the Swedish Democrats, being the third largest party in the country. So, the issue of tolerance and racism has never been more relevant than now.

There is a definéd process of development that people and societies go through when developing intercultural competence and understanding.
– The first stage is ‘denial’ – in which people refuse to accept that others are different.
– The second stage is ‘duality’, where people start to see that there are other ways but the other ways are wrong.
– The third stage is ‘relativity’ where people understand everything is relative and that there are lots of right ways. And this is the stage in which I believe Sweden is ‘stuck’ politically and socially.
– There is a fourth stage, which is difficult to achieve, and it is called ‘commitment in relativity’. This is the stage in which people can say that they understand that there are different ways but that certain behaviours/attitudes etc are not ok here. This is the stage when we feel strength to stand up for what we believe without being racist or afraid that we are perceived as racists. Racism and racial discrimination are often used to describe discrimination on an ethnic basis and not, in my view, the same thing as standing up for what you believe is right or wrong.

The example of the gingerbread ban, be it a misunderstanding or not, is a good example. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the school’s decision to change the tradition was based on the fear of being perceived as racist. In my mind, this is a social decision springing from the third stage described above. In other words, from their perspective, an acceptance that people are different and that we should tolerate this means that we should change our traditions and attitudes so as not to cause offense to them. I am not saying this is easy, but I think this is an underdeveloped decision.

Take another example – the hitting of children. In most countries around the world, violence against children is not illegal. Does this make it ok? The relativist would say yes, based on the circumstances and traditions in that country, it’s ok. But I would say no. It’s not ok. It’s not ok here, it’s not ok there, it’s not ok anywhere. Does that make me a racist? No it doesn’t. But what it does mean is that I commit to my values and stand up for them.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying tolerance is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. Tolerance and understanding are essential for human interaction. But if Sweden is to meet the genuinely racist tendencies in society, people have to face up to the fear of being perceived a racist, and instead, without racial prejudice, stand up for their beliefs and values. The beliefs and values that make Sweden the unique place it is.

Santa Lucia – the Swedish festival of light

Lucia December 13

Today is Lucia Day and this is a beautiful day in which Swedes celebrate Saint Lucia who brings the light to all the dark places. It is especially beautiful and atmospheric to witness a Lucia procession at this dark time of year. Lucia herself wears candles in her hair as she leads her maidens and followers around the town streets and in churches. But where does the whole thing come from? Why do Swedes celebrate a Sicilian saint? Agneta Lilja from Södertörn University College gives us a retrospective:

‘The Lucia tradition can be traced back both to St Lucia of Syracuse, a martyr who died in 304, and to the Swedish legend of Lucia as Adam’s first wife. It is said that she consorted with the Devil and that her children were invisible infernals. Thus the name may be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer (Satan), and its origins are difficult to determine. The present custom appears to be a blend of traditions. In the old almanac, Lucia Night was the longest of the year. It was a dangerous night when supernatural beings were abroad and all animals could speak. By morning, the livestock needed extra feed. People, too, needed extra nourishment and were urged to eat seven or nine hearty breakfasts. This kind of feasting presaged the Christmas fast, which began on Lucia Day. The last person to rise that morning was nicknamed ‘Lusse the Louse’ and often given a playful beating round the legs with birch twigs. The slaughtering and threshing were supposed to be over by Lucia and the sheds to be filled with food in preparation for Christmas. In agrarian Sweden, young people used to dress up as Lucia figures (lussegubbar) that night and wander from house to house singing songs and scrounging for food and schnapps.

The first recorded appearance of a white-clad Lucia in Sweden was in a country house in 1764. The custom did not become universally popular in Swedish society until the 20th century, when schools and local associations in particular began promoting it. The old lussegubbar custom virtually disappeared with urban migration, and white-clad Lucias with their singing processions were considered a more acceptable, controlled form of celebration than the youthful carousals of the past. Stockholm proclaimed its first Lucia in 1927. The custom whereby Lucia serves coffee and buns (lussekatter) dates back to the 1880s, although the buns were around long before that.’

Swedish dinners


Food is in the highest degree cultural. Our memories of childhood and our upbringing are often connected to food. What we eat, how we cook it, when we eat it and who with and the rituals around the consumption of food are all cultural. What generations pass down through generations – recipes, stories, table manners, traditions – all of them cultural.

Often when we travel or live abroad many of the strongest and lasting memories we have are connected to cuisine. That sloppy stew we ate at Clara’s Place in Soweto, or that fresh tuna that we devoured in Bodega Bay, the vegetarian street food from Penang and the spicy mango salad in Bangkok are often what we think of when we recall the visit to that particular country.

I am fascinated by rituals around food, and I have had a couple of recent experiences in Sweden connected to this. At the weekend, I was going out for dinner in Stockholm with a large party of about 60 people. The non-Swedish owner of the restaurant had declared that everybody should pay their dinner on arrival. The result of this was a mood-testing long queue partly in the restaurant and partly out into the snowy and windy winter street. Each person waited patiently to pay at the counter, some in cash and some with card, and bought a drink before sitting down. The process was insufferable and took the best part of an hour until everyone was seated and the food could be delivered. I know that Swedes typically prefer queuing, just like us Brits, but this was ridiculous and not the best start to what was later a pleasant evening.

Another food ritual is happening this evening in the City Hall in Sweden. Today is the anniversary day of Albert Nobel’s death in 1896 and for over 100 years has been the day of the Nobel banquet when the Nobel winners receive their prizes from the King and then sit through a 5-hour long banquet. This is an evening full of ritual, of glamour, intelligence, royalty and gossip. The whole thing is televised and many Swedes sit infront of the television to watch it, me included. To watch people eating for 5 hours. It is rather a strange and idiosynchratic cultural event. I am not aware of any other country in the world that has this kind of culinary celebration.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to my potato crisps.