Sweden’s 2016

What signified 2016 as a year? 

Disregarding Brexit, terrorist attacks, human tragedies of displacement, the celebrity death spate and Trump’s triumph for a moment, what was other important news in Sweden? 

One of the most covered stories in the media was Sweden’s refugee policy. As the EU collapsed, and tens of thousands of people streamed into Sweden many Swedes reacted negatively.  Eventually the border was closed between Sweden and Denmark – the very same bridge made famous in the detective series ‘The Bridge’. The border closing succeeded in stemming the influx. 

Bob Dylan won the notorious Nobel Prize for Literature. Refusing to attend the ceremony in Stockholm, he inspired headlines such as ‘there’s not much rebel in nobel’. 

Swedish actress Alicia Wikander won an Oscar. Only Ingrid Bergman had won one (actually two) previously. Alicia officially became Sweden’s sweetheart together with Olympic swimmer Sara Sjöström who brings home a gold, silver and bronze to the mother nation. 

The Swedish royals kept the media busy with two baby princes – Oscar and Alexander. The country is divided into cooing royalists, rabid republicans and those who couldn’t care less. 

British indie boy band Viola Beach die tragically when their car plunges off a bridge outside of Stockholm in the middle of the night. 

Outlying areas of Sweden’s main cities develop into the Wild West. Malmö, Gothenburg and Stockholm report many shootings and brutal deaths throughout 2016. 

The Eurovision Song Contest is held in Stockholm. The city welcomes thousands of visitors and the event is a roaring success. Next year the contest moves on to Ukraine. Let’s see how that goes. 

Lots of political resignations happen during the year. Everything from drunk driving to dining with extremists, partying at sex cabarets, lack of confidence and renting out cheap apartments are cited as the various reasons. 

Sweden’s foreign minister criticizes amongst others the Israeli state. Her outspoken words earn her an unflattering place on the top ten list of antisemites of the year. 

And then there’s the weather. Whether the weather’s hot, cold, windy or snowy, it features as a constant headline in Swedish media. This is at least one news item we know will continue into 2017. 

What else will the new year hold? Well, that’s the magic of time. Who knows? 

Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be as eventful, terrible and beautiful as the year gone by. 

How to give festive greetings the Swedish way 

I used to be very confused. Now I’m only a bit confused. 

You see, in British English we give festive greetings by saying Merry Christmas and that lasts until the end of December until we say Happy New Year. That’s it. 

In Swedish, it’s a bit different. And it’s not totally clear. 

Leading up to Christmas, Swedes say ‘God Jul’, Merry Christmas. This lasts until around Christmas Day. 

Then it at some point changes into the greeting of ‘God Fortsättning’ which literally means Good Continuation. 

This keeps continuing until at some time between the 28th and 31st Dec, it becomes ‘Gott Slut’. This doesn’t mean Good Slut but Good End. 

This lasts to the end of December and then from 1st Jan it becomes Happy New Year – ‘Gott Nytt År’. And then from the 2nd Jan, it becomes ‘God Fortsättning’ – Good Continuation– for a while, I actually haven’t worked out for how long. 

Not as straightforward as in English maybe. However, Swedish etiquette expert Magdalena Ribbing provides us with a way out of potential embarrassment. According to her, it is not so important what one says. What’s more important is that one actually greets another person. 

A shockingly early Swedish Christmas 

Christmas Eve is the day of celebration in Sweden. So what happens on Christmas Day? Mostly it’s about eating the leftovers, going to the sales, maybe the cinema, chilling out. However for some people it has a more symbolic meaning as they get up at the crack of dawn and go to the shockingly early Christmas service called Julotta. 
Julotta is usually held at 7 AM in most churches, but in some churches it is celebrated as early as 4 AM. During previous decades, most Julottas were held at 4 AM. Traditionally, the service should end before, or at the time of, dawn: hence the word otta which means ‘the time just before dawn’. 

Swedish immigrants have even spread the festivity to different countries. The earliest recorded history of Julotta service in the United States of America was held in Strombeck Church in Minnesota in 1883. After Julotta, people raced to get home first from the church. The winner was believed to harvest the most bountiful crops for the year ahead.
Merry Christmas! God Jul! 

Toward the light! 

Today  is the Winter Soltice, the day when the sun is the furthest away from the northern hemisphere. At 11.44 today to be exact. Way in the north of Sweden, the sun doesn’t even go up for 24 hours. But from tomorrow, the familiar hot ball of heat starts getting closer again and we move towards the light and from January 1st it’s visible in the sky at some point all over Sweden. 

Moving towards the light is a big deal for the dark countries like Sweden. In Swedish folklore, the winter solstice was a dangerous night when animals could talk and supernatural spirits appeared. Animal sacrifice was common to appease the gods and beg them to bring the light back. Today’s not as extreme as that but it is a topic of comment -on social media, in coffee rooms and on the cover of most newspapers who emblazon the phrase ‘now we’re going towards lighter times’. 

It’s astronomical but also metaphorical. After all that’s happened this autumn and winter, it feels positive that the forces of light are gaining more strength.
For a while at least. 

Shedding my light on the Lucia debate


Today is Santa Lucia in Sweden – December 13th.  At the darkest time of the year, when we all are drained by the black mornings and afternoons, Lucia pays us a visit. With candles in hair and surrounded by a posse of singers, Lucia shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. The music plays. The choir harmonises. Lucia smiles at us. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

I love Lucia. Long live Lucia – this Sicilian martyr, who’s tradition is said to have come to Sweden via Italian merchants around the late 18th century.

Every year, towns around Sweden elect a Lucia and they visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread. And every year there is a debate about who owns the right to be Lucia. The answer to that question depends on your starting point – does one take a traditional view or a modernist view? The Swedish traditionalists will say that Lucia definitely has to be a girl, ideally blonde and blue-eyed. The modernists will say Lucia should reflect today’s society and therefore can be any colour or gender.

This year, as many before, the debate took a nasty turn. A large department store depicted Lucia as a gender-neutral, dark-skinned child. For some people, this was too much. Hateful, despicably racist, and, of course, anonymous comments flowed in via social media, revealing yet another crack in Sweden’s tolerant facade.  Consequently, the department store removed the advert to protect the child. This social media behaviour is unacceptable and should be in no way condoned. Having a view point is everybody’s right (be it traditionalist or modernist), but attacking a child is something totally different.

As I watched Lucia this morning I was reminded of the real message. The humanist message. Sure, Lucia is literally about bringing light to the dark day. But the metaphor is clear, if we care to remember it. It is about caring. It is about being open even when we feel closed. It is about community.

One of the songs the choir sang this morning is called ‘Sprid ditt ljus’ – and I think this sums it all up. Translated into English, the chorus goes: ‘Spread your light, in the darkest times, warm us now and let us all feel peace’

Maybe it’s just me, but I think who is elected Lucia isn’t that important. What’s more important is that we remember the point. We should open our eyes to the light that is shone on our society where we have growing social divides, enormous groups of displaced people, poverty, starvation, homelessness on our streets.

Once a year, Lucia shines the light. Can we find it within us to shine our lights on each other? I, for one, intend to try.

Happy Lucia! May the light keep you warm.