Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 17: årets julklapp

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 ‘Årets julklapp‘ which translates as ‘Christmas present of the year.’

Every year, Sweden’s trade research institute nominates an item that is the ‘Christmas present of the year’. This item should have sold in large quantities and/or represent current trends in Swedish society. 

The first item to be granted this status was in 1988 and it was the baking machine. Since then, various items have been the CD player, VR glasses, the tablet, the spike mat, the book, the food home delivery service, the robot hoover, the woolly hat and the wok. Last year’s was the recycled item of clothing – a reflection of today’s environmental awareness.

So this year, what is it? 

Given the current state of the world, one might hope that it is a charitable contribution. But no it’s not. It’s the mobile phone storage box. A kind of parking lot for mobiles.

What does this say about Sweden today?

25 years ago the mobile phone was the present of the year.

This year, is the mobile phone storage box reflecting the stressful nature of today’s society in which people seem to feel that they are wasting too much time on their smart phones?

So Happy Christmas and a mobile-minimized New Year! 

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 16: Julbord

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 ‘Julbord‘ which literally translates as Christmas table.

The word ‘smörgåsbord’ (buffet) is one of the words from the Swedish language to have the biggest international reach. The ‘julbord’ or Christmas table is the ‘smörgåsbord’ that is traditionally eaten in homes and restaurants on Christmas Eve – the day Swedes celebrate Christmas.

In the lead up to Christmas, companies often take their employees out somewhere for a ‘julbord’.

The ‘julbord’ is an interesting concept – a potpourri of dishes, hot and cold. Not all Swedes enjoy everything on the table, but the dishes still have to be present in the name of tradition.

So, what’s on the Swedish ‘julbord’? Here are some common savoury dishes:

  • Julskinka – Christmas ham
  • Inlagd sill – pickled herring
  • Köttbullar – Swedish meatballs
  • Prinskorvar – cocktail sausages
  • Janssons frestelse – potato and anchovy gratin called Jansson’s temptation
  • Gravad lax – cured spiced salmon
  • Kallrökt lax – cold-smoked salmon
  • Varmrökt lax – warm-smoked salmon
  • Kalvsylta – jellied veal
  • Knäckebröd och ost – crispbread and cheese
  • Sillsallad – herring salad
  • Lutfisk – whitefish in lye
  • Dopp i grytan – ‘dip in the pot’ – bread dipped in the broth that the meat is cooked in
  • Cabbage of various colours – most commonly red
  • Vörtbröd – Christmas bread flavoured with wort
  • Revbensspjäll – spare ribs

The ‘julbord’ is a banquet, and its history dates back hundreds of years. Around the country there are regional variants to the standard dishes. For example, in county Skåne, they often add eel, and in Bohuslän they add ‘äggost’ – egg cheese! Many regions around Sweden have brown beans and different local sausages on the their Christmas buffet.

All of this food is traditionally washed down with beer, julmust, and snaps.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 15: Musikhjälpen

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 ‘Musikhjälpen‘ which translates as Music Aid.

For the last 12 years, the radio/tv program ‘Musikhjälpen’ has become a traditional part of the lead up to Christmas. In this program, 3 presenters are locked into a glass ‘cage’ on a city square somewhere in Sweden. They are sleep deprived and only allowed to eat liquids. From the cage, they broadcast radio and tv round the clock for 6 days until they are released – which is happening today.

The program is a fund raising event and people up and down the country request songs and make donations, or carry out a range of fund raising activities. At most, the event has raised a staggering 74,410,363 SEK in 2017.

Every year the theme is different; this year the theme is ‘sex is not a weapon’.

Throughout the years, many of Sweden’s music and media celebrities have taken on the challenge of incarceration, such as singers Sara Dawn Finer, Daniel Adams-Ray and Linnea Henriksson, and rappers Petter and Timbuktu. This year, popular singer Miriam Bryant is locked in together with radio host Farah Abadi and comedian Daniel Hallberg.

The program is based on an original format called Serious Request from Holland and is an amazing display of charity just a couple of weeks before Christmas.

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.