Who is Sweden’s Patron Saint?

Last night I was at a party (not the picture above). I was clad in green, and wearing a green sign saying Lucky and depicting a pot of gold. Over the speakers, a mix of folk music, U2 and the Cranberries blasted out. Offensive green-coloured beer was served.

Today, 17 March, is St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is being celebrated all over the world. And just like me last night, people are donning green clothes, dancing to fiddely-diddely music and downing beer.

Out of curiosity, I wondered who Sweden’s Patron Saint is. So I researched and I have to say the answer wasn’t totally clear. One Saint in particular kept popping up, but in only one case did I see her referred to as the Patron Saint of Sweden. She is however one of Europe’s 6 Patron Saints.

Do you know who I’m referring to?

I am referring to Saint Brigit, known in Swedish as Saint Birgitta. She is definitely the most celebrated saint of Sweden. Born 1303 into a wealthy noble family, she entered a Catholic convent after the death of her husband. By this time she was 41 and had 8 children. In 1350, she went to Rome to meet the Pope and there she remained until her death at the age of 70. Her feast day is 23 July, the day she died. Brigit established the Swedish religious community which was to become the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, or the Brigittines at the Swedish town of Vadstena.

Brigit is known for her many influential visions. In her first, at the age of 10, she saw Jesus suspended on a cross. Ages. Her visions of the birth of Jesus came to affect nativity art for centuries to comethe infant Jesus lying on the ground and emitting light himself, the Virgin as blond-haired, a single candle attached to the wall, and the presence of God the Father above. Her visions were recorded in Revelationes coelestes (“Celestial revelations”) and made her a revered and controversial celebrity in the Middle

In Sweden people know vaguely who Birgitta is. I wonder if many know that she is the Patron Saint of the country. She is fairly far from the minds of most Swedes and, unlike the Irish St Patrick, or the Welsh St David, not at all integrated into Swedish identity.

Probably because of her ‘invisibility’, I actually haven’t heard of annual celebrations in Sweden to commemorate Brigit. I’m guessing it’s a low-key affair for the converted. I’m guessing it’s about prayer, meditation and reverence. I’m guessing it’s not about dressing in a unified colour and dancing the jig. And I assume very little beer guzzling is involved.

Why Germans don’t like Swedish curtains

Ask people to think about Sweden and invariably they will say IKEA. The massive flat-pack corporation has world dominance when it comes to home furnishings. However, in Germany, Swedish curtains are not necessary an attractive option.

To be ‘hinter schwedischen Gardinen’ (behind Swedish curtains) in colloquial German means to be in prison.

Not entirely sure of the reason but one theory is as follows:

German bars used to be made from strong Swedish steel, as they were particularly strong and escape-proof. When the bars formed a grille, they became the kind of ‘curtain’ that you don’t want to be behind!

Please share this post if you found it interesting.

Follow me at #watchingtheswedes

It’s fatty Tuesday – Swedish style!

Today it’s ‘Fat Tuesday’ in Sweden, known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras around the world.

While in the UK we eat pancakes (today is even called Pancake Day) and in Latin America they scoff down fried bread, Swedes celebrate by eating the traditional cream Lent bun – the ‘semla’. I’m also clearly going to indulge. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing this post.

The semla is a creamy bun filled with delicious almond paste. They were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast, leading up to Easter. In the south of Sweden, they still refer to them as ‘fastlagsbullar’ – Shrovetide buns. Nowadays however, semlas are usually sold anytime between Christmas and Easter.

I just love them. I could eat a barrel load. But I’d end up looking like a barrel if I did. I love the taste of them, and the feeling of luxurious indulgence. I also love the knowledge that as you take a bite into a creamy semla, you are biting into over 500 years’ history of Scandinavian baking.

The word ‘semla’ comes from the Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour and originally referred just to the bun without any filling. As long ago as the 1500’s, bakers started to hollow out the middle of the bun and fill it with cream and butter. As ingredients became more available, bakers started adding almond and cardemon and the type of semla that we know today developed towards the end of the 1800’s. After rationing of sugar and dairy products ceased at the end of WW2, the semla took off and became very popular.

Nowadays the semla trend has reached new heights. Every year bakers around the country try to launch new types of semla, with their own spin on it -for example, the semla wrap, the semla burger, the semla layer cake, the semla cocktail, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. This year, the gross-sounding fermented Baltic herring semla was revealed.

But I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun brimming over with whipped cream and almond paste.

And give it to me NOOOOWWW!!!

Swedish winter break – take those kids away!

Around this time of the year, schools In Sweden have a week’s holiday. Called ‘Sportlov‘, it’s a traditional time for a winter sport break. 

This tradition was introduced in the early years of WW2 as a way to save energy. Heating up schools cost money and, due to rationing, councils were instructed to drastically reduce their heating expenses. So shutting the schools seemed like a good idea.

To give the pupils something meaningful to do while the school was shut, the authorities organised various activities, many focused on being outdoors and exercising.

Serendipitously, experts realised, during the 1950’s, that infection spread less widely at this time of the year if schools were closed for a week. So the winter sport break became cemented as an official disease control method. 

Nowadays, many families head off to the mountains to go skiing, some head off to the Alps for the same purpose. Others may fly away to the sunny beaches of the world.

For those of us left in town, it’s sheer bliss. 

The gym is empty. The streets are spacious. There is hardly anybody on the buses and tube, traffic is significantly thinner and less noisy and it’s easy to get a seat at lunch time. 

And the fact that there are hardly any children in town means something great for the rest of us.

We don’t get infected with diabolical kid bacteria that would knock us out until mid March.

Swedish expressions: ‘Drunk as a jackdaw’

 

kaja-2

In English, we have vivid sayings such as ‘pissed as a fart’, ‘drunk as a skunk’ and ‘pissed as a newt’. In Sweden, one of the expressions to describe an intoxicated person is ‘drunk as a jackdaw‘ (Swedish: full som en alika). It might seem odd, but there is an explanation.

The most popular theory has to do with the small breweries that populated the Swedish countryside in the past. At the end of the brewing process, the brewers would through the unusable remnants out into the yard. This meant that there were attractive piles of sweet mush distributed all over the countryside. The local jackdaws were rather partial to this mashy, mushy goo, and they would swoop down to eat it. While getting food in themselves, they also imbibed alcohol, and after a while, they would stagger away across the yard in blissed inebriation. The local population of course loved this, and coined the phrase ‘drunk as an jackdaw’.

In Swedish, there is another expression for being a drunk, this time in a noun form – ‘fyllekaja’ – which also means ‘drunk jackdaw’. The word ‘kaja’ is the word for jackdaw in most of Sweden. ‘Alika’ is a regional word used mostly in the southern counties.

A young Swedish hero who puts us to shame

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, the imminent threat of climate change can not have escaped you. Many people the world over are concerned, if not terrified, about the future of our planet. The word ‘klimatångest‘ has popped up in the Swedish language – climate anxiety – to reflect the growing stress people are feeling as the weather changes and the earth burns.

In contexts of concern, unlikely heroes often rise up, and many of them are women. Women who sit in the white section of the bus, women who attack neo nazis with their handbags, women who protest school shootings in USA, women who bite back against haters and mysogynists on social media. Women who take no shit.

Such a young woman is the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. At 16 years old, she has made headlines for her bravery, her directness and the fact that she calls us out – the older generations who are failing her generation. Currently in the snow topped village of Davos, she is attending the World Economic Forum. She attacked, in a speech, the wealthy who continue to earn money at the expense of the earth’s resources. She criticised them for flying in on private jets instead of travelling the train, as she did, for 30 hours. It was like seeing David defeat Goliath. Listening to her, the powerful audience gave a weak, unconvinced round of applause. It’s clearly uncomfortable to be called out by a 16 year old Swede.

What’s amazing about Greta Thunberg is her conviction and her single-mindedness. She puts it down to her Aspergers diagnosis saying she can focus on what’s important instead of focusing on the ‘social game that seems to be so important for so many people’.

It’s wonderful to watch her, and listen to her as she continues to tear a hole in the establishment with her wit and uncompromising fierceness. And it’s a reminder that we don’t need to look to our elders to find inspiration. It can certainly be found by looking at the generations behind us. Tomorrow’s heroes are there. They want change and they have a sense of urgency.

Greta Thunberg wants us to act as if the house is on fire.

Because, in her words, the house is on fire.

Sweden, Swedeland or Sweorice? Why is Sweden called Sweden?

The Swedish word for Sweden is Sverige. Have you ever wondered why then Sweden is called Sweden in English?

Well, like all etymology of words, the explanation can be found centuries back and in a different country. In fact, the English name was loaned from the Dutch language in the 17th century. It is based on Middle Dutch Zweden, the Dutch name of Sweden. In turn, the name Zweden is the dative plural of  Zwede (Swede). Country names based on a dative plural and adding -n were the norm in German and Dutch in the 15th century – other examples are the German Italien “Italy” and Spanien“Spain”. These are also actually the words in Swedish for those countries.

What about before the 17th century when England borrowed the name Sweden from the Dutch? Well, clearly Sweden existed, and indeed it was called something else – Swedeland. And in early Old English, the country was known as Sweoland or Sweorice. Sweorice translates as the realm of the Sveonas – who were a Germanic tribe of the Sviar (a Norse tribe).

It’s not clear why the English suddenly changed to the Dutch version, but it may have been due to siding in conflicts or to make trading and communication easier.

So yesterday’s Swedeland is today’s Sweden. Personally, I think Sweorice has a nice ring to it, and is seems closer to the Swedish word Sverige.