A literal Swedish Christmas

Swedish is often a very literal language. Today, the 26th December, is a good example of that.

In the UK, the 26th December is known as ‘Boxing Day’. In many countries it’s St Stephen’s day – in Finland, it’s ‘Stefani Day’. In Ireland it’s ‘Wren’s Day’. In South Africa, it’s the ‘Day of Goodwill’.

And in Sweden? Well, here comes the literalness.

It’s called ‘Second Christmas Day’.

Why is Christmas called ‘Jul’ in Swedish?

While the English word Christmas (Christ’s mass), and the German Weihnachen (Holy Night) are clearly connected to the celebrated Christian birth, the Swedish word ‘Jul’ has a much more vague origin.

Like with the English word ‘yule’, experts do not fully agree on where it originates. However, it is deemed likely that it comes from the Proto-Germanic word ‘jehwla’ which could have meant ‘party’ or ‘celebration’.

The word was taken early into the Nordics via the Old Finnish language in the form of ‘juhla’ meaning ‘festival’, and then again as ‘joulu’ meaning ‘jul’. There was already a big celebration of the winter solstice and the winter hunt around this time that was given the name ‘jol’ in Old Norse.

After the surge of Christianity through Europe in the 900’s, England and Germany aligned their word for Christmas, but in the Nordics they kept word ‘jul’. Instead they scheduled their pagan celebrations to occur at the same time as the Christian one, and eventually the two melted together. In the Nordic countries, we still see elements of the pagan ‘jol’ at Christmas time with the ‘Christmas goat’ for example.

In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Christmas is called ‘jul’. In Finland, it is called ‘joulou’. In Iceland it is called ‘Jol’ and in Estonia, ‘joulud’.

Sweden’s Lucia Celebration

At the darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning on December 13th. 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.

Not only does Lucia represent tradition, but there is also a symbolic meaning. Never more important than this year when the world is in turmoil. So remember, it might be cold and dark right now, but after the darkness comes the light.

50 Swedish words for snow

A massive amount of snow has landed on Stockholm over the weekend – and it is still tumbling down. So, I thought it’s worth sharing this list again.

Not surprisingly when living in a country where it snows a lot, people start to see differences and nuances in the type of snow, whereas in English the word might just be an unsatisfactory ‘snow’.

The Swedish language makes it easy to join words together to describe these nuances.

Here is a list of 50 Swedish words related to snow.

1) Blötsnö – wet, slushy snow
2) Drivsnö – snow that is blown into troublesome snow drifts
3) Aprilsnö – snow in April, according to superstition, signifies plenty of food for the coming season
4) Hårdsnö – compacted hard snow
5) Konstsnö – artificial snow
6) Kramsnö – squeezy snow, perfect for making snowballs
7) Julesnö – snow at Christmas
8) Klabbsnö – wet, warm snow for building snowmen
9) Kolsyresnö – frozen carbondioxide
10) Kornsnö – small white snow breadcrumbs
11) Lappvante – thick, falling snow
12) Lössnö – snow that can loosen and be dangerous
13) Majsnö – surprising and unwelcome snow in May
14) Modd – snow that has partly melted due to salt
15) Natursnö – real snow (as opposed to artificial)
16) Nysnö – fresh snow, crisp and white
17) Pudersnö – powder snow
18) Rekordsnö – an unusual amount of snow, breaking previous snow records
19) Slask – slushy snow mixed with rain and dirt on the ground
20) Snö – snow
21) Snöblandat regn – snow mixed with rain
22) Muohta – the Sami word for snow (it is said the Sami actually have 200 words for snow!)
23) Snörök – faint particles of snow that look like smoke
24) Yrsnö – snow being whipped around by the wind in all directions
25) Åsksnö – snow that pours down during a thunder storm

26) Snökanon – the word for the snow canon that creates artificial snow on ski slopes has also come to mean a sudden blast of snow that suddenly hits a place, and feels like snow has been dumped on you.

27) Jungfrusnö – virgin snow

28) Snösmocka – a huge amount of snow

29) Snötäcke – snow on the ground

30) Sjösnö – snow over the sea that can roll in over land

31) Snöfall – snow in the air

32) Flingsnö – snow with larger crystals

33) Skarsnö – a crispy surface on a blanket of snow

34) Packsnö – thickly packed snow

35) Pärlsnö – snow like small pearls that hurts when it hits your face

36) Snöglopp – wet snow mixed with rain

37) Spårsnö – snow that allows footprints to be formed

38) Fjöcksnö – a light, fluffy snow

39) Flister – snow the consistency of salt that stings the face when it falls

40) Flaksnö – a sheet of snow

41) Upplega – snow on the upper side of a tree branch

42) Firn – liquid-like snow that can initiate an avalanche

43) Fimmel – sandy snow that falls at low temperatures

44) Själja – a thin layer of ice on top of the snow that resembles glass

45) Knarrsnö – crispy snow that creaks when you walk on it

46) Snöfyk – wet snow

47) Torrsnö – dry snow

48) Månsilver – a poetic word to describe the dusting of snow

49) Snöis – snow on cold water that forms an icy solid surface

50) Stöp – a mixture of snow and ice resembling porridge that forms on top of cold water

So, let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Flying the Swedish Goose Boat

In the south of Sweden, the port town of Trelleborg is the largest working harbour in Scandinavia. From here, passenger ferries take you to Germany, Poland and Lithuania.

Each of the ferries is named after a character from a children’s book, for example Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn and Robin Hood. The ferry I travelled a few days ago to Germany was called Nils Holgersson.

Who, you might wonder, is Nils Holgersson? The character comes from a book called ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’. It was published in 1906 by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

In the story, Nils Holgersson is a naughty boy who is shrunk to a tiny size, and who tours the counties of Sweden in the back of a goose. It is an educational book about Sweden’s geography but also full of drama, intrigue and adventure. I recommend reading it.

On the ferry there was actually a statue of Nils. Looking a little freaky, and without any explanation, I am certain it confused many of the non-Swedish passengers.

Songs about Sweden 2: ‘Stockholm tonight’

There have been many songs written about Sweden and Swedish towns. In this series, I will share a few with you.

The second is a song in Swedish called ‘Stockholm inatt’, which translates as ‘Stockholm tonight’. The original song was released in 2007 by artist Peter Jöback, and is about a night out in central Stockholm. The lyrics take in classic locations and venues in the city.

However, it was covered in 2021 by soul singer Cherrie in a tribute show where artists interpret each other’s songs. She modernized the lyrics and placed the song partially in the suburbs of Stockholm. This re-working gave the song a huge renaissance, and a hit for Cherrie.

World Book Day – and my book on Sweden

Today is UNESCO World Book Day, to celebrate books and promote reading. The 23 April is a significant day as it commemorates the death of many famous writers such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

Every year a World Book Capital is nominated. The first one, in 2001, was Madrid, Spain. This year it is Guadalajara in Mexico.

So today is a good day to buy a book, or to gift one. If you know anybody who is interested in learning about Sweden, or planning on visiting Sweden, then my guide book is a good match! I published it in 2021.

You can buy it on Amazon, Bokus, Akademibokhandeln and Adlibris amongst other online stores. Sweden, by Neil Shipley, published by Kuperard 2021. You can also buy it straight from the publisher at http://www.culturesmartbooks.co.uk

I still have a few copies left, so if you’d like to buy a signed copy, just let me know!

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

The English word Easter 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 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, Jewish people 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 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.

International Romani Day-Roma in Sweden

Today, 8 April, is International Romani Day. It marks the first World Romani Congress that was held in London in 1971. The day exists to shine a light on the ongoing persecution and abuse that the Roma population of the world has been forced to endure throughout history.

The Romani originate from northern India. They are dispersed, and their most concentrated populations are located in Europe, and Western Asia, since around 1007. Nobody really knows why the Roma left India in the first place, as no records were kept. However theories abound: from early persecution based on caste, to banishment from angering the king, and religious war.

The estimated 12 million Roma are consequently a nomadic people with no land to call their own. Their mobility and the fact that they lived in temporary camps contributed through the centuries to associations with poverty and accusations of high rates of crime. The discomfort that others felt about their presence led to perceptions of the Roma as antisocial, unsophisticated or even dangerous. Partly for this reason, discrimination against the Romani people has continued to the present day.

Romani have existed in Sweden since at least the 1500’s and today they are classed as one of Sweden’s five national minority groups (together with Jews, Sami, Swedish Finns and Tornedalers). Romani chib has the status of official minority language.

Over the centuries, the people of Sweden discriminated against, marginalised and excluded its Roma population. For 40 years, up to 1976, Sweden had a legal policy of enforced sterilization of people to avoid ‘unacceptable offspring’. Much suggests that Roma women were particularly subjected to this abuse.

The Pew Research Poll of 2016 found that 42% of Swedes held strong anti-Roma views (compared to 82% in Italy, and 37% in Holland).

A Romani political activist in Sweden was Singoalla Millon, who died in 2020, and spent her entire life fighting for education, housing and acceptance. Another was Katarina Taikon who dedicated herself to improving conditions for Romani people in Sweden. She tried to convince the Swedish government to see the Romani as political refugees. She died in 1995. Today, the politician Soraya Post has worked as an EU politician defending the rights of the Romani and other minorities.

In 2012, the Swedish government introduced an 20-year equal opportunities strategy for Roma people. The strategy includes objectives and measures within several areas such as schooling, employment; housing, health, social care, culture and language. Of course, discrimination and marginalization are still very real in Sweden, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

Swedish ‘en’ or ‘ett’ – baked goods or a butt?

One of the difficult aspects of learning Swedish is knowing if the noun is prefaced with the indefinite article ‘ett’ or ‘en’. For example ‘a house’ is ‘ett hus’ but ‘a flat’ is ‘en lägenhet’. It’s important to know the difference as it affects the plural and the definite forms of the words. Mixing them up is a mistake many foreigners make, even after 20 years of living in Sweden. (guilty!).

About 20% of Swedish nouns are ‘ett’ nouns, so if in doubt guess ‘en’. However, it’s not that easy, as most of the commonly-used nouns begin with ‘ett’.

To add some spice to the pot, some nouns can be both ‘ett’ words and ‘en’ words, but the meaning of the word changes. Here are some examples:

Bak – ett bak is baked goods, but en bak is a butt/backside. So you see why the expression ‘I love grandma’s ‘bak’ can go very wrong!

Bål – ett bål is a bonfire but en bål is a torso or a punch (as in drink)

Barr – ett barr is a needle (eg from a pine tree), men en bar is a bar (gymnastics equipment)

Ton – ett ton is a tonne but en ton is a note (as in music)

Lag – ett lag is a team but en lag is a law or a syrup

Slam – ett slam is sludge but en slam is a term in a game of cards

Lager – ett lager is a layer but en lager is a lager (beer)

Vak – ett vak is a wake but en vak is a hole in ice

Klöver – ett klöver is a club (in playing cards) but en klöver is clover/shamrock

Poäng – ett poäng is point as in a score, but en poäng is point as in point of view

Nöt – ett nöt is an idiot, but en nöt is a nut (for example hazelnut)

Lår – ett lår is a thigh, but en lår is a crate

Can you think of any more examples to add to the list?