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?

Advent Calendar – Dec 24: Kalle Anka

Window 24. As I am following the Swedish system of advent calendars, today is the last window, not the 25th as in the UK. So here is the final word: Kalle Anka. This is the Swedish name for Donald Duck – a Disney character with a strong, and unexpected, connection to Swedish Christmas.

Traditional Christmas celebrations on Christmas Eve in Sweden get off to a slow start usually. It all begins with a Christmas breakfast, consisting of rice porridge, wort bread, ham and Christmas cheese, amongst other things. After breakfast, some people go for a walk, some go to church, others begin the preparation for the Christmas julbord.

When to eat julbord differs from family to family. For some, it’s at lunch time, for others it more towards late afternoon. One surprising time marker is Kalle Anka (Donald Duck).

Every Christmas Eve since 1960, the Disney show ‘From All of Us to All of You’ featuring Donald Duck and his friends has been broadcasted on Swedish television at 3pm. Every single year. A very weird tradition for someone like me who grew up listening to the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day at 3pm. In the UK we have the Queen. In Sweden, Donald Duck.

So the discussion in Swedish homes is ‘should we eat before or after Kalle?’.

Today, Kalle Anka is watched as a sentimental tradition, or as background noise on Christmas Eve. But in the 1960’s when it began, it was the only time of the year that cartoons were shown on tv, so it was a Christmas treat. Since it’s been broadcast for almost 60 years, it is an integral part of what many Swedes associate with Christmas.

After Kalle Anka och julbord, it’s time for a visit from Tomten with gift-giving. This is followed usually by more food and drink. Some people conclude the day with a Midnight service at their local church.

Christmas is, like many places around the world, a time of overconsumption. Enormous amounts of food are left over and eaten during the following days.

In Sweden, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are both Public holidays – and the official end of Christmas is January 13th. Then it is time to traditionally throw out the Christmas tree. The lights in the windows have usually disappeared by February.

And as the daylight slowly returns to Sweden, people start planning for the lighter and warmer time of the year. And Christmas fades into memory…until next December.

Advent Calendar – Dec 23: Dan före dopparedan

Window 23. Today’s words are ‘Dan före dopparedan‘ – which translate somewhat curiously as ‘the day before dipping day’. Or, the day before Christmas.

I always thought that the name ‘dopparedan’ (dipping day) for Christmas Eve was somehow a reference to John the Baptist.

But I was wrong.

It actually comes from the Medieval Swedish tradition of dipping and drenching bread in the stock juices in which the Christmas ham has cooked, and eating it.

This traditional practice is called ‘dopp i grytan’ and originated in agricultural communities. People dipped their bread as a little snack while they made final preparations for the celebrations later in the evening. Some people still do this today.

Because Christmas Eve was called ‘dopparedagen’, the 23rd Dec became known as ‘dan före dopparedan’ – the day before the day of dipping bread.

Today’s ‘dan före dopparedan’ is more to do with making the final stressful arrangements for tomorrow. Final baking is done, last-minute Christmas presents are bought, a visit to Systembolaget (alcohol shop) is made. Long queues are to be expected.

And then, darkness and calmness descends over houses and homes all around the country. The evening before Christmas Eve is called ‘uppersittarkväll’ and Swedish families traditionally gather to wrap presents, play tv bingo, play games and write Christmas present rhymes.

It is also the evening when traditionally people put up final decorations and dress the Christmas tree, although this happens earlier for many families.

Once everything is finalized, hopefully there is a moment of relaxation to be had with a glass of warm glögg and a pepparkaka.

And then, it’s time to head off to bed in anticipation for the big day tomorrow – dipping day!

Advent Calendar – Dec 22: Tomten

Window 22. Today’s word is ‘Tomten‘ – who is the Swedish equivalent of Santa Claus.

Around the world, Santa is based on the mythology of St Nikolas – the Greek/Turkish patron saint who’s legend morphed in the USA from the Dutch immigrants’ Sinterklaas to the jolly figure who rewards good children that we see today.

The Swedish symbol of Tomten is partially based on St Niklas and the American depiction of Santa Claus. However, he is also based on a goat and a mythical sprite.

Let’s travel back to rural Sweden hundreds of years ago. Here, in the countryside, Tomten was a kind of sprite (hob, gnome, pixie) who lived on the farm and made sure that the farm had good luck.

Tomten was described as a little man, dressed in sackcloth and with a beard. He usually lived in the barn and was shy, mischievous, and irritable – and also vengeful. To keep Tomten happy, the farmer would leave out rice porridge for him to eat – a food that became known as ‘tomtegröt’ and that is still eaten for Christmas breakfast in Sweden today.

With industrialization in the late 1800’s, Sweden started to become inspired by the German St Nicholas, and in modern minds he merged with the rural sprite to become ‘jultomte’ – the gift-bearing sprite.

Popular Christmas cards by Swedish artist Jenny Nyström depicted this new version of Tomten in 1874 and strongly influenced the Swedish way of seeing jultomte. He was dressed in red hat, with a fluffy white beard. He is also seen to have many little helpers – known as ‘tomtenissar’ (a kind of elf).

And in 1881, a poem by Viktor Rydberg called Tomten strongly cemented his transformation and associated the figure with mid-winter and Christmas time.

Prior to this concept of Jultomte/Tomten, gifts were brought in Sweden by the Christmas goat. Straw goats are still a part of Christmas decorations in Sweden and can be found hanging in Christmas trees or standing at the foot of the tree.

In Sweden today, Tomten arrives on Christmas Eve, usually in the late afternoon. He delivers gifts to families, usually with the introduction of ‘Ho, Ho, Ho are there any good children here?’

Strangely, he always seems to arrive just when a member of the family (often dad) has gone out to the shops or gone for a walk.

Advent Calendar – Dec 22: Tomten

Window 23. Today’s word is ‘Tomten‘ – who is the Swedish equivalent of Santa Claus.

Around the world, Santa is based on the mythology of St Nikolas – the Greek/Turkish patron saint who’s legend morphed in the USA from the Dutch immigrants’ Sinterklaas to the jolly figure who rewards good children that we see today.

The Swedish symbol of Tomten is partially based on St Niklas and the American depiction of Santa Claus. However, he is also based on a goat and a mythical sprite.

Let’s travel back to rural Sweden hundreds of years ago. Here, in the countryside, Tomten was a kind of sprite (hob, gnome, pixie) who lived on the farm and made sure that the farm had good luck.

Tomten was described as a little man, dressed in sackcloth and with a beard. He usually lived in the barn and was shy, mischievous, and irritable – and also vengeful. To keep Tomten happy, the farmer would leave out rice porridge for him to eat – a food that became known as ‘tomtegröt’ and that is still eaten for Christmas breakfast in Sweden today.

With industrialization in the late 1800’s, Sweden started to become inspired by the German St Nicholas, and in modern minds he merged with the rural sprite to become ‘jultomte’ – the gift-bearing sprite.

Popular Christmas cards by Swedish artist Jenny Nyström depicted this new version of Tomten in 1874 and strongly influenced the Swedish way of seeing jultomte. He was dressed in red hat, with a fluffy white beard. He is also seen to have many little helpers – known as ‘tomtenissar’ (a kind of elf).

And in 1881, a poem by Viktor Rydberg called Tomten strongly cemented his transformation and associated the figure with mid-winter and Christmas time.

Prior to this concept of Jultomte/Tomten, gifts were brought in Sweden by the Christmas goat. Straw goats are still a part of Christmas decorations in Sweden and can be found hanging in Christmas trees or standing at the foot of the tree.

In Sweden today, Tomten arrives on Christmas Eve, usually in the late afternoon. He delivers gifts to families, usually with the introduction of ‘Ho, Ho, Ho are there any good children here?’

Strangely, he always seems to arrive just when a member of the family (often dad) has gone out to the shops or gone for a walk.