My helpful guide to how you can survive Midsummer in Sweden.

With Midsummer rapidly approaching tomorrow, it is worth planning for your survival.

Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers.

As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself. And follow this simple survival guide to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.

Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way is as follows, shake hands and look direct in eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. If you are feeling adventurous, follow it up with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.

Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps  With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the dessert has even been put on the table.

Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs

If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of showing a bit of genital when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.

Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. To survive this, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.

Rubbers will save the day. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. If you don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.

Throw in the thermals. Perhaps you think it’s going to be sunny and warm on Midsummer’s Eve? Well, think again. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.

Same, but different. Don’t expect culinary excesses on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small exceptions – strawberries and new potatoes.

Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs.  Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time

Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.

Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…

That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden. Glad Midsommar!

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 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 blog.

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. 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.

All delicious I’m sure, 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!!!

A Swedish Christmas tradition since 1960

In Sweden, since 1960, something has happened every day in the run up to Christmas. A tv series called ‘Julkalendern’ – Christmas calendar- is broadcast early in the mornings from Dec 1 to Dec 24. Sent in 15 minute episodes, it is a different story each year and often stars some of Sweden’s leading actors and comedians. It is very popular amongst children, and is a cozy seasonal tradition. After each episode, viewers can open the relevant door in their advent calendar, which accompanies the program. The stories can vary widely, but most usually there is a Christmas / winter theme and a moral message suited to the time of year.

‘Julkalendern’ sits deep in the souls and psyche of many Swedes. Most cherish fond childhood memories of getting up in the dark to watch an episode before heading off to school. In 1999, a competition was launched to identify the most popular ‘julkalender’ of all time. The winner was a spooky ghost story called ‘the mystery of Greveholm’. Closely behind were ‘Sune’s Christmas’, ‘The old woman who shrunk to the size of a teaspoon’ and ‘Magical times’.

This year, the story is called ‘Hunt for the crystal of time’ and is starring a very popular, recently-deceased Swedish actor as the obligatory evil bad guy. In the series, he plans to stop time the day before Christmas Eve and the only people who can stop him are three children who have to journey to the center of the universe to do so.

It’s all very exciting – what if they fail?! There will be no Christmas ever again!

We’d all better hope they succeed! In just 5 days, we’ll find out!!!!

‘Julkalendern’ can be watched on SvtPlay you’d like to catch up!

Sweden’s Name of the Day

In Sweden, there’s a concept known as a ‘name’s day’. Each day of the year has a name associated with it. For example, today January 2nd, is Svea’s day. 

Celebrating name’s day was originally intended to weaken the importance of celebrating birthdays which was considered heathen and unChristian. Most people were christened after saints, which was deemed more holy. 

Interestingly, the concept was also used commonly by farmers to plan their crops, rather than on specific dates. This still exists today somewhat with terms such as Mårten’s Eve and Anna’s Day. 
Today it is seen mostly as an opportunity to celebrate a person with that name on that very day. Some people give presents or go out for dinner, others send texts or write congratulations on social media. Others ignore it completely.

So what can you do if your name doesn’t have an official name’s day? Well, either don’t care about it or adopt a day. 

My English name doesn’t exist in the calendar so I chose the closest Swedish name I could – Nils. That means that the 8th October is my day. Along with the other 138,350 males in Sweden with the name Nils.  

Oh, and the 5 women who also weirdly have Nils as their first name too! 

So when is your name’s day? 

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.

 

 

A witchy pink Thursday

easterwitchmooon

Today is ‘Skärtorsdag’, or Maundy Thursday in English. In Sweden it’s celebrated by Children dressing up as witches. This tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that tonight was the witches night, where witches would make their journey to Blåkulle – the Blue Mountain. It was a night of danger and evil, and Swedish people would bar their doors to their houses and barns and leave outside gifts that would make the witches’ journey easier – food, milk, clothes, broomsticks. Today, Swedes give the children sweets and money.

But why is it called Skärtorsdag’? The word ‘skär’ means ‘pink’. But does that make today Pink Thursday?

Actually not.

The word ‘skär’ has Another meaning that might be more relevant – ‘clean’.

If you know your bible stories, today being the day before Good Friday is the day when Jesus gathered his disciples together for the last supper, introduced communion, and was later betrayed by Judas, and condemned to death on the cross. It is the day evil was said to be released – hence the witches described earlier in this text.

Prior to the last supper, according to the Easter story, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And he washed them clean – a symbolic metaphor for purification and the washing away of sin.

So, today isn’t Pink Thursday – it’s Clean Thursday.

I’d better start mopping the kitchen floor then.

Baby we’re burning – Swedes, songs and Satanists

valbiorg

This weekend, the 30th April, in Sweden is Valborgsmässoafton. Yes, another one of those long indecipherable Swedish words.

This one translates as Walpurgis Eve, and is a day enshrined in tradition not only in Sweden but in other European countries such as Germany, Holland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Rather Baltic in other words.

The name ‘Valborg’ is from an English Saint but, despite that, this isn’t really a religious celebration. It’s more to do with the welcoming of spring, and feels rather pagan actually. In the evening on Valborgsmässafton, Swedes gather around huge bonfires and listen to songs. These songs are in the form of traditional choir music designed especially for this occasion to shake off  the nasty dark winter and celebrate the burgeoning buds of the lighter season.

And like many traditions in Sweden, this one also has a rural origin. These bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. On this day, farm animals were let out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators and other evil beings. This is rather ironic as Walpurgis Eve is also an important holiday in Satanism at it marks the founding of the Church of Satan.

But religion aside. On Walpurgis eve, I am watching the Swedes watching the flames, listening to music and looking forward to the spring and summer months ahead.

We survived another winter, and summer is coming!