Swedish serenity in the cemetery

I remember walking around Stockholm when I had recently moved here. It was a pitch black Saturday evening in November, cold and crisp. As I approached a majestic church, I noticed that it was shimmering from the grave yard. This yellow and white light slowly flickered and cast shadows on the gravestones and the church wall. As if drawn by a magic spell, I walked up to the church and looked over the wall.

The sight that met my eyes was spectacular and serene at the same time. Hundreds of candles were spread around the cemetery, decorating each of the graves. In the memory grove a bright blazing blanket of candles lit up the area. It was as if the spirits of the dead had come out to play.

In Sweden, the Saturday between 31 October and 6 November is All Saints’ Day (the Sunday after All Saints’ Day is called All Souls’ Day to separate between the saints and the dead). Since the 1800’s Swedes have, during this weekend, made pilgrimage to graveyards up and down the country to decorate the graves with candle light and to pay respect to the dead.

It is a much more elegant and atmospheric tradition than the typical Halloween parties that otherwise have become very popular in Sweden. It is a truly beautiful experience to walk through the churchyards this weekend. In the pitch black November Nordic darkness, it is a peaceful reminder of those who have gone before us.

This year is a bit different however. The corona pandemic has led to restrictions and there is a recommendation to refrain from going to cemeteries this weekend. We should honour our dead, but try not to contribute to the spread of the virus at the same time. So if you plan to head to your nearest cemetery anyway, make sure to keep distance to the other visitors, and make the visit quick. Alternatively, light a candle in your own garden, or balcony this year.

The origins of magical Swedish Midsummer

Midsummer’s Eve is possibly the biggest public celebration in Sweden, and it’s happening this week on Friday. Swedes gather to eat, drink and be merry together.

So, what are the origins of Midsummer and why is it celebrated? Well, according to authors Po Tidholm and Agneta Lilja, the origins of Midsummer date back as far as the 6th century:

‘In agrarian times, Midsummer celebrations in Sweden were held to welcome summertime and the season of fertility. In some areas people dressed up as ‘green men’, clad in ferns. They also decorated their houses and farm tools with foliage, and raised tall, leafy maypoles to dance around, probably as early as the 1500s.

Midsummer was primarily an occasion for young people, but it was also celebrated in the industrial communities of central Sweden, where all mill employees were given a feast of pickled herring, beer and schnapps. It was not until the 1900s, however, that this became the most Swedish of all traditional festivities.

Ever since the 6th century AD, Midsummer bonfires have been lit around Europe. In Sweden, they were mainly found in the southern part of the country. Young people also liked to visit holy springs, where they drank the healing water and amused themselves with games and dancing. These visits were a reminder of how John the Baptist baptised Christ in the River Jordan.

Midsummer Night is the lightest of the year and was long considered a magical night, as it was the best time for telling people’s futures. Girls ate salted porridge so that their future husbands might bring water to them in their dreams, to quench their thirst. You could also discover treasures, for example by studying how moonbeams fell.

Also that night, it was said, water was turned into wine and ferns into flowers. Many plants acquired healing powers on that one night of the year.’

There is still an element of magic in the otherwise well-organised Midsummer celebrations of today. One example is the erection of a large phallic flower-clad maypole, and the dancing around of said pole. This is an ancient fertility rite. Related to this, is the association of love to the festivities of Midsummer. In fact many Swedish babies are made around this weekend.

Another example is the gathering of 7 types of summer flower to place under your pillow at night. It is said if you do this, then your future husband will appear to you in your dreams.

And then there’s the light. On Midsummer’s Eve is doesn’t really get dark. Depending on where you are in Sweden, it ranges from a dim glow in the south to full on daylight in the north. In Stockholm, where I live, it is a magical dusky twilight that conjures up associations of witchcraft, druids and paganism.

So while today’s Midsummer might be a well-orchestrated gathering of friends and family, there is still some magic to be found if you look hard enough.

Livestream Swedish National Day

Today is Sweden’s National Day. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005. Prior to that, the 6th June was known as Swedish Flag Day to commemorate that Sweden has its own flag – a celebration introduced in 1916 after the dissolution of the union with Norway in 1905.

Swedes celebrate National Day on 6 June in honour of two historical events: Gustav Vasa being elected king (6 June 1523) and the adoption of a new constitution (6 June 1809).

Normally, the King and Queen of Sweden take part in a televised ceremony at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum, on National Day. The yellow and blue Swedish flag is run up the mast, and children in traditional peasant costume present the royal couple with bouquets of summer flowers.

Otherwise, it’s a bit of a weird day, National Day. It’s celebrated with organised events in parks and squares. Buses fly the flag on their rooves, people hang up the flag on poles and people gather in large crowds to wave the flag. Other than this, many people don’t really know what to do. There is no collective memory around the 6th June, such as independence or winning a war, to pull people together. No sense of achievement. Or historical pride. So, the day is usually appreciated as a day off work to, for example, meet friends, or play golf, or day drink or sunbathe or go to Ikea.

One interesting event that happens on this day is the Citizen Ceremony. All new citizens up and down the country are invited to their town hall to participate in a ceremony to welcome them to Sweden as new Swedes. Usually, the mayor proceeds over the event and it’s followed by the most Swedish thing of all – Fika (coffee and cinnamon buns). When I participated 9 years ago, Crown Princess Victoria was actually there also. It did feel very official, with participants from all over the world dressed in their best clothes such as elegant saris, busutis and kanzus. Personally, I wore a blue jacket with a yellow handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket.

Due to the current pandemic, lots of celebrations are cancelled this year. As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. This is what they write:

‘Sweden live: National Day @ home

Make yourself comfortable and join us as we celebrate Sweden’s National Day. In this 24-hour livestream Swedish artists will play for you from their living rooms, chefs will cook with you, museums will dazzle you with their exhibits – and you might also get the chance to spot some moose… Enjoy! Here’s the link!

https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/lets-celebrate-the-national-day-of-sweden/

What is Sweden’s ‘Tranquil Week’ ?

There is an irony to the fact that we are socially distancing, quarantining and home working specifically during this week. In Swedish, this week is called ‘Stilla Veckan’ – which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’.

‘Stilla Veckan’ is a term in the Swedish church calendar to describe the week leading up to Easter – the last week of Lent. In English, we call it Holy Week.

Every day in ‘Stilla Veckan’ has a name. Holy Saturday is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish, which translates as Easter Eve. Do you know what the Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to Easter are called?

The Sunday before Easter is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday in English. According to scripture, it commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The crowds threw palm branches in front of him as he approached.

The Monday before Easter is called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday. It can also be called ‘Svart Måndag’, (Black Monday), ’Bullmåndag’ (Bun Monday), ’Fläskmåndag’ (Pork Monday) and ’Korvmåndag’ (Sausage Monday). It is called a predictable Holy Monday in English.

The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). This is called Holy Tuesday in English.

Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally used to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins in Ash Wednesday. At some point in history, they were moved colloquially to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, and probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.

The Wednesday before Easter is, unsurprisingly, called Holy Wednesday in English. However, in Swedish it had the fascinating name ‘Dymmelonsdag’. This literally translates as ‘Clapper Wednesday’. The clapper that this is referring to is a wooden clapper that was traditionally put inside the church bells on this day so that the chimes would have a more subdued sound during Easter weekend.

The Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. This translates as ‘Clean Thursday’ and refers to the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. In English, this day is called Maundy Thursday.

And finally, the Friday before Holy Saturday is called Good Friday in English. This is derived from an obsolete meaning of the word good as being holy. In Old English, this day was called Long Friday, which is the name that was adopted in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’.

11 hacks for surviving Swedish Midsummer

With Midsummer rapidly approaching on Friday this week, it is time to start 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 skinny dipping 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.

Protect yourself. 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. It looks like it might be sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. But it is good to be prepared. 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.

Don’t expect culinary miracles on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small summery exceptions – strawberries, cream, dill 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!

Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!

A witchy pink Thursday in Sweden

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Today is ‘Maundy Thursday’ in English and in Swedish it has the unusual name of ‘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’ – and it is a biblical reference.

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. Prior to the Last Supper, 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. In fact, in English ‘Maundy Thursday’ also relates to the same act in the bible – the act of ritual cleaning is known an The Maundy.

However, in Sweden, today isn’t that much about washing feet – it’s more about witchcraft! Today is celebrated by children dressing up as witches, rather like we do in the UK and USA on Halloween. Children go door to door in their outfits begging for sweets. Well, at least this is what I have heard. In the 20 years I have lived in Sweden, no witchy child has ever knocked on my door. Maybe that’s a city thing?  Perhaps the tradition is more popular in the suburbs and the countryside?

But why do they dress at witches in the first place? Well, this tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that the Skärtorsdag was the night of the witches, where these wicked hags would climb onto their broomsticks and fly to a mountain called Blåkulle. 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, that translates into the Swedish version of trick or treating.

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So if you celebrate by cleaning, or by dressing up as a witch or by eating candy – you’ll be kicking off your Easter the Swedish way!

6 reasons why Swedes take Eurovision so seriously

We are in the middle of the Eurovision qualification rounds (known colloquially as ‘Mello’) in Sweden – three weeks in, three weeks to go. This extended selection period occupies every Saturday night for 6 weeks, and results in the song and artist who will represent the country in the big final in Israel.

People gather up and down the country to have ‘Mello’ parties. Social media and traditional media are full of comments about the bad quality of the contestants this year (and every year). People are raging that the wrong songs are voted to move on in the league table.

Nobody, and I mean nobody takes their Eurovision (ESC) more seriously than the Swedes.

But why is that? Here are a few theories:

Brightening up the winter blues. Mello comes during the deepest, darkest, dreariest time of the year. The glittery colourfulness of Mello brightens up February and early March, when nothing much else happens.

Reliving the glory days. ABBA’s legacy is a constant reminder to Swedes that they once reached long-lasting global fame and it all started at ESC. Every year is a hunt for the next big thing, when the international light will shine once more on this little country in the north.

Organized ‘religion‘. Sweden is, relatively speaking, not a religious country. So the human need for organising ourselves into a collective manifests itself in other ways. Hockey and football become a form of organized religion. And ‘Mello’ is another variation on the same theme. Ask Swedes why they like Mello and many use the word ‘folk fest’ – a ‘national party for the people.’

Swedish traditions. Sweden is a country that is good at holding on to traditions – crayfish parties, snaps songs, semla cream buns, Easter trees – to name just a few. Therefore it is easy for this society to absorb, and structure, new traditions. Halloween is now a thing here. So is Valentine’s Day. So Mello becomes another tradition and slots nicely into the national calendar.

Vicarious extrovertism. Swedes are not generally known for being outgoing and extroverted, although there are of course exceptions. This means that Mello becomes so attractive, as it’s an opportunity for Swedes to live vicariously through the ‘crazy’ performers who dance around in sequins and funny outfits. It’s also an opportunity to push your own boundaries and wear a glittery hat or a pink feather boa. And all under organised, acceptable conditions.

Love of music. Because some Swedes actually like the music.

Which theory is most accurate do you think? Do you have another theory?

Let the light in – Lucia morning in Sweden

A Chinese proverb says this,

‘It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.

Never was this more true than today. Lucia day. At the darkest time of the year, when we all are drained by the black mornings and afternoons in Sweden, Lucia pays us a visit. With candles in her hair and surrounded by her handmaidens and boys in a procession, Lucia shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

I love Lucia. Long live Lucia!

Lucia traditions are celebrated in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Malta, Bosnia, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovakia and St. Lucia, West Indies. But where does she come from and why is she one of the few Saint’s days celebrated in Sweden?

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 brough 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 inside it’s light. And the light is always stronger than the darkness. Keep your light lit, and you will never feel the darkness.

Have yourself a Merry Gay Swedish Christmas

With gay men being hunted down and ‘punished’ in Uganda, Tanzania, Russia and many other countries around the world, it is easy to blame religion for the persecution.

And the evidence to back this up is fairly compelling. Countries that have a strong foot in religion are often countries that have strong anti-LGBT policies and attitudes. Not always, but often. Fanatical interpretation of the scripture can be one explanation, as can the crushing concept of sin, and the devouring need to uphold traditional ‘family structures and values’. For example, in a recent comment, the Pope said a lot can be done for LGBT people through psychiatry.

Sweden is a country that separates the church from politics. It is a country where almost 90% of the population identify as atheist or agnostic. It is a place where religious morality does not usually dictate the behaviours and choices of individual citizens. Of course there is organized religion in Sweden, there are churches and there are priests. Of course there are minority religions in Sweden such as Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Of course there are casual believers, devout followers and extremists. But compared to many other organized religions in the world, the Swedish Church is very liberal.

This was manifested in the recent service at a church in Stockholm, a service called Gay Jul (Gay Christmas). The slogan for the event was ‘come in as you are, come out as you want to be’. As I sat in attendance at this service, I witnessed a welcoming space, filled with members of the LGBT community, the church decorated in rainbow flags, and the words ‘Gay Jul’ emblazoned on the pulpit. I was moved by the openness of the church to welcome the minority group that is so often demonized and persecuted by the Faithful. It was an escape, and embrace, a sanctuary.

However, I was also struck by a sadness as I sat there in that echoing church. I realized the experience was a uniquely Swedish one, occurring in a small city in a small outpost of Europe and an unlikely sight in other churches, mosques, temples and tabernacles around the world.

In that church, amongst the rainbow flags, we were far far away from Uganda, and Tanzania, and Russia.

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!