Gun salutes in the UK and Sweden

To mark the recent death of the UK’s Prince Philip, a 41-gun salute was held across Great Britain yesterday. For many, it seemed like an odd number. So, why 41?

In both the UK and Sweden, gun salutes mark special royal occasions and the number of rounds fired depends on the place and occasion. The basic salute in both countries is 21 rounds.

In the UK, however if fired from a royal park, an extra 20 rounds are added – making 41. At the Tower of London 62 rounds are fired on British royal anniversaries (the basic 21, plus a further 20 because the Tower is a Royal Palace and Fortress, plus another 21 for the City of London.)

The most shots have been given from the Tower when the late Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday (62 shots) coincided with the Queen’s official birthday (62 shots). This gave a total of an annoying 124 shots booming out over the city.

So, does Sweden always have 21 shots?

No, not always. When a Royal birth takes place and the infant is the firstborn to either the reigning monarch or to the heir to the throne, an extra 21 rounds (for a total of 42) are added to the normal salute. Additionally, 19-gun salutes are used for heads of government, cabinet ministers and ambassadors.

Another gun salute consists of two rapid gunshots only. This is used by the military and was fired to identify a Swedish ship entering a harbour or on the battle field to identify the Swedish troops. This signal is called the ‘Svensk Lösen’ – the Swedish Signal. This salute is today fired on special occasions, usually within the armed forces.

21-gun salutes in Sweden occur on:

  • 28 January – the King’s Name Day
  • 30 April – the King’s birthday
  • 6 June – Sweden’s National Day
  • 14 July – Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday
  • 8 August – Queen Silvia’s Name Day
  • 23 December – Queen Silvia’s birthday.

So, why is 21 standard?

Well, it originated in British maritime tradition. Historically, ships would fire 7 shots as they approached a foreign harbour. As ships usually had seven cannons on board, this was to show they had disarmed themselves and declare the vessel to be no threat on entry.

The military on land could store more gunpowder and therefore could reload their cannons more quickly. The tradition became that they would fire three shots for every one shot made at sea – hence 21 shots – as a sign of welcome and peace.

Interestingly in Sweden’s neighbouring country, Denmark, the gun salute given to majesties is 27. Could this be based on the same thinking? 3 x 9 shots?

‘Long’ Friday in Sweden

Today is called Long Friday in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’. It commemorates the long day and the long suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, according to Christian teachings. It is a public holiday, and for many years, everything was closed in Sweden making the day long and boring for many people. Now, most things are open, even the middle of a flaming, raging pandemic.

Good Friday is a day of cooking, shopping and going for walks. Some people attend church services. Tomorrow, Easter Saturday, is the normal day of celebration when Swedes gather to eat from a bulging smörgåsbord. Typical food includes variations of salmon, egg, herring and lamb. Dark Easter beer is consumed and snaps is knocked back.

In English, this day used to be called Long Friday also, but at some point in history it changed to Good Friday. Good in this context means Holy. According to the Daily Mash this is ‘still stupid. You don’t get much worse days than being flogged, nailed to a cross, then stabbed. And that includes your annual performance review. It’s like calling funerals ‘Happy Burying Nana Day’.

Sweden’s Clean Thursday

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Today is ‘Skärtorsdag’ – meaning Clean Thursday. So, why ‘clean’? Is it to do with spring cleaning? Or window cleaning? Or the art of Swedish death cleaning? No, it has a much more biblical relevance.

If you know your bible stories, today is the day when Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper. On this day, he introduced communion, and was later betrayed by Judas, condemned to death on the cross and ultimately resurrected. Prior to the Last Supper, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And he washed them clean – a symbolic metaphor for purification and the washing away of sin.

In fact, in English ‘Maundy Thursday’ also relates to the same act in the bible – the act of ritual cleaning of the feet is known an The Maundy. The word ‘maundy’ is said to come from the Latin word ‘mondatum’ which means commandment. During the Last Supper, Jesus issued a new commandment – ‘to love each other as I have loved you.’

However, for most people in Sweden, today isn’t about washing feet – it’s more about witchcraft! This is celebrated by children dressing up as witches, rather like we do in the UK and USA on Halloween. This tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that 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 dress up as a witch and eat candy – you’ll be kicking off your Easter the Swedish way!

In the middle of Sweden’s ‘Tranquil Week’

Did you know that today is ‘Dymmelonsdag’ – Clapper Wednesday? It is part of Sweden’s ‘Stilla Veckan’, which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’. It is historically intended to be a week of reflection and melancholy leading up to Easter. In English this week is known as Holy Week and every day has a special name.

Last Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday. 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 commonly called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday – although it can have other names. The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally four weeks before Easter. At some point in history, they were moved to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. Since White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, it probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.

That takes us to today – the Wednesday before Easter – ‘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, mournful 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.

The Friday is called Good Friday in English – 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’.

And finally, the weekend arrives consisting of Holy Saturday which is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish – Easter Eve. Then comes ‘Påskdagen’ – Easter Sunday, and ‘Annandag påsk’ (literally second day Easter) – Easter Monday in English.

So Clapper Wednesday is not about fervent clapping, or going like the clappers, or getting the clap. Instead, take a moment of quiet reflection on this, the most holy of Wednesdays.

Swedish water – in rich supply

Yesterday, 22 March was World Water Day. It was inaugurated in 1993 to focus on the importance of fresh water.

According to the UN, World Water Day ‘’celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water. It is about taking action to tackle the global water crisis and support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.’’

Sweden contributes to this work via its Stockholm International Water Institute and, under normal circumstances, the annual World Water Week is held in the Swedish capital city. During the week, the organisation awards water prizes to researchers and institutes who work to improve water quality, accessibility and sanitation around the world.

Sweden itself is blessed with water. About 9% of the country is covered with water. Sweden is the EU country that has the most lakes – in fact, 40% of the EU’s lakes are located in Sweden. Lake Vänern, at 5655 square km, is the EU’s largest. Interestingly, Sweden’s total coastline including archipelago, is 48000 km, which is slightly more than a lap around the globe.

Much of Sweden’s freshwater is potable. Most Swedes have the privilege of uninterrupted access to drinking water, with occasional problems in rural areas during summer months. Even the water in the toilet is drinking water, not that anyone drinks from that particular vessel!

Swedish ice batheing

This winter, taking an outdoor ice bath has become very fashionable in Sweden. Disrobing and lowering yourself into frozen lakes at below zero temperatures is considered very healthy for the body and its ability to repair itself.

Spring has now arrived and the ice is melting but die hards are still squeezing the last out of the ice batheing season. Like this guy featured on TV, who regularly sits in the frozen lake – for 20 minutes at a time!

This may seem like a long time, but actually it is nothing compared to the world record. The world record for ice submersion is held by Austrian Josef Koerbel who, in 2020, held himself under ice for 2 hours and 30 minutes. In his case, it was in an ice box on a public square in the town of Melk.

Brrrr.

So, what about you? Do you feel enticed by the concept of plunging into the chilly depths to take an ice bath? Or would you rather keep yourself wrapped up warm and toasty on the bank of the lake?

The Swedish hot wall – a murderous treat

I’ve written previously about the cream bun called a semla that is eaten around this time of year in Sweden. Traditionally consumed on Shrove Tuesday, this is a sweet, wheat bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste. And it is de-lish-us.

However, there is a way to eat it that I have never got on board with. A traditional method called the ‘hetvägg’, which translates literally a ‘hot wall.’ This is when the semla is placed into a bowl of warm milk, and eaten with a spoon. The result is a sugary, creamy slop.

The ‘hetvägg’ has a long history, going way back to the 1700’s when a warm, wedge-shaped spiced bun was served in a bowl of warm milk. This was eaten around Europe. In fact, the name ‘hetvägg’ has nothing to do with ‘hot wall’, but comes from the German for ‘hot wedge’ – “heisse wecke”. The top of today’s semla is often wedge-shaped as a historical nod to the original bun.

It is said that King Adolf Fredrik died from eating too many ‘hetvägg’ in 1771, but in fact it was a heart attack. Granted, he was a gluttonous man, and eating ‘hetvägg’ was indeed part of his questionable diet. After his death, there was a call to ban the sugary treat, as it was rumoured to have murdered the king.

The ‘hetvägg’ wasn’t banned and today it is still a popular way to consume the semla. I personally prefer mine dry and fluffy. But, hey, as they say in Swedish – ‘taste is like the backside – divided!’

Swedish Valentine – All Hearts’ Day’

Like many places around the world, Swedes celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14th. Called ‘Alla Hjärtans Dag’ – All Hearts’ Day – it is a newish tradition that started around 50 years ago, but didn’t really gain traction until the 1990’s. American influence and commercialization are often cited as the reasons for this. I also think that it’s a timing issue – the month of February is an otherwise boring time of year in Sweden. A little celebration is a small distraction from the tedium.

In Sweden, Valentine’s wishes are not only limited to love interests, but also extended to children, friends and even school teachers.

Romantically, the most common Valentine’s gifts are flowers, and treating your loved one to a nice dinner, in a restaurant or at home. Approximately 10 million red roses are sold around this day, which is huge considering the population is also 10 million.

Heart-shaped candy is also popular, and in Sweden the most common is ‘jelly hearts’. Sales of chocolate and candy apparently increase by 90% every year around Valentine’s Day.

So, I might not have flowers or chocolates to give you, but I’d like to wish each of you a Happy Valentine’s Day. I appreciate that you want to read my writing, and in return I send you some loving energy. I hope you have love and affection in your life and that, when the day comes, you can celebrate with a long, warm hug!

The Swedish hot wall – a murderous treat

I’ve written previously about the cream bun called a semla that is eaten around this time of year in Sweden. Traditionally consumed on Shrove Tuesday, this is a sweet, wheat bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste. And it is de-lish-us.

However, there is a way to eat it that I have never got on board with. A traditional method called the ‘hetvägg’, which translates literally a ‘hot wall.’ This is when the semla is placed into a bowl of warm milk, and eaten with a spoon. The result is a sugary, creamy slop.

The ‘hetvägg’ has a long history, going way back to the 1700’s when a warm, wedge-shaped spiced bun was served in a bowl of warm milk. This was eaten around Europe. In fact, the name ‘hetvägg’ has nothing to do with ‘hot wall’, but comes from the German for ‘hot wedge’ – “heisse wecke”. The top of today’s semla is often wedge-shaped as a historical nod to the original bun.

It is said that King Adolf Fredrik died from eating too many ‘hetvägg’ in 1771, but in fact it was a heart attack. Granted, he was a gluttonous man, and eating ‘hetvägg’ was indeed part of his questionable diet. After his death, there was a call to ban the sugary treat, as it was rumoured to have murdered the king.

The ‘hetvägg’ wasn’t banned and today it is still a popular way to consume the semla. I personally prefer mine dry and fluffy. But, hey, as they say in Swedish – ‘taste is like the backside – divided!’

Confusing Swedish greetings of the festive season

It’s that time of year when people greet each other with more than a simple ‘Hej’ (hello), or ‘tjena’ (hi). There are various ways to do it, depending on the day, and it is a bit confusing for the uninitiated.

The last time you see somebody before Christmas, you say ‘God Jul’ (Merry Christmas). This is assuming Christmas is close of course, and does not apply if the last time you see somebody is October. ‘God Jul’ continues through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Around Boxing Day, the greeting changes to ‘God Fortsättning’ (Good Continuation).

Then, around Dec 30/31, ish, it changes to ‘Gott Slut’ (Good Ending) before changing to ‘Gott Nytt År’ (Happy New Year) at the strike of midnight on Jan 1st.

’God Fortsättning’ (Good Continuation) takes over again around Jan 2 and then fizzles out after two weeks. The absolute final date for any form of festive greeting is Jan 13th. This day is called ‘Tjugondag Knut’ and is when Christmas is over in Sweden and the Christmas tree and decorations are traditionally thrown out. After that, it’s back to ’Hej’ again.

So as today is Dec 27, I’d like to wish you all a ‘God Fortsättning’.