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

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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

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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!

Sweden’s Easter Art Drive

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Soon it’s Easter break with 4 lovely days off for most of us. In Sweden, this is a time that many people go out to their country houses or travel abroad to warmer climes. If you’re still in Sweden, and looking for something to do, one suggestion is to head south to the county of Skåne, and the region within Skåne called Österlen. Every year, over Easter, this area hosts an Easter Art Drive, or ‘Open Studios Week’ where you can travel around and get a rare glimpse into the homes and studios of working artists.

This event started in 1968, when a few artists decided to open their studios to the public. Within six years, this had expanded to well over 60 artists welcoming people directly in to their places of work. Most of the artistic fields are represented – sculptors, painters, textile artists, glassblowers, silversmiths, ceramic artists, printmakers, handcraftsmen, wood and computer artists.

It is a fantastic experience. Driving through the beautiful Swedish countryside between villages, wandering amongst the studios built from renovated barns, drinking coffee in the temporarily opened out buildings and hen houses.  The artists themselves are usually there and it is easy to engage in conversation about their work and their inspiration. Everything is for sale, so you can also leave Easter week with a unique and reasonably-priced piece of art under your arm.

For more information, check out http://www.oskg.nu/english

Why do Swedes have a winter sport break? 

Around this time of the year, schools have a week’s holiday. Called Sportlov it’s a traditional time for a winter sport break. 

This tradition was introduced in 1940 and was initially a way to save energy. Heating up schools cost money and, due to rationing, councils were instructed to drastically reduce their heating expenses. To give the pupils something meaningful to do while the school was shut, the authorities organised various activities, many focused on being outdoors and exercising. During the 50’s, experts realised that infection spread less widely at this time of the year if schools were closed for a week. So the winter sport break became cemented and an official disease control method. 

Nowadays, many families head off to the mountains to go skiing, some head off to the Alps for the same purpose.

For those of us left in town, it’s sheer bliss. 

There is hardly anybody on the buses and tube, traffic is significantly thinner and less noisy and it’s easy to get a seat at lunch time. 

And the fact that there are hardly any children in town means the rest of us don’t get infected with kid flu bacteria on our way to work. 

Swedish goats on fire

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Since the 60’s, in the town of Gävle, north of Stockholm, they have had the Christmas tradition of building a large hay goat in the town centre. Oddly, the goat is a Christmas symbol in Sweden. This ‘Gävle Goat’ has become famous throughout the nation because it has spawned another, less Christmassy tradition. Every year, with few exceptions, the giant goat has been vandalised or set on fire.

This year, guards have successfully intercepted several people during the weeks prior to Christmas who had a mission to set the goat aflame. But it survived! This year, the fortunate goat made it to Christmas Eve without being graffitied, singed or doused in any form of flammable liquid.

But will it make it to 2015? Or will it go up like a New Year’s firework? Well, that cliffhanger will be resolved in a few days.

A literal Swedish Christmas

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

In the UK, today is known as ‘Boxing 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’.

Afton – Swedes’ favourite celebration

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In the UK, we celebrate ‘Days’ such as Christmas Day & Easter Day. But in Sweden, it is always the Eve ( ‘afton’) that is the big celebration time. There’s Julafton, Påskafton, Valborgsmässoafton, Midsommarafton, nyårsafton, trettondagsafton. Why is this? Anyone know? Cos I’ve always wondered. Surely it can’t just be to get an extra day’s holiday?