Walpurgis Eve – when spring arrives in Sweden

Today, 30 April, is Walpurgis Eve, called Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish. The name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century Saint Walburga, and in Sweden this day marks the arrival of spring.

On this evening, Swedes usually gather to celebrate together.

The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. Essential celebrations include lighting a large bonfire, listing to choirs singing traditional spring songs and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season. Walpurgis bonfires are an impressive thing to see and are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis, cattle was put out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators.

The weather is often unpredictable on Walpurgis Eve. It can be sunny and warmish, or it can still snow on 30 April! Despite bad weather, Swedes still shiver around the bonfires and ironically celebrate the arrival of Spring.

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!

Great Swedish Women Part 1 – The Catalyst

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day.

In support, I am re publishing my series on Great Swedish Women, past and present: women with stength and passion, women with a voice, women who create change.

For seven days, I will write about these Great Swedish Women, one per day. I hope you want to join me in celebrating them.

Fredrikabremer

First out is the 1800’s writer and feminist reformer Fredrika Bremer, a kind of Swedish Jane Austen and one of the catalysts of the early feminist movement in Sweden.

Many of the women’s rights that we take for granted in Sweden today did not exist in the Fredrika Bremer’s time. For example, in 1800’s Sweden, women were not free to educate themselves as they liked, marry as they liked, live as they wanted, to have economic independence or to vote in elections. Married women were controlled in all manner by their husbands, unmarried women by their closest male relative.

Fredrika Bremer was born into this kind of society in 1801 in Åbo, Sweden, which today is part of Finland. At the age of three, her family moved to Stockholm where Fredrika and her sisters were raised to marry well.

Fredrika found the limited and passive family life of Swedish women of her time suffocating and she described her family as “under the oppression of a male iron hand’. Fredrika never was forced under the shackles of marriage, so had a certain level of independence inaccessible to married women at that time.

Throughout her adult life, she became a world traveler, an accomplished author (at first anonymously) and a political activist. She was very interested in social reform regarding gender equality and social work and she participated actively in debates around women’s rights in Sweden.

Fredrika Bremer was a catalyst of the first real feminist movement in Sweden. There is much in modern day Sweden to thank her for. In 1853, she started by co-founding the ‘Stockholm Women’s Fund for Childcare’ and the following year, the ‘Women’s Society for the Improvement of Prisoners’. 

However, it was in her novel, Hertha (1856) that she issued in most change, making it probably her most influential literary work. In the book, she wrote about the lack of freedom for women, which subsequently raised a debate in the parliament called “The Hertha debate”. This directly contributed to a new favourable law for adult unmarried women in Sweden in 1858, and was a starting point for the campaign for women’s rights in Sweden. Hertha also raised the debate of higher formal education for women and, in 1861, the University for Women Teachers was founded by the Swedish state.

In 1860, Fredrika helped to fund Tysta Skolan, a school for the deaf and mute in Stockholm. Now an established and respected citizen and patron, she supported giving women the vote in the electoral reforms of 1862. In the same year, women of legal age were granted this in municipal elections in Sweden. The first real women’s rights movement in Sweden, the ‘Fredrika Bremer Association’, founded by Sophie Adlersparre in 1884, was named after her, 19 years after her death.

Fredrika Bremer’s leaves a legacy of equality and autonomy behind her. Her legacy extends far beyond Sweden’s borders. Not only is she recognised as an influencial writer and reformer, but the town of Frederika in Bremer County Iowa, USA is named after her.

 

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Swedish Valentine – All Hearts’ Day’

Like many places around the world, Swedes celebrate Valentine’s Day today, 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, now most Covid restrictions are lifted, you can celebrate with a long, warm hug!

Swedish Life Balance

It’s said that Swedes have an enviable work life balance and the festive season is no exception.

Similar to a few countries, today – 6 January – is a bank holiday. In Sweden it’s called ‘Trettondag jul’ which translates as ’13th day of Christmas’. In other places, it’s known as Kings’ day, Day of the three magi, or epiphany.

Biblically it signifies the arrival of the three wise men and the baptism of Jesus. Secularly, it means another day off for most people.

In Sweden, it is the official end of the Christmas season, although the Christmas tree and decorations might stay up for a little longer.

There’s a great Swedish word that you frequently hear after these long breaks – a person might describe themselves as ‘utvilad‘. This translates as ‘thoroughly rested’, and is essential to survive the long, dark winter season.

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.

Advent Calendar – Dec 21: Julvärd

Window 21. Today’s word is ‘Julvärd‘ which translates as Christmas host.

The term Christmas host is not referring to the religious bread that represents the body of Christ. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking so at this time of the year.

No, the Christmas host is a personality on tv who guides the viewers through the proceedings on Christmas Eve.

For 27 years the ‘julvärd’ was the same person – a man called Arne Weise – and he is, for many Swedes, eternally associated with Christmas Eve.

But since 2003, a new host is announced every year and it is considered a great honour to be given the role. This year the ‘julvärd’ is popular tv chef Tareq Taylor.

While the role of ‘julvärd’ might seem trivial, it is actually very important. The Christmas host is present throughout the whole day and introduces the programs. He or she also talks about the value of Christmas and what it means. And not least, the ‘julvärd’ keeps lonely people company by inviting themselves into living rooms up and down the country.

The ‘Julvärd’ can be seen on SVT – Sweden’s Public Service Television – and is usually broadcast live.