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.

The relief of Swedish Advent

 

So it’s the first of Advent this weekend and this year it comes as a major relief for those of us in Stockholm.

You see at Advent, Swedes decorate their houses, apartments and windows with lights. From ceilings, illuminated stars are hung. On window ledges, electric advent candles are placed. On tables, four candles are positioned and one is lit every Sunday up until Christmas. Small candles, often red, are dotted about the home.

Some years, there is already deepish snow at the first of Advent, but this year in Stockholm, there isn’t. So it is very, very, very dark. The collective advent decoration is a definite reprieve from this darkness as light is spread into these murky places.

The word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ which means ‘arrival’ and is traditionally the start of the period where we wait for the arrival of nativity, or Christmas. Some religions also see it as waiting for the second coming of Christ. But in this secular society that is Sweden, the waiting is probably for the snow to come, the cold to hit, the water to freeze to ice and for winter to clasp its fingers firmly around us.

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!

Sing in Christmas with Europe’s oldest gay choir

Did you know that Sweden has a very large number of choirs? Singing in a choir is in fact one of Swedish people’s favorite pursuits. That means that there are lots of choirs to meet various needs and interests: gospel choirs, political choirs, church choirs, integration choirs, indie choirs.

So, it’s not surprising then that the first gay choir to be established in Europe came out in Stockholm. 35 years ago to be exact, just a short time before London’s Gay Men’s chorus was founded.

As a conclusion of their 35 years’ celebrations, Stockholm’s Gay Choir is holding two Christmas concerts on Sunday 17th December at Playhouse Theater in Stockholm. Tickets can be bought via this link biljettkiosken.se/itschristmas or in the foyer an hour before the concert. Or find the choir on Facebook or their website.

Buy a ticket, support a good cause and contribute to Sweden’s diversity. And get a bit of Christmas gaiety at the same time! See you there!

Don’t choke on the almond

And so it is Christmas. Like many places around the world, Sweden celebrates on Christmas Eve. Festivities throughout the day include eating the Christmas ham, receiving a visit from Santa, opening presents, drinking, playing board games and eating more. 

But the day usually kicks off with a steaming bowl of rice porridge. This delightful dish is made of rice, milk, sugar and cinnamon. Deep inside the porridge, there is often an almond. Presuming you don’t choke on it, if you find the almond it means you will be married during the following year. In the south of Sweden, and in Denmark, Norway and Iceland, the person finding the almond receives a gift. During the 1920’s it became trendy in Sweden to replace the almond with a ‘porridge doll’ made of porcelain and hide that in the porridge instead. 

Really superstitious people will even leave a bowl of porridge outside tonight to appease the house gnome who, according to legend, can make your cows dry up if he’s pissed off. 

But hopefully nobody should be pissed off on a day like today. And with family and friends gathered around a twinkling Christmas tree, a bowl of steaming hot rice porridge is a great way to kick off a lovely day. 

  

And Sweden’s ‘Christmas present of the year’ 2015 is…

Every year, Sweden’s trade research institute nominates an item that is the ‘Christmas present of the year’. This item should have sold in large quantities and/or represent current trends in Swedish society. 

The first item to be granted this status was in 1988 and it was the baking machine. Since then, various items have been the mobile phone, the tablet, the spike mat, the book, the food home delivery service, the woolly hat and the wok. Last year’s was the smartband – a reflection of today’s physical activity trend and the need to digitally track and register results. 

So this year, what is it? 

Given the current state of the world, and the number of refugees that Sweden has taken in, one might hope that it is a charitable contribution. But no it’s not. 

It’s the robot hoover. 

What does this say about Sweden’s current time? It clearly represents the robotisation of our society, and the automisation of household functions. But it also reflects the stressful nature of today’s society in which people feel that time is limited. Additionally, it shows that the home is back in focus and the need to be liberated from boring tasks such as vacuum cleaning is strong. 

So Happy Christmas and a dust-free New Year! 

  

Swedish life balance

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It’s said that Swedes have an enviable work life balance and this festive season has been no exception. Similar to many countries, Christmas and New Year are both bank holidays in Sweden. Similar to a few countries, today is also a bank holiday – kings’ day, epiphany or the twelfth day of Christmas. Biblically it signifies the arrival of the three wise men and the baptism of Jesus. Secularly, it means another day off for most people.

This festive season has been a great opportunity for time off. By taking only 5 days’ holiday, workers have been able to be off for two and a half weeks. And with 8 days’ holiday – 3 weeks off was the reward.

A strong belief in work life balance is behind this. In general, Swedes work really hard and are dedicated. Coupled with the darkness at this time of the year, many people are exhausted by the time Christmas comes around. A long break is seen as a necessary way to recharge batteries, and regain motivation. There’s a great Swedish word that you frequently hear after these long breaks – people describe themselves as ‘utvilade’. This translates as ‘thoroughly rested’, and is essential to survive the long, dingy winter season.