Who is Sweden’s Patron Saint?

Last night I was at a party (not the picture above). I was clad in green, and wearing a green sign saying Lucky and depicting a pot of gold. Over the speakers, a mix of folk music, U2 and the Cranberries blasted out. Offensive green-coloured beer was served.

Today, 17 March, is St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is being celebrated all over the world. And just like me last night, people are donning green clothes, dancing to fiddely-diddely music and downing beer.

Out of curiosity, I wondered who Sweden’s Patron Saint is. So I researched and I have to say the answer wasn’t totally clear. One Saint in particular kept popping up, but in only one case did I see her referred to as the Patron Saint of Sweden. She is however one of Europe’s 6 Patron Saints.

Do you know who I’m referring to?

I am referring to Saint Brigit, known in Swedish as Saint Birgitta. She is definitely the most celebrated saint of Sweden. Born 1303 into a wealthy noble family, she entered a Catholic convent after the death of her husband. By this time she was 41 and had 8 children. In 1350, she went to Rome to meet the Pope and there she remained until her death at the age of 70. Her feast day is 23 July, the day she died. Brigit established the Swedish religious community which was to become the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, or the Brigittines at the Swedish town of Vadstena.

Brigit is known for her many influential visions. In her first, at the age of 10, she saw Jesus suspended on a cross. Ages. Her visions of the birth of Jesus came to affect nativity art for centuries to comethe infant Jesus lying on the ground and emitting light himself, the Virgin as blond-haired, a single candle attached to the wall, and the presence of God the Father above. Her visions were recorded in Revelationes coelestes (“Celestial revelations”) and made her a revered and controversial celebrity in the Middle

In Sweden people know vaguely who Birgitta is. I wonder if many know that she is the Patron Saint of the country. She is fairly far from the minds of most Swedes and, unlike the Irish St Patrick, or the Welsh St David, not at all integrated into Swedish identity.

Probably because of her ‘invisibility’, I actually haven’t heard of annual celebrations in Sweden to commemorate Brigit. I’m guessing it’s a low-key affair for the converted. I’m guessing it’s about prayer, meditation and reverence. I’m guessing it’s not about dressing in a unified colour and dancing the jig. And I assume very little beer guzzling is involved.

Why Germans don’t like Swedish curtains

Ask people to think about Sweden and invariably they will say IKEA. The massive flat-pack corporation has world dominance when it comes to home furnishings. However, in Germany, Swedish curtains are not necessary an attractive option.

To be ‘hinter schwedischen Gardinen’ (behind Swedish curtains) in colloquial German means to be in prison.

Not entirely sure of the reason but one theory is as follows:

German bars used to be made from strong Swedish steel, as they were particularly strong and escape-proof. When the bars formed a grille, they became the kind of ‘curtain’ that you don’t want to be behind!

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‘Don’t act like you’re a Swede!’

Unfortunately I can’t speak Spanish very well. However, I have heard a phrase in Spanish that is somewhat derogatory to the Swedes.

In Spanish there is a well-known expression ‘no te hagas el suecowhich means ‘Don’t act like you’re a Swede.’ A related expression is ‘hacerse el sueco‘ which means ‘to play Swedish’.

The expression apparently means ‘don’t pretend you don’t understand’ or ‘don’t act dumb’. It is often used when somebody is trying to get out of taking responsibility for something.

Clearly there’s an element of dishonesty underlying this expression and that’s not particularly favorable towards Swedes.

I wonder what has happened in Spanish history that was the catalyst for this well-known and well-used expression? I’m not playing dumb, I’m afraid I don’t know.

Oh my God! Am I pretending to be Swedish?!!

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It’s fatty Tuesday – Swedish style!

Today it’s ‘Fat Tuesday’ in Sweden, known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras around the world.

While in the UK we eat pancakes (today is even called Pancake Day) and in Latin America they scoff down fried bread, Swedes celebrate by eating the traditional cream Lent bun – the ‘semla’. I’m also clearly going to indulge. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing this post.

The semla is a creamy bun filled with delicious almond paste. They were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast, leading up to Easter. In the south of Sweden, they still refer to them as ‘fastlagsbullar’ – Shrovetide buns. Nowadays however, semlas are usually sold anytime between Christmas and Easter.

I just love them. I could eat a barrel load. But I’d end up looking like a barrel if I did. I love the taste of them, and the feeling of luxurious indulgence. I also love the knowledge that as you take a bite into a creamy semla, you are biting into over 500 years’ history of Scandinavian baking.

The word ‘semla’ comes from the Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour and originally referred just to the bun without any filling. As long ago as the 1500’s, bakers started to hollow out the middle of the bun and fill it with cream and butter. As ingredients became more available, bakers started adding almond and cardemon and the type of semla that we know today developed towards the end of the 1800’s. After rationing of sugar and dairy products ceased at the end of WW2, the semla took off and became very popular.

Nowadays the semla trend has reached new heights. Every year bakers around the country try to launch new types of semla, with their own spin on it -for example, the semla wrap, the semla burger, the semla layer cake, the semla cocktail, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. This year, the gross-sounding fermented Baltic herring semla was revealed.

But I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun brimming over with whipped cream and almond paste.

And give it to me NOOOOWWW!!!

The world’s longest cross country ski race – Sweden’s ‘Vasalopp’.


Today, the world’s longest cross country ski race takes place in Sweden. Called Vasaloppet, it entails participants skiing 90 kilometers from start to finish. It’s an extremely popular international race, which can take up to 12 hours to complete, and which is broadcast live on tv. When tickets to participate are released, they sell out in 15 minutes – it’s that popular.

The first Vasalopp was in 1922 and it takes place annually, the first Sunday in March and it is a first sign of spring.  It’s an amazing sight to watch, as more than 15000 mad, happy skiers glide along, the swishing sound of ski on snow filling the air.

For the elite athletes, 12 hours to complete the race is of course unthinkable. They go considerably faster. The person who has completed the race fastest is Jörgen Brink, who in 2012 won the race in just over 3 hours 40 minutes, roughly 25 km per hour.

So why is this race called the Vasalopp? Well, it takes its name from a Swedish king. The race commemorates the escape to Norway, through the forest, of King Gustav Vasa in 1521. Legend has it that he carried out the gruelling journey on skis,  but experts believe he more likely completed this escape on snow shoes.

Nevertheless, out of this legend sprung the race which is so popular today.

Modern day skiers don’t see the experience as an escape, they see it as a challenge and for many of them it’s a rite of passage.

And as you sit watching the TV comfortably from the sofa, with tea and toast, you take vicarious pleasure in this long, amazing Swedish race.

Swedish expressions: to get a bloody tooth

Years ago I sang a solo at a concert. It was the first time I ever sang solo, and I was nervous. Thankfully I didn’t die and actually it went ok. After the show, a friend came up to me and said ‘har du fått blodad tand?’ – ‘have you got a bloody tooth?’

So, what does this expression mean? Well, it’s not ‘bloody’ in the sense of ‘damn’. It’s more in the sense of ‘covered in blood’.

To understand this, we need to go to the animal kingdom. Many animals are herbivores in the early stages of their lives. The saying refers to the moment when an animal eats a bloody prey for the first time. After that, all they want is meat and blood. They develop a taste for it and don’t want anything else.

During the Middle Ages the metaphor moved into the Swedish language to mean that somebody wants to do something more often after trying it once. They have been inspired often by a success and want to continue.

In English, we can say ‘he has tasted blood’. Another translation that closely matches the meaning would be ‘to have your appetite whetted’ for something (whetted is an old English word for sharpened).

So, have you got a bloody tooth for something? If so, what?

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The National Day of the Sweden Finns

In Sweden, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting somebody Finnish or of Finnish heritage. Almost everybody knows somebody with a Finnish connection. In fact, there are so many Finns living in Sweden that they have their own commemorative day. And today is that day.

Today, 24th February is ‘Sverigefinnarnas’ Day, (Sweden Finns Day) – the day that celebrates the roughly half million people who live in Sweden and have Finnish as their mother tongue.

So why are there so many Finns in Sweden?

There has been a long history of emigration between the two countries, especially in the border regions of the north. However, a larger emigration happened when 70,000 young Finnish children were evacuated to Sweden during WW2. 15,000 are believed to have stayed and an unknown number to have returned as adults.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s the migration from Finland to Sweden was considerable, chiefly due to economic differences between the countries. Sweden had the industry, the jobs and the housing. This caused some alarm in Finland with most of the emigrants in their most productive age — although many of them returned to Finland in the following decades.

In the year 2000, the Sweden Finns were recognised as an official national minority group in Sweden. In fact, the Sweden Finns are the largest national minority group in Sweden. Other large minority groups come from former Yugoslavia, Irak, Syria and Poland – although these do not have official national minority group status.

In 2007, a flag was designed which combines the Swedish and the Finnish colours.

If you’re in Sweden today, you may well see this flag flying proudly around the country.