Today I’ve decided to indulge. I’m going to eat my first semla of the year. These creamy buns are filled with delicious almond paste and were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast. 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. So I’ve done very well to resist them this far.
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.
All delicious I’m sure, but I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun stuffed with whipped cream and almond paste. And give it to me NOW!!!
Today, the Thursday before Easter is called Skärtorsdag in Swedish. As the word ‘skär’ translates as a shocking pink colour, many people joke that today is ‘pink Thursday’. But the word ‘skär’ in this case relates to something else – something far more biblical.
The word ‘skär’ is an early Nordic word meaning clean and pure. And here, we see a parallel to the English word for ‘Skärtorsdag’. In English, today is called ‘Maundy Thursday’ and it relates to the religious rite known as ‘the maundy’ which involved the ritualistic cleaning of feet. According to Christian belief, today was the day that Jesus performed this act until the recipients had clean and pure feet. It also is the day of the infamous Last Supper.
However, in Sweden today, ‘Skärtrorsdag’ is not celebrated in any great religious fashion but in a pagan manner. A old pagan belief in Sweden was that on this day witches would mount their broomsticks to fly away to the legendary mountain known as Blåkulla. At Blåkulla it was believed that the devil held his earthly court. There the witches celebrated their sabbath and danced with the devil.
In modern day Sweden, we see this reflected in the many children who dress up as witches. These kids paint Easter cards and walk around the neighbourhood knocking on doors to wish everybody a happy Easter. In exchange, they hope to receive Easter sweets.
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
Today is Long Friday in Sweden, Good Friday in English-speaking countries. If you hold to the Christian belief, it’s the day Jesus was crucified on Golgata, outside of Jerusalem.
Why the differences in names for this day? In English-speaking countries, there are differences of opinions as to why it’s called Good Friday. Some people claim Good is an old English word meaning Holy – so Holy Friday. Others say it’s a development of the word God. And other theories say it is good because it is the day Jesus, dying on his cross, was victorious over sin, death and the devil and took upon him all the sins of Mankind. Heavy stuff.
In Sweden, it is called Long Friday as it was said to be a day of mourning for the long day of suffering that Jesus endured will being crucified.
In Sweden, as in the UK, today is a public holiday, people don’t need to dress in black anymore and all the shops and places of entertainment are open. Some people go to church, some paint eggs and decorate Easter trees, some prepare food for Easter Saturday.
I think it’s interesting to know the origins of our traditions. Often these origins are long forgotten. But understanding the history helps put things into perspective as we celebrate in the way we prefer, traditions that have been followed for centuries before and centuries to come.
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?
The word ‘skär’ has another, pre-Nordic meaning that is 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, 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.