11 hacks for surviving Swedish midsummer

With Midsummer arriving tomorrow, it is time to start planning for your survival. Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers. As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself.

Since we are not fully out of the pandemic, it is important to wash hands regularly and keep a physical distance. Apart from these guidelines, here are a few more hacks to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.

Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way is to stand 1-2 meters away, look directly in their eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. You might even give a small wave or shake hands if you are comfortable doing so. If you are feeling adventurous, follow up your ‘Hej’ with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.

Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the strawberry dessert has even been put on the table.

Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs.

If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of skinny dipping when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.

Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. To survive these activities, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.

Protect yourself. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the many babies in Sweden are made on this day. It you don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.

Throw in the thermals. It looks like it might be super sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. One of the warmest ever! But it is good to be prepared. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.

Don’t expect culinary miracles on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small summery exceptions – strawberries, cream, dill and new potatoes. Remember to use hand disinfectant before you attack the buffet.

Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs. Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time.

Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.

Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…

That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden.

Glad Midsommar!

Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!

The origins of magical Swedish Midsummer

Midsummer’s Eve is possibly the biggest public celebration in Sweden, and it’s happening this week on Friday. Swedes gather to eat, drink and be merry together.

So, what are the origins of Midsummer and why is it celebrated? Well, according to authors Po Tidholm and Agneta Lilja, the origins of Midsummer date back as far as the 6th century:

‘In agrarian times, Midsummer celebrations in Sweden were held to welcome summertime and the season of fertility. In some areas people dressed up as ‘green men’, clad in ferns. They also decorated their houses and farm tools with foliage, and raised tall, leafy maypoles to dance around, probably as early as the 1500s.

Midsummer was primarily an occasion for young people, but it was also celebrated in the industrial communities of central Sweden, where all mill employees were given a feast of pickled herring, beer and snaps. It was not until the 1900s, however, that this became the most Swedish of all traditional festivities.

Ever since the 6th century AD, Midsummer bonfires have been lit around Europe. In Sweden, they were mainly found in the southern part of the country. Young people also liked to visit holy springs, where they drank the healing water and amused themselves with games and dancing. These visits were a reminder of how John the Baptist baptised Christ in the River Jordan.

Midsummer Night is the lightest of the year and was long considered a magical night, as it was the best time for telling people’s futures. Girls ate salted porridge so that their future husbands might bring water to them in their dreams, to quench their thirst. You could also discover treasures, for example by studying how moonbeams fell.

Also that night, it was said, water was turned into wine and ferns into flowers. Many plants acquired healing powers on that one night of the year.’

There is still an element of magic in the otherwise well-organised Midsummer celebrations of today. One example is the erection of a large phallic flower-clad maypole, and the dancing around of said pole. This is an ancient fertility rite. Related to this, is the association of love to the festivities of Midsummer. In fact many Swedish babies are made around this weekend.

Another example is the gathering of 7 types of summer flower to place under your pillow at night. It is said if you do this, then your future husband will appear to you in your dreams.

And then there’s the light. On Midsummer’s Eve is doesn’t really get dark. Depending on where you are in Sweden, it ranges from a dim glow in the south to full on daylight in the north. In Stockholm, where I live, it is a magical dusky twilight that conjures up associations of witchcraft, druids and paganism.

So while today’s Midsummer might be a well-orchestrated gathering of friends and family, there is still some magic to be found if you look hard enough.

Swedish Royal Jubilee cake

Britain’s Queen Elisabeth celebrates 70 years on the throne this weekend. An amazing, unparalleled, feat being celebrated up and down the UK with public holidays, street parties, spectacular events and lots of bunting.

To celebrate the event in Sweden, a competition was launched amongst Swedish bakeries to create a celebratory jubilee cake. I’m happy to say that my local bakery Delselius Bakery won the competition!

The cake will be served at the jubilee event at the British ambassador’s residence in Stockholm, and in selected places in the UK.

It is also being sold in the Delselius cafés for a few short weeks! As one famous queen once said, ‘let them eat cake!’

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!

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’. 40 million of them every year! 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, semla ice cream, semla nachos, semla langos, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. Last 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!!!

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!

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 18: Skumtomte

Window 18. Today’s word is ‘Skumtomte‘ which translates as ‘Marshmallow Santa’.

January is a month when it is often jam-packed at gyms up and down Sweden, at least pre-Corona.

This is usually due to the amount of food, snacks, and alcohol consumed over the Christmas and New Year period. The festive season is also one of the times of year when a lot of sugar and sweets are consumed.

One of the most popular sweets in yuletide Sweden is the ‘skumtomte’ – the marshmallow Santa. The traditional skumtomte is traditionally pink and white and strawberry flavoured.

Thanks to the wonders of product development, new limited flavours have appeared in recent years: apple and cinnamon, blueberry, mint and gingerbread being some examples.

They have been manufactured since 1934, and every year over 194,000,000 are consumed in Sweden and Finland. It seems like it wouldn’t be Christmas without a jultomte.

Other sweet things that Swedes eat around Christmas are:

  • Ischoklad – ‘ice chocolate’ – chocolate with coconut fat in tiny cupcake forms
  • Ris a la Malta – a cold rice dessert with cream, vanilla and mandarines
  • Risgrynsgröt – rice porridge with sugar, cinnamon and milk
  • Knäck – butterscotch
  • Kola – toffee
  • Fudge – fudge
  • Marsipangris – marzipan pig
  • Lussekatt – saffron bun
  • Polkagris – Candy cane
  • Chokladtryffel – chocolate truffle
  • Dadlar – dates
  • Fikon – figs
  • Pepparkaka – ginger biscuits
  • Gröna kulor – marmalade balls
  • Aladdin and/or Paradis – popular boxes of chocolates

So, get eating – the gym can wait until 2022!

Advent Calendar – Dec 16: Julbord

Window 16. Today’s word is ‘Julbord‘ which literally translates as Christmas table.

The word ‘smörgåsbord’ (buffet) is one of the words from the Swedish language to have the biggest international reach. The ‘julbord’ or Christmas table is the ‘smörgåsbord’ that is traditionally eaten in homes and restaurants on Christmas Eve – the day Swedes celebrate Christmas.

In the lead up to Christmas, companies often take their employees out somewhere for a ‘julbord’.

The ‘julbord’ is an interesting concept – a potpourri of dishes, hot and cold. Not all Swedes enjoy everything on the table, but the dishes still have to be present in the name of tradition.

So, what’s on the Swedish ‘julbord’? Here are some common savoury dishes:

  • Julskinka – Christmas ham
  • Inlagd sill – pickled herring of various sorts
  • Köttbullar – Swedish meatballs
  • Prinskorvar – cocktail sausages
  • Janssons frestelse – potato and anchovy gratin called Jansson’s temptation
  • Gravad lax – cured spiced salmon
  • Kallrökt lax – cold-smoked salmon
  • Varmrökt lax – warm-smoked salmon
  • Kalvsylta – jellied veal
  • Knäckebröd och ost – crispbread and cheese
  • Sillsallad – herring salad
  • Lutfisk – whitefish in lye
  • Dopp i grytan – ‘dip in the pot’ – bread dipped in the broth that the meat is cooked in
  • Cabbage of various colours – most commonly red
  • Vörtbröd – Christmas bread flavoured with wort
  • Revbensspjäll – spare ribs
  • Ägghalvor – halved boiled eggs topped with shrimp or caviar

The ‘julbord’ is a banquet, and its history dates back hundreds of years. Around the country there are regional variants to the standard dishes. For example, in county Skåne, they often add eel, and in Bohuslän they add ‘äggost’ – egg cheese! Many regions around Sweden have brown beans and different local sausages on the their Christmas buffet.

All of this food is traditionally washed down with beer, julmust, and snaps.

You have to be careful not to overindulge, if possible because afterwards comes coffee and dessert. A traditional dessert is called Ris a la Malta, which is fluffy rice in whipped cream and tangerines. At Christmas tables organised in restaurants, they normally have a ‘gottebord’ which is another smörgåsbord consisting solely of sweets and desserts. Common contents are toffee, fudge, gingerbread biscuits, marzipan, ‘lussekatter’, dried fruits, cheese, and chocolates.