Why Swedes celebrate on the ‘afton’ (eve)

In the UK, we celebrate ‘Days’ such as Christmas Day & Easter Day. But in Sweden, it is always the Eve ( ‘afton’) that is the big celebration time. There’s påskafton, Valborgsmässoafton, Midsommarafton, pingstafton, nyårsafton, trettondagsafton. Why is this? Surely it can’t just be to get an extra day’s holiday?

Well, actually it originates from a time before the mechanical clock. In that period, a new day began at sunset rather than at midnight as it does now. In the Medieval times there was an expression – ‘vid kväll ska dag leva’ – which means something like ‘in the evening, shall the day live.’ Skandinavians held onto this tradition even after clocks were invented, and this is why they celebrated their important days the evening before. Now the evenings have, for practicalities sake, become day time activities. That’s why Swedes celebrate on the ‘Afton’. Oh yeah, and for the extra day’s holiday.

Sweden’s Easter tree – wiping, witching or whipping?

In Sweden, they don’t only have Christmas trees, they also have Easter trees.

This Easter tree, known as ‘påskris’, is a handful of twigs and sticks (usually birch) installed in a vase with coloured feathers attached to the ends. People often hang painted eggs and other decorations such as chickens in their installation. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country at this time of year: outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, in gardens, in the middle of roundabouts.

The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena – but where does it originate?

Wiping: Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.

Witching: Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.

Whipping: But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. Swedish people, in the 1600’s, used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with them on Good Friday to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.

So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?

When Stockholm becomes a ghost town 

With the summer holidays in full swing in Sweden, many urbanites leave their cities and head for their country houses, their boats and further abroad. As a result, Stockholm empties out and turns into a ghost town. Fewer cars and fewer people contribute to a calm environment. Many establishments are closed for business and back in August. Most of the people you see are tourists or unfortunates who have to still go to work. 
Although it has changed over the years, Sweden is still affected by the so-called ‘industrisemester‘ when companies used to completely shut down production for the whole month of July. Even though this has changed now thanks to globalism, July and August are the times when most employees take their holidays and it is noticeable how vast numbers of people disappear from the cities and towns. According to Swedish law, employees are entitled to 5 weeks holiday and can take 4 of these in July-August and there is a right for these to be conjoined.  

Why do Swedes have a winter sport break? 

Around this time of the year, schools have a week’s holiday. Called Sportlov it’s a traditional time for a winter sport break. 

This tradition was introduced in 1940 and was initially a way to save energy. Heating up schools cost money and, due to rationing, councils were instructed to drastically reduce their heating expenses. To give the pupils something meaningful to do while the school was shut, the authorities organised various activities, many focused on being outdoors and exercising. During the 50’s, experts realised that infection spread less widely at this time of the year if schools were closed for a week. So the winter sport break became cemented and an official disease control method. 

Nowadays, many families head off to the mountains to go skiing, some head off to the Alps for the same purpose.

For those of us left in town, it’s sheer bliss. 

There is hardly anybody on the buses and tube, traffic is significantly thinner and less noisy and it’s easy to get a seat at lunch time. 

And the fact that there are hardly any children in town means the rest of us don’t get infected with kid flu bacteria on our way to work. 

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.