Advent Calendar – Dec 20: Jullåt

Window 20. Today’s word is ‘Jullåt‘ which translates as ‘Christmas song’. The ‘å’ letter in Swedish is pronounced something like ‘or’.

Obviously, the Christmas song is not unique to a Swedish Christmas. Like many other countries around the world, the playing of Christmas music starts in shops sometime in November and probably gives the shop assistants PTSD by the time Christmas has actually arrived.

The big international songs are popular in Sweden. According to the top list released by STIM (Sweden’s Music Copyright Protection Organisation), the most played international songs on Swedish radio are Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ by Mariah Carey and Band Aid’s ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’.

However, there is also a plethora of Christmas music in Swedish to torment us – classic, carols, hymns, psalms and pop. Many of the songs have predictable titles about Christmas time and lighting candles. The top three most-played Swedish songs are called ‘Tänd ett ljus’ (Light a candle), ‘Jul, jul, strålande jul’ (Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas) and ‘Mer jul’ (More Christmas).

But there are also some songs with rather strange titles. Here are just a few of them:

  • Hello (Christmas) goblins
  • The fox rushes over the ice
  • Our Christmas ham has escaped
  • Three gingerbread men
  • The Christmas goat
  • Staffan was a stable boy
  • Drunk again at Christmas
  • The gnomes’ Christmas night

A popular tradition at Christmas is to go to one of the many Christmas concerts that take place up and down the country. These concerts can be for example choir concerts, church concerts or school concerts.

There are also many professional concerts and shows and some Swedish artists have carved out a living from performing at Christmas time and singing all the expected traditional songs.

This year for example you can see the Christmas tour ‘Min Sanna Jul’ with popular singer Sanna Nielsen. Or why not listen to the Royal Philharmonic’s Christmas concert with country singer Jill Johnson and Eurovision profile John Lundvik?

If you’d like to listen to some Swedish Christmas music, check it out here

Advent Calendar – Dec 15: Musikhjälpen

Window 15. Today’s word is ‘Musikhjälpen‘ which translates as Music Aid.

For the last 14 years, the radio/tv program ‘Musikhjälpen’ has become a traditional part of the lead up to Christmas.

In this program, 3 presenters are locked into a glass ‘cage’ on a city square somewhere in small town Sweden. They are sleep deprived and only allowed to eat liquids.

From the cage, they broadcast radio and tv round the clock for 6 days until they are released.

The program is a fund raising event and people up and down the country request songs and make donations, or carry out fund raising activities. At most, the event has raised a staggering 74,410,363 SEK in 2017.

Every year the theme is different; this year the theme is ‘a world without child labour’.

Throughout the years, many of Sweden’s music and media celebrities have taken on the challenge of incarceration, such as singers Sara Dawn Finer, Daniel Adams-Ray and Linnea Henriksson, and rappers Petter and Timbuktu. This year, singers Oscar Zia and Anis Don Demina are locked in together with tv celebrity Brita Zackari.

The event attracts large crowds, and this year people are encouraged to practice social distance. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, the glass cube was moved inside a warehouse with no general public audience.

The program is based on an original format called Serious Request from Holland and is an amazing display of charity just a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Advent Calendar – Dec 13: Lucia

Window 13: Today’s word is ‘Lucia‘ – a light-bringing saint who is commemorated today.

At the darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning. Lucia has candles in her hair and is surrounded by her handmaidens and boys, and shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

Santa Lucia is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a martyr’s death in Syracuse, Sicily around AD 310. She was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes, in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result of this, Lucia became a devout Christian and refused to compromise her virginity in marriage.

Officials threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her, even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her instead and set light to it, but she would not stop speaking.

One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop her, but to no effect. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. Lucia was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrement.

The tradition of Santa Lucia is said to have been brought to Sweden via Italian merchants and the idea of lighting up the dark appealed so much that the tradition remained. The current tradition of having a white-dressed woman with candles in her hair appearing on the morning of the Lucia day started in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 19th century.

The modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. The initiative was then followed around the country through the local press. Today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread.

So, it might be cold and dark outside, but remember – after darkness comes the light.

Advent Calendar – Dec 13: Lucia

Window 13: Today’s word is ‘Lucia‘ – a light-bringing saint who is commemorated today.

At the darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning. Lucia has candles in her hair and is surrounded by her handmaidens and boys, and shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

Santa Lucia is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a martyr’s death in Syracuse, Sicily around AD 310. She was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes, in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result of this, Lucia became a devout Christian and refused to compromise her virginity in marriage.

Officials threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her, even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her instead and set light to it, but she would not stop speaking.

One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop her, but to no effect. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. Lucia was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrement.

The tradition of Santa Lucia is said to have been brought to Sweden via Italian merchants and the idea of lighting up the dark appealed so much that the tradition remained. The current tradition of having a white-dressed woman with candles in her hair appearing on the morning of the Lucia day started in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 19th century.

The modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. The initiative was then followed around the country through the local press. Today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread.

So, it might be cold and dark outside, but remember – after darkness comes the light.

Advent Calender Dec 6: Julmarknad

Window 6: Today’s word is ‘Julmarknad‘ which translates as ‘Christmas Market’

A popular recurring event during the weeks leading up to Christmas in Sweden is the Julmarknad – the Christmas Market.

Christmas markets are a very cosy affair. Here you can walk around and enjoy the smell of glögg and roasted chestnuts. You can listen to the sound of Christmas carols echoing through the air. You can bathe in the lights and decorations strewn around the marketplace. And you can see traditional handicrafts and locally produced goods on sale, such as scarves, hats, festive food and decorations. If you’re lucky, snow is tumbling down and crunching under foot. The whole thing feels like being momentarily caught in a giant snow globe.

Christmas markets have been around in Sweden since the 1800’s and take place up and down the country on town squares, in gardens, in museums, farms, barns, greenhouses, castles, garden centers and stately homes.

This year, Christmas markets are back with a vengeance after last year’s Covid restrictions. But remember, even if you are outdoors and even if it’s cold – keep your distance.

In Stockholm, the most popular markets are in Skansen and on the main square in the Old Town. The Royal Palace of Drottningholm and Taxinge Castle outside Stockholm are also popular, as is the small picture-postcard town of Sigtuna about an hour north of the capital.

In Gothenburg, the market at Liseberg is a popular experience and in Malmö head to the market on Gustav Adolf Square.

For information in Swedish about Christmas markets, check http://www.julmarknad.nu

My book on Sweden – the Essential Guide!

My book is doing really well, which I’m very proud of. You can buy it on Amazon, Bokus, Akademibokhandeln and Adlibris amongst other online stores. Sweden, by Neil Shipley, published by Kuperard 2021.

I still have a few copies left, so if you’d like to buy a signed copy, just let me know!

Sweden: the spiritual magic of ‘joiking’

We have all experienced moments of beauty in our lives. One of mine is something I experienced on a trip to the North of Sweden in an town called Hemavan.

The resort we stayed at had a restaurant at the bottom of a ski slope. One day when we were in there, a Sami man climbed up onto the small stage and began to sing an enchanting song. He was dressed in traditional blue and red Sami dress, and through the large windows behind him we could see reindeer high up in the snowy landscape.

It is a beautiful, serene image that is forever etched in my mind.

A contributing factor to the impact this had on me is how the man was singing. In fact, he wasn’t singing, he was ‘joiking ’. What, you might wonder, is joiking ?

Joiking is not a song as such, but a melodic sound that is integral to Sami culture. It is used to express relationships to people and nature. Traditionally, joiks have no lyrics, consisting of chanting, not unlike that found in some Northern American Indigenous cultures. They can also include mimicry of animal sounds.

Like in the restaurant, joiks are often performed for entertainment. However, they can also have a spiritual function. In past times, a noaidi (Sami shaman) could perform joik whilst beating on a Sami drum with bones to contact the spiritual world.

In Sami culture, most people are given their own melody, like a signature tune. This leads to the Sami saying that they are “joiking someone” rather than “joiking about someone”. Most joik melodies are about people, but also animals and places can have their own joiks. Animal joiks are often about wolves, reindeer, or birds such as ducks.

During the Christianization of the Sami from the 1700s onwards, joiking was considered sinful and was banned. But it survived and today is included as a frequent part of Swedish cultural events. Most recently, a Sami artist was televised joiking in a celebration of Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday in July.

If you’d like to experience some traditional and modern joiking, check out the links below. You will be captured by its melancholy and immediately transported to the mountains and plains of northern Sweden.

Swedish hits 10+++++

Sweden is one of the world’s largest exporters of pop music and has a huge industry of songwriters and musicians. In previous posts, we’ve looked at singers and artists who are Swedish. And there are many more who weren’t mentioned, such as Robyn, Zara Larsson, Neneh Cherry, Leila K, Army of Lovers, The Hives, Alcazar, Tove Lo, Mabel, to highlight a few notables.

However, in today’s tenth and final installment we shine the light on all those songs that have Swedish hit makers behind them, even if the singer wasn’t Swedish.

Sweden’s most famous hit-maker is probably Max Martin. This song-writer and producer has created hits for artists such as Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Coldplay, Backstreet Boys, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and the Justins Timberlake and Bieber, to mention a few. Hits such as Hit me Baby One More Time, I Kissed a Girl, I Can’t Feel My Face are his. Consequently, his net worth is estimated at 2.1 billion crowns and he has won songwriter of the year 11 times. He has written 23 Billboard number 1’s, surpassed only by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In September 2010, he had four songs in the top 5 at the same time. In 2016, he was awarded the prestigious Polar Prize, Sweden’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize for music. The prize recognised his achievements as a prolific song writer and producer.

Another Swedish hit-maker is Redone. With roots in Morocco, he is the writer and producer behind Lady Gaga, with hits such as Just Dance, Poker Face and Bad Romance under his belt. Other than Gaga, he has produced Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Enrique Iglesias, One Direction and Nicki Minaj to mention a few.

A third Swedish hit-maker is Shellback. He works closely with Max Martin and has written songs like Pink’s So What, Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off and Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger. With Martin, he also wrote the mega hit Can’t Stop The Feeling for Justin Timberlake. After Max Martin, Shellback has the record for the most number 1 hits on the Billboard charts written by a Swede. He is still active although suffered a burn out a few years ago.

Thomas G:son is another Swedish song-writer who moves in very different circles than the three mentioned above. He is the king of Eurovision and is the Swede who has had the most songs represented in the domestic and international Eurovision Song Contests – 56 in total. His songs have been sung by iconic Swedish singers such as Carola, Kikki Danielsson and Charlotte Perelli. His only winning song in the finals is, however, Euphoria sung by Loreen.

Swedish hits 8: Now You’re Gone

Sweden is one of the world’s largest exporters of pop music and has a huge industry of songwriters and musicians. Today we look at the Euro dance hit ‘Now You’re Gone’ by singer, producer and DJ – Basshunter. Did you know he was Swedish?

In 2006, Jonas Erik Altberg, known as Basshunter, released a song in Sweden called ‘Boten Anna’. The song became a massive hit and reached number 1 in Sweden and many other European countries.

In 2008, an English version was released. The title was ‘Now You’re Gone’, and it shot to number 1 in the UK and is the second longest Swedish song to remain in that position on the British chart. Only . ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ has been number 1 longer. Eventually he was dethroned by Duffy’s mega hit ‘Mercy’. The YouTube video to ‘Now You’re Gone’ has been viewed over 200 million times.

Basshunter was more famous in the UK, and around the world, than many Swedes might realise – in 2010 he was asked to participate in the British Celebrity Big Brother. In the end, he came fourth. He carried out several sold-out tours in Europe, UK, NZ and Australia. He also performed at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

Although he released 6 albums, he never achieved as viral a success as ‘Now You’re Gone’.

Swedish hits 7: Wake Me Up

Sweden is one of the world’s largest exporters of pop music and has a huge industry of songwriters and musicians. Today we look at the infectious dance hit Wake Me Up by legendary Swedish producer, songwriter and DJ – Avicii.

Written by Avicii et al, Wake Me Up was released in 2013 and was the highest charting dance track of the decade. It peaked at number 1 in 22 countries and was in the top 10 in many more. This thumping dance song was the first ever dance/electronic song to sell over 4 million copies in the USA. The vocals on the track are written and sung by American soul singer Aloe Blacc.

In 2014, the song passed 200 million streams on Spotify, making it the most streamed song ever at that time. To date, the song’s YouTube video has been watched almost 2 billion times!

Avicii, whose real name was Tim Bergling suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2018. He left a legacy of many hit songs such as Hey Brother, Without You and Addicted to You. As such he is the fifth most successful artist from Sweden in terms of record sales.

In May 2021, Stockholm’s Globe Arena changed its name and is now officially called the Avicii Arena. This isn’t only a tribute to Avicii but also a symbol for an initiative that works to prevent mental illness among young people throughout the country. Avicii Arena will be the beacon of hope and meeting place for the initiative. Hopefully it will help to wake us all up.