Huge Swedish demonstration against the vaccine pass

Yesterday, in central Stockholm and Gothenburg, a huge anti-vaccine pass demonstration took place. Thousands of people, assumed unvaccinated, crowded together in a public square and marched the streets.

One demonstrator was interviewed on tv and said ‘I want the right to my own body, I believe in freedom, I don’t want to be forced to take a vaccine’.

Last I checked, the vaccine was voluntary and nobody’s forcing anybody.

We have the freedom to do what we want: take the vaccine or don’t. I have had Covid and do not want to experience it again. So I choose to take the vaccine to protect myself from serious illness if I get re-infected. However, that is only a part of my choice. I also choose the vaccine to protect others in society, to try to reduce the spread of the virus and out of solidarity for our exhausted health care workers.

If somebody else does not want to get vaccinated, that is their liberty. They are in the minority in Sweden, at roughly 15%.

There is a confusion between pro- or anti-vaccine and supporting the existence of a vaccine pass. The demonstration seemed to mix up both issues. They are very different.

However, the ironic truth is that if more people got vaccinated, the fewer restrictions we would need. The more who are vaccinated, the less likely it is we need a vaccine pass.

Many people dismiss these demonstrators as ‘tin foil hatters’ – a pejorative term for people with paranoid, persecutory delusions. However, this diminishes an important and valid concern. The debate around vaccination really is a tricky one. There is a conflict between the right to make one’s own decisions over what happens to one’s body – versus the collective level of safety necessary to protect vulnerable people and the healthcare system. What we need to figure out is how to strike a balance between individual rights and the public good. The question is who’s rights weigh the strongest: a person denying a vaccine, or a vulnerable at-risk person who cannot take the vaccine?

I am sure most of us agree that safety is the basis of freedom. That’s why I see the vaccine pass as a temporary way to protect the public, while still enabling us as individuals to live a freer life.

It will hopefully enable us to protect ourselves and each other, and alleviate the burden carried by our health care workers. And it will hopefully lead to a quicker path out of the pandemic. For me, that is worth trading off against a small restriction on my personal rights.

Today is a Swedish squeeze day

Today is a ‘squeeze day’ in Sweden. What, you may wonder, is a squeeze day?

– It is not a day when everybody goes around hugging each other. Especially now during the pandemic.

– Nor is it a day when people pinch each other’s cheeks or rear ends.

– It is not either a day of drinking copious amounts of fresh citrus juice.

No, a ‘squeeze day’, or ‘klämdag’ in Swedish, is a day of the week that falls between a public holiday and a weekend.

In Sweden, when a public holiday occurs on a Tuesday or a Thursday, a common custom is to take the day between the holiday and the weekend as a day off. Sometimes this is subsidized by the employer. In English, this is called a ‘bridge day’ but in Swedish it’s cutely referred to as a ‘squeeze day’.

As yesterday (Thursday) was a public holiday, many people are also off work today.

Advent Calendar – Dec 22: Tomten

Window 22. Today’s word is ‘Tomten‘ – who is the Swedish equivalent of Santa Claus.

Around the world, Santa is based on the mythology of St Nikolas – the Greek/Turkish patron saint who’s legend morphed in the USA from the Dutch immigrants’ Sinterklaas to the jolly figure who rewards good children that we see today.

The Swedish symbol of Tomten is partially based on St Niklas and the American depiction of Santa Claus. However, he is also based on a goat and a mythical sprite.

Let’s travel back to rural Sweden hundreds of years ago. Here, in the countryside, Tomten was a kind of sprite (hob, gnome, pixie) who lived on the farm and made sure that the farm had good luck.

Tomten was described as a little man, dressed in sackcloth and with a beard. He usually lived in the barn and was shy, mischievous, and irritable – and also vengeful. To keep Tomten happy, the farmer would leave out rice porridge for him to eat – a food that became known as ‘tomtegröt’ and that is still eaten for Christmas breakfast in Sweden today.

With industrialization in the late 1800’s, Sweden started to become inspired by the German St Nicholas, and in modern minds he merged with the rural sprite to become ‘jultomte’ – the gift-bearing sprite.

Popular Christmas cards by Swedish artist Jenny Nyström depicted this new version of Tomten in 1874 and strongly influenced the Swedish way of seeing jultomte. He was dressed in red hat, with a fluffy white beard. He is also seen to have many little helpers – known as ‘tomtenissar’ (a kind of elf).

And in 1881, a poem by Viktor Rydberg called Tomten strongly cemented his transformation and associated the figure with mid-winter and Christmas time.

Prior to this concept of Jultomte/Tomten, gifts were brought in Sweden by the Christmas goat. Straw goats are still a part of Christmas decorations in Sweden and can be found hanging in Christmas trees or standing at the foot of the tree.

In Sweden today, Tomten arrives on Christmas Eve, usually in the late afternoon. He delivers gifts to families, usually with the introduction of ‘Ho, Ho, Ho are there any good children here?’

Strangely, he always seems to arrive just when a member of the family (often dad) has gone out to the shops or gone for a walk.

Advent Calendar – Dec 21: Julvärd

Window 21. Today’s word is ‘Julvärd‘ which translates as Christmas host.

The term Christmas host is not referring to the religious bread that represents the body of Christ. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking so at this time of the year.

No, the Christmas host is a personality on tv who guides the viewers through the proceedings on Christmas Eve.

For 27 years the ‘julvärd’ was the same person – a man called Arne Weise – and he is, for many Swedes, eternally associated with Christmas Eve.

But since 2003, a new host is announced every year and it is considered a great honour to be given the role. This year the ‘julvärd’ is popular tv chef Tareq Taylor.

While the role of ‘julvärd’ might seem trivial, it is actually very important. The Christmas host is present throughout the whole day and introduces the programs. He or she also talks about the value of Christmas and what it means. And not least, the ‘julvärd’ keeps lonely people company by inviting themselves into living rooms up and down the country.

The ‘Julvärd’ can be seen on SVT – Sweden’s Public Service Television – and is usually broadcast live.

Advent Calendar – Dec 17: Årets Julklapp

Window 17. Today’s word is ‘Årets julklapp‘ which translates as ‘Christmas present of the year.’

Every year, Sweden’s trade research institute nominates an item that is the ‘Christmas present of the year’. This item should have sold in large quantities and/or represent current trends in Swedish society. 

The first item to be granted this status was in 1988 and it was the baking machine. Since then, various items have been the CD player, VR glasses, the tablet, the spike mat, the book, the food home delivery service, the robot hoover, the woolly hat and the wok.

In 2019, it was a mobile phone storage box. Last year’s was the mess kit – enabling people to go outdoors and socialise.

So this year, what is it? 

Given the current state of the world, one might hope that it is a charitable contribution. But no it’s not. It’s a ticket to an event, which is rather controversial and provocative given we are still in the midst of a pandemic.

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.

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.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 12: Julstjärna

Window 12. Today’s word is ‘Julstjärna‘ which translates literally as Christmas star and is a plant. It is pronounced ‘yule hwaerna’ (ish).

The Christmas star – ”Julstjärna” – is a plant originating in Mexico, that is popular as a decoration at Christmas time in Sweden. In the wild, it can grow to be several meters tall.

Its English name is poinsettia, named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first US minister to Mexico and who was credited with introducing the plant to the USA in the 1820’s. Actually, today December 12 is international poinsettia day, the anniversary of the death of Mr Poinsett.

The ‘julstjärna’ is not a plant that one sees very often during the rest of the year in Sweden, but suddenly at Christmas it explodes onto the scene and is a feature in most offices, homes and public buildings.

The flower has dark green and red leaves which is why it is popular at Christmas I guess. It also comes with white leaves, pink leaves and speckled leaves. The leaves are shaped a bit like a star, and I am assuming that where the Swedish name ‘Christmas star’ comes from. In Sweden, approximately 9 million ‘julstjärnor’ are bought every year.

Other popular flowers and plants that Swedes decorate their homes with at Christmas time are, amongst others, the towering amaryllis, the fragrant hyacinth, the romantic mistletoe, the tempestuous red tulip, and ilex – which are stiff branches with bright red berries on them

Advent Calendar – Dec 11: Nubbe

Window 11. Today’s word is ‘Nubbe‘ which is the colloquial word for an alcoholic shot known as snaps.

Nubbe, or snaps, is a really popular drink that Swedes enjoy at Christmas time. At its base, it is a strong spirit (30-38% alcohol content) called ‘brännvin’ which is distilled from potatoes or grain.

It can be plain and colourless, or flavoured with herbs and spices. Sometimes it can be sweet and infused with, for example blackcurrant, elderflower or raspberry. Others can be so bitter they make your toes curl – flavoured with for example aniseed, wort or wormwood. If it includes caraway or dill, it can according to EU patent protection be called akvavit.

A mouthful-size of ‘brännvin’ is called a snaps or a nubbe and it is drunk out of small glasses. Usually it is consumed when eating traditional food, and may also be accompanied by a ‘snapsvisa’ – a drinking song.

One popular drinking song at Christmas is called ‘Hej Tomtegubbar‘ which translates roughly as:

‘Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Our time is brief upon the earth, with many troubles and little mirth

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

After a few snapses, the party atmosphere usually begins – with more singing, speeches and maybe even some dancing. For Swedes, snaps is such an important tradition that it is drunk not only at Christmas but at most festive times – such as Easter, Midsummer and autumn’s crayfish party.

According to The Swedish alcohol monopoly, Swedes have been flavouring their ‘brännvin’ since the 1500’s and the word ‘Nubbe’ as a slang word for snaps turned up first in 1892.

Advent Calendar – Dec 10: Nobeldagen

Window number 10. Today’s word is ‘Nobeldagen‘ which translates as ‘Nobel Day’.

Nobel Day is not actually anything to do with Christmas. However, it is a traditional part of the lead up to Christmas. Every year on 10 December, since 1901, the Nobel Prizes are awarded. The date commemorates the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896.

Nobel prizes are awarded in the 6 categories of Literature, Chemistry, Physics, Medicine or Physiology, Economics and Peace. All prizes are awarded in Stockholm, except the peace prize which is awarded in Oslo. Laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma and 10 million Swedish crowns.

Most laureates are happy to accept their prize and the accolade. However, Jean Paul Satre famously declined the Literature Prize in 1964, claiming he did not want to be institutionalized.

In 1974 he was joined by Le Duc Tbo who refused to accept the Peace Prize for his work to end the Vietnam War, saying ‘peace has not yet been established.’

In 1935, German journalist Carl von Ossietzky – a vocal critic of Hitler- won the Peace Prize. This led Hitler to bar all Germans from accepting a Nobel Prize. Three German laureates were subsequently forced to decline their awards. However, they later were presented with their diplomas and medals.

With celebratory lectures, conversations, ceremonies and concerts, Nobel Day culminates with a banquet in the Stockholm City Hall. The banquet lasts about 3 and a half hours and is televised. It is an extremely grand and formal occasion. Everything from the porcelain to the floral arrangements to the dresses, the entertainment and the menu are under scrutiny for the tv viewers.

The guests include not only the Nobel laureates and their families, but also Swedish royals and aristocrats, politicians, ministers, celebrities and other notable people. Even though there are 1300 guests, is virtually impossible for ordinary folk to get an invitation to the banquet. We have to enjoy it from afar, via the flat screens in our living rooms.

However exclusive the whole thing might be, it is still a welcome splash of glamour in the dark approach to Christmas.

Last year, and this year, there is however no banquet. Thanks to the Covid 19 pandemic and current restrictions, Nobel laureates receive their prizes at their local Swedish embassy instead. Stockholmers are instead treated to the light festival called Nobel Lights, which takes place around the city.

Musical events, documentaries, interviews and speeches can be followed on http://www.nobelprize.org