All Saints’ Day – the Swedish way 

Dressing up as witches, vampires and other ghoulish things has become increasing popular in Sweden. However, the traditional way of celebrating this time of year is much more serene and romantic. 

In Sweden, the first Saturday in November is All Saints’ Day – not necessarily November 1st as in most other countries. In 1983, the Sunday after All Saints’ Day was given the official name All Souls’ Day to separate between the saints and the dead.

Since the 1800’s Swedes have, during this weekend, made pilgrimage to graveyards up and down the country to decorate the graves with candle light.

It is a beautiful experience to walk through the churchyards this weekend. In the pitch black November Nordic darkness, it is a peaceful reminder of those who have gone before us. If you happen to be in Stockholm, head for the Forest graveyard (Skogskyrkogården) for a specifically spectacular experience. 

Your helpful Guide to Surviving Midsummer in Sweden 

midsommar

With Midsummer rapidly approaching, it is worth 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. And follow this simple survival guide to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece. 

  1. 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 as follows, shake hands and look direct in eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. If you are feeling adventurous, follow it up with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze. 
  2. 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 dessert has even been put on the table. 
  3. 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. 
  4. If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of showing a bit of genital when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel. 
  5. Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. To survive this, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while. 
  6. Rubbers will save the day. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. If you don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put in on before you put it in. 
  7. Throw in the thermals. Perhaps you think it’s going to be sunny and warm on Midsummer’s Eve? Well, think again. 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. 
  8. Same, but different. Don’t expect culinary excesses on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small exceptions – strawberries and new potatoes. 
  9. 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.  
  10. 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. 

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

And today Sweden celebrates……?

tranafton

 

I was looking through a paper today and I read that today it is Transafton (‘afton’ means ‘Eve’ in Swedish) in Southern Sweden.

‘Wow’, I thought, ‘isn’t that great that they have a special Eve to celebrate transgender people in the South of Sweden. Very impressive

However, upon closer inspection, I realised my error – it didn’t say ‘transafton’.

It actually said ‘tranafton’.

After my bubble was burst, my curiosity became aroused.

Tranafton? What is that? After over 20 years of living in Sweden, I have never heard of Tranafton. I know that a  ‘tran’ in Swedish is the bird called ‘crane’ in English. But why a ‘Crane Eve’?

So I looked it up.

The 24th of March is known as Tranafton in Southern and mid Sweden and has been documented since the 1500’s.  . It was said that the crane returned on this day after its winter migration. This was seen as a sign of spring as it brought the light with it. Now it was so light outside that people did not need to light candles inside their houses. On Tranafton it was important to go to bed while it was still light, otherwise you might be subjected to tricks and name-calling.

On Tranafton, children ran outside barefoot – often three laps around the house. The supersition was that this would build up their immune system and make them strong and resilient. In the Swedish counties of Värmland and Dalsland, this was done dressed in bird costumes – a ritual known as ‘running crane’. In West Sweden, children hung stockings infront of the fire and the crane would come and fill them with gifts. This tradition has mostly died out today, but still exists in a handful of villages in Småland, Värmland and on Öland.

So if you are at a loss for what to do this evening – go out and run the crane to celebrate the arrival of the light. But remember, just to be safe, go to bed before it’s dark.

 

 

Shedding my light on the Lucia debate

 

Today is Santa Lucia in Sweden – December 13th.  At the darkest time of the year, when we all are drained by the black mornings and afternoons, Lucia pays us a visit. With candles in hair and surrounded by a posse of singers, Lucia shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. The music plays. The choir harmonises. Lucia smiles at us. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

I love Lucia. Long live Lucia – this Sicilian martyr, who’s tradition is said to have come to Sweden via Italian merchants around the late 18th century.

Every year, towns around Sweden elect a Lucia and they visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread. And every year there is a debate about who owns the right to be Lucia. The answer to that question depends on your starting point – does one take a traditional view or a modernist view? The Swedish traditionalists will say that Lucia definitely has to be a girl, ideally blonde and blue-eyed. The modernists will say Lucia should reflect today’s society and therefore can be any colour or gender.

This year, as many before, the debate took a nasty turn. A large department store depicted Lucia as a gender-neutral, dark-skinned child. For some people, this was too much. Hateful, despicably racist, and, of course, anonymous comments flowed in via social media, revealing yet another crack in Sweden’s tolerant facade.  Consequently, the department store removed the advert to protect the child. This social media behaviour is unacceptable and should be in no way condoned. Having a view point is everybody’s right (be it traditionalist or modernist), but attacking a child is something totally different.

As I watched Lucia this morning I was reminded of the real message. The humanist message. Sure, Lucia is literally about bringing light to the dark day. But the metaphor is clear, if we care to remember it. It is about caring. It is about being open even when we feel closed. It is about community.

One of the songs the choir sang this morning is called ‘Sprid ditt ljus’ – and I think this sums it all up. Translated into English, the chorus goes: ‘Spread your light, in the darkest times, warm us now and let us all feel peace’

Maybe it’s just me, but I think who is elected Lucia isn’t that important. What’s more important is that we remember the point. We should open our eyes to the light that is shone on our society where we have growing social divides, enormous groups of displaced people, poverty, starvation, homelessness on our streets.

Once a year, Lucia shines the light. Can we find it within us to shine our lights on each other? I, for one, intend to try.

Happy Lucia! May the light keep you warm.

 

 

How Swedes reflect on their mortality

skogskyrkogarden

Thankfully, it isn’t every day that you are faced with death. It is isn’t every day we contemplate our own mortality. Probably a good thing. Imagine what life would be like if we thought about death all the time.

But this weekend is an opportunity to do just that. Tomorrow is All Saints’ Eve. Well, not technically. All Saints’ Eve is actually October 31st. But in Sweden, they are practical and, since 1953, they round it up to the nearest weekend and call it a public holiday.

Legislation aside, tomorrow is the day in Sweden when people reflect over life, death and those who have passed away. It is a peaceful time. It is a beautiful time.

Graveyards around the country twinkle with candle light. Relatives flock to the burial grounds and light candles and lanterns and place them by the graves of their loved ones. It is a miraculous sight to see the dark cemetries twinkling and glowing with bright white lights. It brings scerenity and majesty to an otherwise intensive and dark time of the year.

On Österlen in the rural south of Sweden, they have taken it a step further. A festival called ‘Österlen Lyser’ – Österlen shines – happens this weekend. The dark villages and fields are lit up with candles, flares, lanterns and torches. People play lantern-illuminated night time boule by the edge of the sea. Choirs sing, windows glow and open bonfires celebrate this dark time of the year.

It isn’t every day that you are faced with death. Full respect to Halloween, which is also taking hold in Sweden, but I don’t need to be reminded of witches, vampires and zombies. The less commercial traditional Swedish approach provides a more reflective vehicle for us to contemplate our own mortality and remember those we loved.

Time for Semlas! 

  
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!!! 

Baby we’re burning – Swedes, songs and Satanists

valbiorg

This weekend, the 30th April, in Sweden is Valborgsmässoafton. Yes, another one of those long indecipherable Swedish words.

This one translates as Walpurgis Eve, and is a day enshrined in tradition not only in Sweden but in other European countries such as Germany, Holland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Rather Baltic in other words.

The name ‘Valborg’ is from an English Saint but, despite that, this isn’t really a religious celebration. It’s more to do with the welcoming of spring, and feels rather pagan actually. In the evening on Valborgsmässafton, Swedes gather around huge bonfires and listen to songs. These songs are in the form of traditional choir music designed especially for this occasion to shake off  the nasty dark winter and celebrate the burgeoning buds of the lighter season.

And like many traditions in Sweden, this one also has a rural origin. These bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. On this day, farm animals were let out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators and other evil beings. This is rather ironic as Walpurgis Eve is also an important holiday in Satanism at it marks the founding of the Church of Satan.

But religion aside. On Walpurgis eve, I am watching the Swedes watching the flames, listening to music and looking forward to the spring and summer months ahead.

We survived another winter, and summer is coming!