Swedes and their alcohol – a Swedish odyssey?

When visiting Sweden, people are often struck by the system for purchasing alcohol. In bars and restaurants everything goes as expected but if you want to buy a bottle of, for example, wine or whisky then this is done in the state-owned alcohol shops known as Systembolaget. These shops have restricted opening hours closing at 6 or 7pm on weekdays and 2 or 3pm on Saturdays. On Sundays and Public Holidays they are closed.

Sweden’s alcohol monopoly started in the 1800’s and the national company Systembolaget was formed in 1955.

Systembolaget has a retail network of circa 426 stores, around 25 in Stockholm. The company has an interesting mandate from the Swedish state – to help limit the medical and social harm caused by alcohol and thereby improve public health. This explains why access to alcohol is restricted through the number of stores, opening hours and retail rules, and why the corporation is aims not to maximise its profit. In other words, the alcohol monopoly is highly socio-political -its foremost aim is to stop people consuming alcohol, or at least to consume it responsibly.

Although strange for many visitors, it’s a concept that seems to work – Swedes consume on average 9.1 litres of pure alcohol per person annually, less than many other countries.

However, it is at times like Christmas that the restricted opening times become more obvious. This year, the shops are closed for 4 days from yesterday at 3pm. Up and down the country, long queues were reported. I saw this with my own eyes, and had a weird recollection of old pictures from the Second World War or Soviet Russia. People seemed to be in a good mood while they waited, though it meant waiting for almost an hour outside some branches.

I guess it’s the price you pay for lack of forward planning. Anyway, I hope everybody got what they wanted and that they have a boozy, woozy, snoozy Christmas worth queuing for.

Sweden’s most horrifying and thought-provoking monument

On the main square in the western Swedish town of Karlstad, there is a statue. A striking statue. A significant statue. A statue that was once voted the ugliest statue in the country.

The statue represents a strident woman holding a broken sword, with her left foot placed firmly on the decapitated head of a ghoulish soldier. It’s fairly gruesome. And it certainly has impact. But the message might surprise you.

Raised in 1955, the statue is actually a peace monument which commemorates the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905. Previously, the two countries were unified under the same monarch, and their separation could have led to bitter and bloody conflicts but it didn’t. It was carried out peacefully and paved the way for long-term cooperation between the two neighboring nations.

The statue has many nicknames amongst the town’s locals – ‘the old bitch with the wash paddle”, ”horror woman’ and ‘monument of horrors’.

Even if you find the statue unnerving, there’s no denying that it’s inscription is poignant. Using clever Swedish alliteration, the message reads:

Feuds feed folk hatred, peace promotes people’s understanding”

If you’re ever in the area, the monument is worth a look. She is a powerful representation of a significant moment in the history of Sweden and of Scandinavia.

Let the light in – Lucia morning in Sweden

A Chinese proverb says this,

‘It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.

Never was this more true than today. Lucia day. At the darkest time of the year, when we all are drained by the black mornings and afternoons in Sweden, Lucia pays us a visit. With candles in her hair and surrounded by her handmaidens and boys in a procession, Lucia shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

I love Lucia. Long live Lucia!

Lucia traditions are celebrated in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Malta, Bosnia, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovakia and St. Lucia, West Indies. But where does she come from and why is she one of the few Saint’s days celebrated in Sweden?

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 brough 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 inside it’s light. And the light is always stronger than the darkness. Keep your light lit, and you will never feel the darkness.

Have yourself a Merry Gay Swedish Christmas

With gay men being hunted down and ‘punished’ in Uganda, Tanzania, Russia and many other countries around the world, it is easy to blame religion for the persecution.

And the evidence to back this up is fairly compelling. Countries that have a strong foot in religion are often countries that have strong anti-LGBT policies and attitudes. Not always, but often. Fanatical interpretation of the scripture can be one explanation, as can the crushing concept of sin, and the devouring need to uphold traditional ‘family structures and values’. For example, in a recent comment, the Pope said a lot can be done for LGBT people through psychiatry.

Sweden is a country that separates the church from politics. It is a country where almost 90% of the population identify as atheist or agnostic. It is a place where religious morality does not usually dictate the behaviours and choices of individual citizens. Of course there is organized religion in Sweden, there are churches and there are priests. Of course there are minority religions in Sweden such as Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Of course there are casual believers, devout followers and extremists. But compared to many other organized religions in the world, the Swedish Church is very liberal.

This was manifested in the recent service at a church in Stockholm, a service called Gay Jul (Gay Christmas). The slogan for the event was ‘come in as you are, come out as you want to be’. As I sat in attendance at this service, I witnessed a welcoming space, filled with members of the LGBT community, the church decorated in rainbow flags, and the words ‘Gay Jul’ emblazoned on the pulpit. I was moved by the openness of the church to welcome the minority group that is so often demonized and persecuted by the Faithful. It was an escape, and embrace, a sanctuary.

However, I was also struck by a sadness as I sat there in that echoing church. I realized the experience was a uniquely Swedish one, occurring in a small city in a small outpost of Europe and an unlikely sight in other churches, mosques, temples and tabernacles around the world.

In that church, amongst the rainbow flags, we were far far away from Uganda, and Tanzania, and Russia.

The relief of Swedish Advent

 

So it’s the first of Advent this weekend and this year it comes as a major relief for those of us in Stockholm.

You see at Advent, Swedes decorate their houses, apartments and windows with lights. From ceilings, illuminated stars are hung. On window ledges, electric advent candles are placed. On tables, four candles are positioned and one is lit every Sunday up until Christmas. Small candles, often red, are dotted about the home.

Some years, there is already deepish snow at the first of Advent, but this year in Stockholm, there isn’t. So it is very, very, very dark. The collective advent decoration is a definite reprieve from this darkness as light is spread into these murky places.

The word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ which means ‘arrival’ and is traditionally the start of the period where we wait for the arrival of nativity, or Christmas. Some religions also see it as waiting for the second coming of Christ. But in this secular society that is Sweden, the waiting is probably for the snow to come, the cold to hit, the water to freeze to ice and for winter to clasp its fingers firmly around us.

Spectacular Swedish serenity on All Saints’ Day

I remember walking around Stockholm when I had recently moved here. It was a pitch black Saturday evening in November, cold and crisp. As I approached a majestic church, I noticed that it was shimmering from the grave yard. This yellow and white light slowly flickered and cast shadows on the gravestones and the church wall. As if drawn by a magic spell, I walked up to the church and looked over the wall. The sight that met my eyes was spectacular and serene at the same time. Hundreds of candles were spread around the cemetery, decorating each of the graves. In the memory grove a bright blazing blanket of candles lit up the area. It was as if the spirits of the dead had come out to play.

In Sweden, the first Saturday in November is All Saints’ Day (the Sunday after All Saints’ Day is called 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 and to pay respect to the dead. It is a much more elegant and atmospheric tradition than the typical Halloween parties that otherwise have become very popular in Sweden.

It is a truly 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. So head for your nearest cemetery this weekend and, if you happen to be in Stockholm, go to the Forest graveyard (Skogskyrkogården) for a specifically spectacular experience (pictured below).

Swedish expressions – take it piano

If a Swede says to you ‘ta det piano’ – take it piano – what they mean is take it easy, go slow often to avoid any mistakes. They can also say ‘it’s piano’ which means everything is cool, calm, ok.

Researching the origin of this expression led me, not surprisingly, to the world of music.

The word ‘piano’ has two meanings – firstly the string instrument with its variety of keys.

Secondly, it is a musical term for ‘weak’ or ‘soft’. In sheet music, the letter ‘p’ indicates piano and tells the musician to play their instrument softly. Double ‘pp’ means pianissimo and indicates to play very softly.

The term ‘piano’ originates in Italian and has been in use in Sweden since the 1600’s.