Vasaloppet in Sweden – the world’s longest cross country ski race


Tomorrow, the world’s longest cross country ski race takes place in Sweden. Called Vasaloppet, it entails participants skiing 90 kilometers from start to finish. It’s an extremely popular international race which is broadcast live on tv. When tickets to participate are released, they usually sell out in 15 minutes – it’s that popular.

The first Vasalopp was in 1922 and takes place annually, the first Sunday in March and it is a first sign of spring.  Normal participants can take up to 12 hours to complete the gruelling course, but the elite athletes do it in a comparatively speedy time of around 4 hours.

So why is this race called ‘Vasaloppet’? Well, it takes its name from a Swedish king. The race commemorates the escape to Norway, through the forest, of King Gustav Vasa in 1521. Legend has it that he carried out the long journey on skis,  but experts believe he more likely completed this escape on snow shoes. Nevertheless, out of this legend sprung the race which is so popular today. ‘Vasa’ after the king, and ‘loppet’ meaning ‘the race’.

Modern day skiers don’t see the experience as an escape, they see it as a challenge and for many of them it’s a rite of passage.

And as you sit watching the TV comfortably from the sofa, with tea and toast, you take vicarious pleasure in this long, amazing Swedish race.

It will be broadcast tomorrow from 7.30 on SVT ( Swedish TV). You can also check it out on the internet in the streaming service SVT Play.

Advent Calendar – Dec 23: Dan före dopparedan

Window 23. Today’s words are ‘Dan före dopparedan‘ – which translate somewhat curiously as ‘the day before dipping day’. Or, the day before Christmas.

I always thought that the name ‘dopparedan’ (dipping day) for Christmas Eve was somehow a reference to John the Baptist.

But I was wrong.

It actually comes from the Medieval Swedish tradition of dipping and drenching bread in the stock juices in which the Christmas ham has cooked, and eating it.

This traditional practice is called ‘dopp i grytan’ and originated in agricultural communities. People dipped their bread as a little snack while they made final preparations for the celebrations later in the evening. Some people still do this today.

Because Christmas Eve was called ‘dopparedagen’, the 23rd Dec became known as ‘dan före dopparedan’ – the day before the day of dipping bread.

Today’s ‘dan före dopparedan’ is more to do with making the final stressful arrangements for tomorrow. Final baking is done, last-minute Christmas presents are bought, a visit to Systembolaget (alcohol shop) is made. Long queues are to be expected.

And then, darkness and calmness descends over houses and homes all around the country. The evening before Christmas Eve is called ‘uppersittarkväll’ and Swedish families traditionally gather to wrap presents, play tv bingo, play games and write Christmas present rhymes.

It is also the evening when traditionally people put up final decorations and dress the Christmas tree, although this happens earlier for many families.

Once everything is finalized, hopefully there is a moment of relaxation to be had with a glass of warm glögg and a pepparkaka.

And then, it’s time to head off to bed in anticipation for the big day tomorrow – dipping day!

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 22: Tomten

Window 23. 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 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.

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 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

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

Advent Calendar – Dec 9: Julbelysning

Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and the festive season.

Today’s word is ‘Julbelysning‘ which translates as ‘Christmas lights’.

Like others around the world, Sweden’s cities and towns install public Christmas lights this time of the year. These decorations illuminate the dark December days and are an important part of building up the Christmas cheer at an otherwise miserable time of the year.

Currently Stockholm is populated with twinkling elk, reindeer, pine cones, angels, stars and fir trees. The same applies to Gothenburg, where there is also a giant red love heart on Lejontrappan. In Malmö, 1000,000 lights have been switched on and a festival called Vinter i City (Winter in the City) lasts for a month up to Christmas. More information on http://www.ilovegoteborg.se and http://www.malmo.se

Since 1996, on Skeppsbron in Stockholm, the city’s largest Christmas tree has been positioned. An enormous, impressive tree that towers over the buildings of the Old Town and spreads its light over the harbour. The tree in actual fact isn’t a real tree – it is constructed over a central pole with branches attached to it. In doing so, the tree is pleasingly symmetrical.

If you’d like to walk around and see the lights in Stockholm, the city has produced a map which you can find on http://www.stockholmsjul.se

This week is also Nobel week in Stockholm and a light festival called Nobel Lights is taking place. Monuments and buildings around the city are decorated and transformed with projected light shows. More information on http://www.nobelweeklights.se