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The Lowdown: Swedish Advent

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11:00 CET+01:00
If the darkness of winter's already starting to get you down, the light and merriment –not to mention the calories and alcohol – of a Swedish Advent should help pick you up.

In the past couple of days, several of my neighbours have erected wooden triangles with little electric lights in their windows. What's that all about?

The triangles are called adventsljustakar, or Advent candlesticks, and signal that the countdown to Christmas has begun.

Advent (the word, which has Latin origins, is the same in Swedish and English), literally means 'coming'. People are supposed to start putting them up on Advent Sunday, four Sundays before Christmas, which this year fell on December 1st.

By the end of the first week of December, it will seem as though every home, shop and office in Sweden is displaying electric candlesticks.

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But what's the origin of the candles?

The advent lights are a modern interpretation of traditional advent candles. As in many other Christian countries, many Swedes keep candlesticks with four candles in their homes during Advent. A new candle is lit on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.

The first electric Advent lights were produced in Sweden in 1934. They generally have seven lights and are often put up a few days before Advent Sunday. They are usually taken down on twelfth night - twelve days after Christmas Day.

In the darkness of a Swedish December, many people are glad to take the chance to spread a bit of light. Indeed, partly thanks to Ikea, Swedish-style advent lights have spread around the world.

Another popular tradition is to hang a paper star in the window. Originally a German tradition, this has caught on in Sweden too. The star symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem.

Lights in windows are all very well. What about the food?

Ah yes - Advent in Sweden is a good excuse to tuck into some seasonal delicacies. The country's favourite festive beverage is glögg, a sweet, warm mulled wine flavoured with spices including cinnamon, cardamom and served with raisins and almonds. Other forms of glögg are made with spirits such as brandy or akvavit.

Glögg parties are popular in December. As well as glögg, you can expect to be served saffron buns (lussekatter) and gingerbread (pepparkakor).

Most of the food can be bought in supermarkets, but the lussekatter and pepparkakor are best bought in a good konditori - or even better, made at home. For the stronger versions of glögg you will have to brave the Systembolaget liquor monopoly stores.

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Another popular way of putting on weight during Advent is the chocolate Advent calendar. Open one window per day in your calendar between Advent Sunday and Christmas Eve, and start your calorie-fest four weeks early.

What else can I do to make the most of Advent?

Christmas markets are a popular way of enjoying the season. Stockholm has markets at Skansen, Drottningholm and in Gamla Stan's Stortorget.

Gothenburg hosts the country's largest Christmas market at Liseberg. Malmö has a market at Södertull, and many smaller towns and cities across the country host festivities of their own. More glögg, stalls selling local food and handiworks and festive music are the order of the day.

Another important element of the period is Lucia, or St. Lucy's Day, on December 13th. On this day, schools, offices and even newspapers nominate their own 'Lucia', who walks in procession in the early hours of the morning wearing a crown of candles, accompanied by a song about how St. Lucy overcomes the darkness.

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