The perfect way to enjoy ‘herbal tonic’

Tipping Point: When Kathleen Harman was invited to her first Swedish Midsummer party it was a raucous affair in an English village. She has a recommendation for anyone wanting a more sobre way to spend the day.

My first introduction to a Swedish Midsummer celebration was a bizarre experience. It wasn’t in Sweden for a start but in someone’s back garden in England.

Now, we British don’t have a mainstream equivalent – the nearest thing we have is an annual standoff at Stonehenge between some men in white pointy hats and others in blue helmets with riot shields, watched very nervously by civil servants from the Culture Department.

So when an expatriate Swedish family invited most of the village to this Midsummer celebration noone quite knew what to expect. We had heard rumours of nakedness and raw fish and being polite we depilated, ate beforehand and arrived on time for the celebrations to commence.

Now, in the back garden was a very fancy marquee, which always sets off a Pavlovian response in me. I equate marquees with the posher scale of wedding receptions, which means flowing champagne, little smoked salmon blinis, more champagne and being helped, somewhat dazed and confused, into a taxi home. So, life was on the up, I thought as I scanned the seating plan.

But things started to go wrong almost immediately when I discovered that I was sandwiched between two monosyllabic moustachioed gentlemen, Swedes who found themselves a long way from home and completely at sea amongst a table made up for the most part of the ladies from the village church flower arranging committee. So with the conversation not exactly flowing, I looked around for the champagne.

But no, first came the food, which didn’t bear any relation to smoked salmon blinis. The meal turned out to be crispbread accompanied by that hideous squeezy caviar. Just when things couldn’t get any worse on the catering front, out came the jars of those slightly phosphorescent pickled herrings. I could see the ladies from the flower arranging committee bracing themselves stoically for the removal of clothing.

The champagne was conspicuous by its absence but in its place was schnapps. Now, I am a girl who rarely says no but I cannot drink methylated spirits flavoured with essence of cut grass. The poor awkward Swedes, on the other hand, reached for it like drowning men to a lift ring.

Most of the ladies from the village church flower arranging committee rarely drink more than the odd sherry at Christmas time but being polite, they tried the schnapps, which the moustachioed Swedes, in a moment of desperate deviousness, had described as a ‘herbal tonic’.

The long and the short of it was that quite a few of the ladies from the village church flower arranging committee drank probably far more of the ‘herbal tonic’ than was strictly necessary. Before I could sink under the table in sober embarrassment, they were up and impersonating small frogs in the små grodorna dance with the moustachioed Swedes, who had by now been transformed by the magic of alcohol into life’s great bon vivants.

Fearing the imminent removal of clothing, I excused myself from the proceedings.

If you fancy an all together less surreal and more elegant way to herald in the summer, may I recommend the restaurant Fjäderholmarnas Krog on Fjäderholmen, Stockholm’s closet archipelago island. They have an excellent seasonal menu, including a mixed herring plate and an extensive wine list, but they also serve ‘herbal tonic’, should you feel the urge.

Fjäderholmarnas Krog och Magasin

Stora Fjäderholmen, 100 05 Stockholm

Tel:08 718 33 55, Fax 08-716 39 89



Fluorescent, phosphorescent herring 0/10

Food in a tube 0/10

Men in white pointy hats 0/10

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#SwedishChristmas: How Elsa Beskow created a timeless Swedish Christmas

Every day until Christmas Eve, The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in our own Advent calendar.

#SwedishChristmas: How Elsa Beskow created a timeless Swedish Christmas
Swedish illustrator and writer Elsa Beskow did double-duty to make her mark on Christmas in Sweden. Photo: SvD/TT

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Since the 19th century, some of Sweden's most famous writers and artists have contributed to shaping Swedish Christmas. The poetry and prose of writers like Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the illustrations of artists like Carl Larsson helped define Christmas through the distribution of jultidningar (Swedish Christmas magazines). The jultomte (a.k.a. the Swedish Santa) was introduced and popularized with the publication of writer Viktor Rydberg's poem and short story, and the accompanying illustrations of Jenny Nyström.

Among these and countless other creative contributors to Swedish Christmas, most were confined to expressing themselves using just one art form. Few managed what Elsa Beskow accomplished in combining her dual talents as both an illustrator and a writer.

From her first illustrations in the Swedish Christmas magazine Jultomten in 1894 to the publication in 1947 of the children's book, Peter and Lotta's Christmas (Petter och Lottas Jul), which she wrote and illustrated, Beskow's creative output left a lasting impression on Swedish Christmas.

One of Elsa Beskow's illustration for Swedish Christmas magazine Jultomten. Photo: Public Domain

Peter and Lotta's Christmas, the last book in a series about two children living with their three aunts, is a Christmas classic in Sweden, where it was adapted as part of a television series and a 1968 film. More recently, a popular version of the Nutcracker ballet combined with Peter and Lotta's Christmas has been performed at the Royal Swedish Opera since 1995. Like much of Beskow's body of work, the book has been translated into 14 languages, spreading Swedish Christmas traditions like the julbock (the Swedish Christmas goat, which we'll cover tomorrow) around the world.

As with Jenny Nyström, Beskow's many illustrations of jultomtar, julbockar, and cherubic children and happy families sledding and celebrating Christmas, continue to appear in a variety of modern contexts, from Christmas tree ornaments to greeting cards to serving trays. It is a testament to Beskow's tremendous talent that these images have not only stood the test of time, but have also inspired modern artists like Swedish designer Katharina Kippel to adapt and incorporate them in their own work.  

Though Elsa Beskow's contributions to Christmas in Sweden are in many ways particularly Swedish, they also have a much broader appeal that, as the publisher of the English language versions of her books notes, “transcend nationality and time”.

Each day until Christmas Eve, we're looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series HERE.