December in Sweden: From candle-head girls to jellied veal

The Year in Sweden - December: Journalist Kim Loughran sketches a month by month account of the country he has called home ever since his accidental migration in 1966.

December in Sweden: From candle-head girls to jellied veal

By now it’s getting hard to share a seat on buses — the plump down jackets people use to keep out the cold increase personal volume considerably. The front corridor at the daycare centre is a mountain of children’s jump suits, and getting kids clothed and unclothed is an interminable operation. Christmas trees have been up in town squares for two weeks.

The Nobel ceremonies are held in Stockholm on the 10th. The daytime presentation from the hands of the monarch is followed by a gala banquet in the ornate City Hall. A live broadcast blends gossip and erudition, with comments on dresses and celebrity cleavage intermixed with pithy explanations of achievements in physics, medicine and economics. Alfred Nobel himself would enjoy the evening; he liked the good life in Paris and San Remo and the company of attractive women. But, painfully shy, he needed a topic of conversation and peace was his favourite. The City of San Remo, Italy, where Nobel spent his last years and where he died on 10 December 1896, sends truckloads of flowers each year for the ceremonies.

December is party time, often centred on the sticky, sweet mulled wine known as glögg and ginger biscuits. Glögg combines red wine, spirits and spices, taken in tiny glasses or cups into which you spoon raisins and blanched almonds. A little goes a long way. Glitter is optional, but ambitious hosts decorate the doorstep with fir branches.

December is also a month of lights, electric or otherwise. High-rise office windows display electric versions of the Advent candles. Big paper stars like Japanese lanterns hang in apartment windows. Private parties signal their location with thick candles in tins outside entrances. Light therapy challenges the demon darkness. The first word Swedish children learn is often lampa (lamp or light).

St. Lucia Day on the 13th replaces an ancient celebration of the winter solstice, when barnyard animals were said to be able to talk to each other and the long winter was halved. St. Lucia was believed to have lived in Sicily. Some say that when a saint saved Lucia’s sick mother from death, Lucia abandoned marriage plans and gave her dowry to the poor. Her fiancé took her to court and she was sentenced to a brothel but a thousand men, using oxen, could not drag her in. The modern custom involves angelic girl children dressed in white, although there is a role for Staffan the Stable boy, the comic relief. The white-robed children sing while lights dim and candles flicker. The custom came from nostalgic Swedish colonies in America a century ago and originally mandated a crown of lit candles in a blonde little sweetheart’s hair, predictably risk-filled in a milling crowd of excited kids.

Winter solstice on the 21st is when the country breathes a deep sigh of relief: finally, we can at least imagine light at the end of the tunnel! In Stockholm, office commuters might miss sun-up at about 8:30 am and certainly miss sundown at around 2:45 pm. They’re still lucky — up above the polar circle in the city of Kiruna, for example, it’s pitch black for about three weeks in mid-winter. Sweden is in the west-wind belt with chiefly southwesterly or westerly winds. The frigid winds of the Russian steppes seldom intrude.

Christmas and most other important holidays are celebrated on the eve. Christmas Day is for relaxing, except for whoever is preparing the smörgåsbord. The dishes are based on simple country fare — a way of gourmandizing while remaining down-to-earth. Staples include ham, pickled herring, jellied veal, boiled ling, beetroot and herring salad, and the essential meatballs, all washed down with snaps and sweet Christmas beer or a mixture of stout, port and lemonade. Then finish up with rice porridge. Phew!

Does bathwater run down the drain counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the south? Fact: reindeer corralled in December will always run counterclockwise. Reindeer are also the only deer species where both males and females have horns. (Insert your own joke here about gender equality in Sweden.)

Come quarter to midnight on New Year’s Eve, the nation’s current favourite actor will be found breathing mist into the cold night air at a folklore heirloom, the outdoor museum at Skansen in Stockholm. As television lights flare, with the background a sky of pyrotechnical colour, the actor clears his throat. Then, as every year since the 1920s, the actor reads a poem written by the Englishman, Alfred Tennyson: “Ring out the old, ring in the new / Ring, happy bells, across the snow / The year is going, let him go
 / Ring out the false, ring in the true.” And ring in longer days.

The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.

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May in Sweden: A nation back in bloom

The Year in Sweden - May: Journalist Kim Loughran sketches a month by month account of the country he has called home ever since his accidental migration in 1966.

May is the Month of Flowers. The white wood anemone shyly spreads across the forest floor and the lily of the valley (voted Sweden’s most popular flower) shelters near sun-warmed rocks. Mirroring the voters’ love for nature, all six major political parties (save one) have flowers as emblems. Technically, the Greens’ dandelion is a weed. The Social Democrats long ago branded the First of May as their own. Their polite demonstrations troop the streets and speeches echo across squares.

For an overtly secular country, Sweden’s calendar is wildly religious. May begins with Ascension Day, which jokesters call Fly Away Jesus Day (Kristiflygare). Nine of 13 public holidays are religious. Keeping holidays — the more obscure the better — is a link to the physical past that the future will need. Sweden has been Christian since the 12th century, although travelling monks from the British Isles had been proselytizing earlier.

Just less than three quarters of the population still formally belong to the Swedish Lutheran Church. Until 2000, the Church was part of the state administration and was a repository of census data. Churches are admired mostly from the outside until Christmas rolls around. Religious gender roles are changing: 25 percent of Lutheran priests and most theology students are women.

Despite Sweden’s secular style, church weddings are popular (46 percent of the total), and the prime time for nuptials is Pentecost or Whitsun week. On the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to inspire the apostles and, apparently, weddings in Sweden. The ceremonies are scheduled to suit ever-extending families, but principally to catch the best weather.

Name changes are common, at one stage even officially encouraged. Until the mid-1800s, family surnames were mostly for the middle and upper classes while the peasants named their sons and daughters ‘Gunnar, son of Sven’ or Gunnar Svensson. Girls? ‘Anna, son of Sven’ — we’re talking pre-gender-equality. Statisticians, an influential group, complained that there were too many Svenssons and Anderssons to cope with. The rural middle classes took names from the nature around them, cutting and pasting: birch, rock, stream, branch, lake, bear, twig, island, falcon, etc. Occasionally, the mix will be an oxymoron: Mountainbeach, Seamountain or Firleaf. Johansson is the most common name, although Swedes refer to themselves as ‘Svenssons’ and Svensson is apparently the name most commonly used by couples booking hotel rooms for illicit love.

If you’ve been shopping around for a new home, chances are you bought it last month, in April, the spring peak of the housing market. Realtors like to wait for the most flattering light. Real estate purchases are fast and furious, so by May you’re probably ready to visit Ikea. The ubiquitous Ikea. A biblically huge print run for its catalogue, a major exporter of Swedish food to feed its restaurants, etc. Ikea has a central roost in the nation’s psyche. It’s a global success sprung from the callouses of a plain-spoken country guy. It’s a simple story and a source of pride. But people resent Ikea’s domination of the national design aesthetic. And rubbing salt in that resentment is that we all use it.

This is the time of year when people rediscover the joy of sitting outdoors with a cookie and a glass of classic fruit squash. The pleasure is so seductive that a Japanese marathon runner, suffering heat exhaustion, once broke off a race to join a Stockholm family relaxing under a tree in their garden. That was during the 1912 Olympic marathon. Ashamed to rejoin his team, Shizō Kanaguri slunk back to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He returned to Stockholm in 1966 to finish the distance. These days, the Stockholm marathon is run in late May or early June.

The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.