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CULTURE

Dinner for who? Sweden’s weirdest New Year’s Eve habit explained

We've watched it so you don't have to. Just kidding, your Swedish hosts will make you watch it whatever you say.

Dinner for who? Sweden's weirdest New Year's Eve habit explained
Freddie Frinton as Butler James. Photo: SVT

No matter what you do on New Year’s Eve in Sweden, there is one thing nearly all parties have in common: an 11-minute television interlude to watch a black-and-white sketch in English called Dinner for One. Loved in Scandinavia and Germany; virtually unknown in the rest of the world.

Dinner for who?

Okay, let’s start with the basics: The dinner is for Miss Sophie, the last member of an old English family.

The sketch, also known as The 90th Birthday or as Grevinnan och betjänten in Swedish (The Countess and the Butler), is about the old lady’s anniversary celebration in the dining room of her musty mansion. She – played by May Warden – is not actually a countess, made obvious by the fact that her Butler James – played by Freddie Frinton – keeps referring to her as “Miss”, but Swedes aren’t fussy about that sort of thing.

Why is it so popular on New Year’s Eve?

The first time the programme aired on New Year’s Eve in Sweden was in 1976 and it quickly gained a regular place in the TV schedule. The 1963 sketch was actually first broadcast in Sweden in 1969, but Swedish public broadcaster SVT was a bit iffy about the amount of alcohol drunk, mainly by the butler, although frankly Miss Sophie certainly seems like she can hold her own in that regard too.

Why is the dinner only for one? Doesn’t the old lady have any guests?

Why yes, of course. Miss Sophie has invited her friends Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and Mr Winterbottom, but they all died some time ago. Not to be hindered by this slight setback, the dinner goes ahead as usual with Butler James pretending he is them to help keep Miss Sophie in good spirits.

All men? What a saucy old granny…

Well, some people say all of them have been former admirers. Unsuccessful ones, though. Butler James is the only one who gets lucky on an annual basis, but we’ll get to that later.


Freddie Frinton and May Warden in ‘Dinner for One’. Photo: SVT

And what’s so funny about the sketch?

We’ll explain this the way a Swede would.

The comedy comes from Butler James taking the places of Sir Toby et al. First, in his capacity as butler, he has to serve all guests drinks for every course and, as none of them are actually there, for reasons that are not altogether clear he has to empty their glasses himself. 

James slips into the different personas and toasts Miss Sophie in each guest’s appropriate way. For Admiral von Schneider, he clicks his heels together every time and salutes with a loud “Skol!” of the top of his voice. For Mr Winterbottom he puts on a northern English accent.

And so on.

The Swedes know the dialogue by heart, so prepare for them to recite it along with the actors.

We’re still waiting for the joke…

So are we, but hang on. Because with every drink he slugs back, the usually reserved and refined demeanour of Butler James starts to slip as he slurs and stumbles his way around the table. Add to this an unfortunately positioned tiger skin rug, the head of which James has to overcome on his frequent trips to the bar. Appropriate for the slapstick era when it was made.

Swedes find this hilarious and if it is your kind of thing, there is admittedly a certain charm of repetitive humour to it (you end up laughing prematurely not because he trips on the tiger’s head, but because you know he is about to). But as one international resident in Sweden once told us: “The Swede sat in stitches while everyone else stared blank-faced. It was the most awkward thing I’ve ever done.”

And Miss Sophie?

The old gal never leaves her place and is apparently totally oblivious about the butler’s alcohol consumption and orders him to serve the respective courses: mulligatawny soup with sherry, haddock with white wine, chicken with champagne and fruit with port. “Same procedure as every year James.”

Mulligatawny-what? Doesn’t sound like a Swedish dinner

Well, it isn’t! The actors May Warden and Freddie Frinton first performed Dinner for One in the British seaside town Blackpool in 1962. German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld discovered the duo, brought them to Germany and the sketch was seen on his live show on regional public broadcaster NDR one year later.

And how did it make its way to Sweden?

There are two versions floating around – the original 18-minute NDR version which is shown every year in Germany and Denmark (in Denmark without the audience heard in the background). An 11-minute version was recorded by Swiss television – with less alcohol – which is shown in Sweden. It was snapped up by SVT’s entertainment editor Åke Söderqvist in 1963, who first struggled to get permission to actually show it because of said alcohol consumption.

It has been shown every year on New Year’s Eve since 1976, apart from 2004 when it was cancelled as a mark of respect for the many tens of thousands who died in the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

What do the Brits have to say about all this?

Surprising to most Scandinavians and Germans – who consider the skit quintessential British humour – Brits only know it exists courtesy of trivia shows and the like. Most find the significance it has for its fellow Europeans and the place it holds in their hearts rather perplexing.

Oh, what was that with the butler getting lucky?

Or perhaps it’s Miss Sophie getting lucky, we’re watching it in gender equal Sweden after all.

In the last scene, she gets ready for bed and calls over her shoulder for James one last time while climbing up the staircase to her bedroom.

He slurs: “The same procedure as last year?” and Miss Sophie answers “The same procedure as every year.” With James winking at the camera and promising he’ll do his best (and after all that booze, we don’t fancy his chances), they both go upstairs together. The End.

Dinner for One can be viewed on SVT1 on New Year’s Eve at 7.45pm.

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CULTURE

‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/imagebank.sweden.se

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

Footwear

Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden

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