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MIDSUMMER

Snaps: How did an extremely strong alcoholic drink come to define Swedish Midsummer?

The Local spoke to Eva Lenneman, a curator at Stockholm's Museum of Spirits in Stockholm about the history of snaps in Sweden.

Snaps: How did an extremely strong alcoholic drink come to define Swedish Midsummer?
Midsummer dinner tables often feature the characteristic shot glasses for snaps. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / SCANPIX

Midsummer is not only one of Sweden’s biggest holidays, it is also one of the booziest. In 2022, Midsummer falls on June 24th.

Once you start celebrating the holidays in Sweden you quickly realise that the food remains pretty similar, regardless of season. Potatoes, pickled herring, and devilled eggs set out at the buffet, and tall shot glasses adorn the holiday table. 

Midsummer is no different, and in between courses you will often hear someone clearing their throat, signalling the start of a snapsvisa, or Swedish drinking song.

What is in snaps?

The classic content of the shot glasses you’ll see on Midsummer tables across the country is a spirit called brännvin. While it literally translates to “burn wine”, it is made in a process similar to vodka, by distilling potatoes or grains. 

“A snaps has always been a glass of Swedish brännvin, spiced or non-spiced. The classic akvavit-spice that we have today in Sweden is cumin, anise, fennel,” says Eva Lenneman, a curator at the Spritmuseum (Museum of Spirits) in Stockholm.

Other popular spices used in snaps production include wormwood, blackcurrants, lemon, St. John’s wort, yarrow and elderflower but also more exotic flavours such as Seville orange and ginger. The spices used were dependent on what was available and affordable at different times in history.

Where did snaps come from?

“Brännvin has existed in Sweden at least since the late 1400s. In the beginning it was distilled, as the name suggests, from wine, which was used in the production of gunpowder as well as medicine” Lenneman tells The Local.

At the time, liquid medicine was made by adding healing plants and herbs to strong spirits used to combat illnesses including the plague. The strong religious tradition of the time led to the saying “ont ska med ont fördrivas” which translates to “evil must be banished with evil”.

In the 1600s, Swedes began distilling brännvin from grains which made it more accessible. It remained used mainly for medicinal purposes until the 1700s when members of the nobility began drinking it for pleasure along with meals of butter, cheese, herring and cold cuts. This was known as a brännvinsbord (brännvin table) and became a Swedish food tradition to accompany a nicer dinner.

You’ve probably heard the term smörgåsbord (‘sandwich table’ or ‘cold buffet’) before. In the 1800s, this more well-known, less alcohol-focused name replaced bränvinsbord and would become a popular event at restaurants across Sweden. 

In the original version, an unlimited amount of drinks were normally included in the price, and guests could serve themselves from large vats of brännvin, usually made of silver and containing four to six different types.  The custom might seem surprising given Sweden’s restrictive alcohol laws of today; it was available mainly in upper class establishments where rules tended to be more lax but the sobriety movement grew increasingly strong around the turn of the century and the unlimited drinking was finally banned in 1902.

In the 1870s, the brännvin industry grew to include mass production in bottles with labels. The technology also allowed for a more sophisticated process. 

“It is now that the snaps-drinking begins to take the shape we recognise. Even today, many of us Swedes eat variants of the smörgårdsbord when we celebrate our traditional holidays Christmas, Easter and Midsummer and serve brännvin-friendly cuisine,” Lenneman said.

So where did the singing come from?

The tradition of snapsvisor, where a few times per meal, those celebrating Midsummer will hold up their shot glass of snaps and sing a song together before taking the shot, also dates back centuries. 

“Just like toasts, the tradition to sing drinking songs and snaps songs is a way to strengthen the sense of community and the joyous atmosphere around the table. It is so fun to sing together!” Lenneman says.

Singing snaps songs became really popular around 100 years ago when the alcohol rationing was introduced. As for the content of the songs, an almost alarming number are written as a celebration of drunkenness itself. 

“In the world of the snaps song, we down glass after glass, get drunk, happy, social, sexy and dance samba all night long. Then we get headaches and vomit, but in the grand scheme of things it is worth it!” Lenneman explains.

Perhaps the most famous snaps song is “Helan går.” The song’s lyrics say that if you do not take helan, the name of the first round of snaps, you will not receive halvan, the second round. You can hear American actor Will Ferrell sing it on British television in the clip below (albeit with an incorrect translation of helan and halvan in the song’s context).

While at least 150 years old, we do not know where this song comes from. The melody comes from an operetta in the 1840s. It is common for a snaps song to be set to a well known tune, and for the lyrics to be rewritten in a humorous way.

What is the future for snaps?

“The status of snaps has shifted throughout history. Throughout many years, brännvin was something “ugly” which was associated with drunkenness and disorder,” Lenneman said.

Spiced brännvin has always had a higher status than the non-spiced. The non-spiced brännvin has a history of being a workers’ drink, while spiced brännvin has been drunk primarily by the upper class and academics. 

“I think that today the snaps often stand for something typically Swedish, which is more common around the older generation. [Snaps is often drunk] in environments where one wishes to protect old traditions such as at universities and the army,” Lenneman says.

But she believes the future might be bright for the strong spirit, noting: “With the resurgence of a connoisseur culture and a larger variety of producers and flavourings, the snaps might see a well-earned return.”  

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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