Swedish word of the day: advent

the word advent on a black background next to a swedish flag
Hope you're having a peaceful Advent Sunday. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond
Here's the next word in The Local's Christmas-themed word of the day series, running from December 1st to Christmas Eve.

Today is andra söndagen i advent – the second Sunday of Advent, which is why we’ve chosen advent as our word of the day.

Advent isn’t really a Swedish word at all. It originally comes from Latin, and means “arrival” – in this case, the arrival or birth of Jesus.

Before the reformation in Sweden in the 1500s, Advent was a time of fasting, a way to physically mark the joy of Jesus’ birth. During this fast, people refrained from eating certain foods, especially meat.

After the reformation, Advent stayed, but the fast disappeared.

One remnant of the Advent fast is lutfisk – a traditional Christmas dish made by treating dried whitefish in lye for a period of days, which gives it a strange jelly-like texture. Lutfisk – as a fish dish and not a meat dish – was allowed during the Advent fast, which is one of the reasons it became popular.

For those unaware what lye is, the Oxford English dictionary defines the substance as “a strongly alkaline solution, especially of potassium hydroxide, used for washing or cleansing”.

Yes, that’s right, some Swedes love nothing more at Christmas than to tuck into fish stewed in stuff that is also used in, among other things, soap making, oven cleaners and even getting rid of human bodies. Delicious.

Preserved lutfisk is not edible, and the process of preparing it for human consumption can take as long as two weeks, with alternating soaks in water and lye. Traditionally, this process was started on December 9th or Annadagen, which may be named after the Virgin Mary’s mother, Anna.

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Nowadays, you’re unlikely to find Swedes preparing their lutfisk during Advent. For the majority, Advent involves the lighting of adventsljus (Advent candles) – a candlestick of four candles, where a different candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas. This tradition comes from Germany, where originally seven candles were lit on each Sunday in Advent, one for each weekday in the previous week. These candles were then placed in a small indoor tree which stood on a table, meaning that by the last Sunday in Advent the tree was full of 28 lit candles.

This tradition has evolved, and both Swedes and Germans are now much more likely to have a four-candle Advent candlestick rather than an Advent tree. Although Swedes prefer Advent candlesticks which have four candles in a straight line, Germans are more likely to have circular Advent candlesticks. In both countries, a popular Advent activity is decorating the Advent candlestick with moss, bark, pine branches and pinecones, which are then removed at the end of the season and replaced the following year.

You may also have noticed adventsstjärnor (Advent stars) hanging in the windows of Swedish houses and apartments in the month of December – star-shaped lights symbolising the star of Bethlehem which led the three wise men to baby Jesus. And those triangle-shaped candlesticks, now usually electric, which everyone seems to have on their windowsills? They’re also referred to as adventsljus (Advent lights) or adventsljusstakar (Advent candlesticks), featuring seven lights rather than four.

The seven-candle Advent candlestick is a reference to the seven-armed Menorah in the Bible. In Christianity it can symbolise a number of things: Jesus’ Jewish faith, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, or other things which come in sevens – such as the seven days it took for God to create the world in the book of Genesis or the seven major churches in early Christianity, mentioned in the Book of Revelations.

No matter your religion, I’m sure we can all agree that Swedish adventsljus provide a welcome light in the darkness at this time of year. Have a great andra söndagen i advent, from The Local.

Example sentences:

Jag älskar adventssöndagar, det är så mysigt att pyssla med familjen inför jul.

I love Advent Sundays, it’s so nice doing arts and crafts with the family before Christmas.

Min mamma har redan julpyntat – får man det före första advent, egentligen?

My mum has already put up her Christmas decorations – is that even allowed before the first Sunday in Advent?

Need a good Christmas gift idea?

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

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