Traditional Semla

A Fastlagsbulle/Semla is a traditional pastry in Sweden associated with Lent and especially Shrove Tuesday. The name derives from the Latin, semilia, which was the name used for the finest quality wheat flour or semolina.

 The oldest version of the Semla was a plain bread bun, eaten in a bowl of warm milk.

The Semla was originally eaten only on Shrove Tuesday  as the last festive food before Lent. However, with the arrival of the Protestant Reformation the Swedes stopped observing a strict fasting for Lent. The Semla in its bowl of warm milk became a traditional dessert every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter.

Today, Semlas are available in shops and bakeries every day from shortly after Christmas until Easter. Each Swede consumes on average five bakery-produced Semlas each year, in addition to all those that are homemade.

King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (1710-1771) died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771 after consuming a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut,, smoked herring and champagne, which was topped off by 14 servings of Semla, with bowls of hot milk. Semla was the king's favorite dessert.

King Adolf Frederick of Sweden is remembered by Swedish school children as “the king who ate himself to death”.

Click here for  a recipe how to make Semla

Walpurgis Night

On the Evening before the May Day (April 30th) “Valborgsmässoafton” Swedes are gathering around bonfires and sing songs about end of winter and beginning of spring. The customs of choral singing derives from students in Uppsala and Lund who have celebrated the arrival of spring in this manner for over two hundred years.

The bonfires goes back further than two centuries. In Sweden and in many other countries, the lighting of bonfires is said among some scholars to have been to scare off predators before the cattle and sheep were put out to graze in spring. Other scholars think the people lit the bonfires to protect themselves against the withes gathering on this very night, Walpurgis Night, to worship the devil.

Source: Maypoles, Crayfish and Lucia: Swedish Holidays and Traditions by Jan-Övind Swahn and the Swedish Institute


Jan-Öjvind Swahn is an ethnologist with a special interest in popular beliefs, customs and poetry. He has taught at the Universities of Lund, Göteborg and Uppsala, and (since 1974), a Professor of Folklore) at Åbo Academy, Turku, Finland. He has published and studied folk tales and myths of the Kammu “mountain people” of Southeast Asia, and he has been senior editor of an encyclopedia. In the course of over 1,000 radio and 300 televisions programes, he has spread knowledge of folklore to listeners and viewers in all the Nordic countries, and his published works include a number of cook books and children’s encyclopedia.


Swedish Flag and 6th of June      

The Swedish flag takes its colours from the coat of arms of King Manus Ladulås from 1275 and from the national coat of arms with three golden crowns on a blue background introduced by King Albrekt of Mecklenburg in 1364. In 1448, King Karl Knutsson combined these two to form a new national coat of arms consisting of four fields divided by a golden cross. This is usually seen as the origin of the Swedish national flag, which was first flown by warships in the mid-16th century.

For a long time Sweden was perhaps the only country in the world with no official national day. In old times the 6yh of November was celebrated with patriotic speeches in schools and military barracks, in honour of King Gustav Adolf, a great general and statesman who died in the Battle of Lützen in 1632.

In the years round about 1900, there was an upsurge of romantic national sentiment and many enthusiasts wanted Sweden, like other countries, to have a national day. As a result of private initiatives, “Swedish Flag Day’ began to be celebrated on 6th of June. This day was chosen because Gustav Vasa, who delivered the country from the union with Denmark forced upon it in the late Middle ages, was elected King of Sweden on that day in 1523. Also, one of Sweden’s constitutions was signed on the 6th of June 1809.

It was not until 1983 that the 6th of June officially became Sweden’s National Day.

Swedish Midsummer    

 Dancing around the Maypole
and singing about frogs  

The Friday between the 19th and the 25th of June is set aside for the big summer festival "Midsummer Feast", vaguely descended from a pagan summer solstice festival. This feast is celebrated in the heart of the great outdoors, and in the days before Midsummer,  Swedes leave towns and cities for country cottages, camping sites and marinas. 

The oldest custom at Midsummer is, as in other parts of Europe, the lighting of a great bonfire, but in these latitudes the lightest night of the year was not the right time for dancing around a fire. So the bonfires were replaced by another early summer tradition; the maypole, part of the May Day celebrations on the Continent. Because of the cold northern climate, there were not enough leaves and flowers to be found on May 1st, hence the transformation of the continental maypole into a Swedish "Midsummer pole" which is dressed with leaves and flowers and is the centrepiece of all the gatherings.     


                                                           Swedish Midsummer Pole

On the afternoon of Midsummer Eve, people gather for traditional games and ring-dancing around the maypole (see picture above).

Afterwards, they enjoy a traditional dinner of fresh potatoes and pickled herring of different sorts. Almost always, there is beer and schnapps to drink and strawberries with whipped cream for dessert.

The Midsummer night is believed t o have magic power which influences everything growing in the nature.

Homes and houses are decorated in anticipation of the Midsummer celebration.  Young birch trees are positioned on each side of the front door.

In the evening , unmarried girls are picking 7 different  kind of flowers and putting them under their pillow on Midsummer night. It is said that in the night the girls will dream of their future husbands.
            Midsummer Crown put around the head

Read more about Swedish Midsummer Celebration

Midsummer in Sweden

More about Sweden

Crayfish party in August.

No one visiting Sweden in August can fail to notice how shop window displays from variations on the theme of crayfish. Nowhere is the crayfish so ardently worshipped as in Sweden. Eating of crayfish has expanded into a ritual meal surrounded by all manner of accessories, preferably with an authentic full moon thrown in. The decorations consist mostly of colored paper lanterns in the form of smiling moon-faces suspended over the table.

A hundred years ago, the catching of crayfish was forbidden except for a couple of months every autumn. At one time the lakes of central Sweden teemed with this black gold, which was exported to the high-class restaurants of Paris, London and Berlin, but over-fishing was threatening to annihilate them. In 1907 the crayfish enthusiasts were struck by a disaster: the “crayfish plague” which was a lethal parasitic mould, which eliminated rare crayfish from most of Sweden’s fishing waters. The Swedes imported crayfish, first from Turkey and then from Spain and today from the US. making Sweden the world’s biggest crayfish importer.

Eating crayfish the Swedish way is not easy, but the experience of a crayfish party can very well modify the myth of Swedish uprightness.

St Martin's Day - or "Martin Goose"

St Martin's Day is a French, medieval autumn feast, celebrating the saint St. Martin of Tours.  Autumn is the time for tasting the new vintage wine in France, and to honor the saint

St Martin's Day is a French,
medieval autumn feast,
celebrating the saint St. Martin
of Tours.  Autumn is the time
for tasting the new vintage
wine in France, and to honor the saint
a good meal had to be served with
the wine. This celebration spread from
France to Germany and found its way
to Sweden in the 16th century.

The celebration day, November 11, was primarily observed by the craftsmen and noblemen of the towns. In the peasant community, not everone could afford to eat goose, so many ate duck or hen instead.  

Today,  "Martin Goose" is mostly celebrated in the southernmost province of Skane and in university towns.  The day was also a day of "forecasting" how the coming winter would be and if  it would snow on Christmas or not. If it snowed on November 11 , there would be no snow on Chistmas, if the holiday coincided with a Friday or Saturday, the coming winer would be harsh.

A goose dinner, eaten on the eve of November 10,  is something of a banquet. All parts of the goose are used. The dinner begins with a bowl of sweet and sour "black soup" (svartsoppa) , made from goose blood and goose broth, richly seasoned with fruit purees, spirits and spices such as clove and ginger. Black soup is served with entrails of various kinds, as wll as goose-liver, sausage, stewed prunes and potatoes.

The dessert will be apple pie or spettkaka, a remarkable three-foot high ziggurat made from innumerable egg yolks and sugar and baked, on a skewer, over an open fire. This “pyramid cake” used to be widespread, but today it is only eaten in Skane and the Pyrenees.

Sources: SI  www.si.se

More about St. Martin

St Martin's Eve



Advent means arrival, or coming, and since the 5th century AD has heralded the Christmas season and the birth of Christ. Since the 1890's , the custom in Sweden has been to light a candle every Sunday during Advent. The candles used to be placed in tiny Christmas trees, but form the 1930's onwards, these were superseded by candlesticks of iron or wood. The Moravian custom of handing a star made from paper, straw or chip wood in the windows also found its way to Sweden in the 1930's, recalling the star that guided the Three Wise Men. The Advent calendar dates from  around this time. Children open a window in the calendar for each passing day until Christmas Eve.

In people's homes the approach of Christmas is signified by getting out the Advent Candlestick (Adventstake see photo), which is often a little box with four candle holders embedded in moss and lingonberry sprigs. The first candle is lit on the First Sunday in Advent and allowed to burn down by one quarter, Next Sunday it is time for the second candle, and so on, until , by the forth Sunday, the first candle has burnt right down and the last one has been started..


All Swedes are looking forward to December 13th, grown-ups and children alike. That morning, LUCIA is celebrated in practically every Swedish home, every community, office, school or club. In those places we meet Lucia, dressed in white with crowns of candles in her hair, accompanied by a train of white-clad girls wearing glitter in their hair and boys wearing tall paper cones with stars on them singing Lucia carols and Christmas songs. 

Lucia is not an old tradition but genuinely Swedish and was originally a celebration for men only, gorging with food and drinks. 

The first Lucias appeared in manors and parsonages in western Sweden towards the end of the 18th century. According to folk tradition, this night was the longest of the year, a rest from the medieval calendar, where the winter-solstice occurred on December 13th. Because of this, it was necessary to have between 3 and 7 meals before dawn, composed of food from the Christmas slaughter: pork, brawn, jellied pig’s feet and many drinks to go with it. When, in the 1920s, a Stockholm newspaper arranged a contest to choose a Lucia-girl to represent the city, the custom spread like wildfire. The gorging of food ceased with the introduction of the modern Lucia. Instead, she serves coffee with saffron rolls, ginger biscuits and other kinds of traditional Christmas bread. Sometimes Lucia also serves GLOGG, a mulled wine.


Various Myths

Throughout Sweden the feast day of Lucia, or Lucy, is celebrated as a festival of lights. In the early hours of the morning of December 13 a young woman, dressed in a white gown, and wearing a red sash and a crown of lingonberry twigs and blazing candles, would go from one farm to the next carrying a torch to light her way, bringing baked goods, stopping to visit at each house and returning home by break of day. Every village had its own Lucia. The custom is thought to have begun in some of the richer farming districts of Sweden and still persists although the crowns are now electric lights.

In Sweden it is a custom on December 13 for a girl in a white dress (representing the Saint), to bring a tray of saffron buns and steaming coffee to wake the family. She is called the "Lussibrud" (Lucy bride) and her pastry (saffron buns) is Lussekattor. Today many families have a Lucia-Queen in their own home, often the youngest daughter, who wakes the rest of the family with song.


Lucia symbolizes light and growth for human and beast as she emerges out of the darkness. She is said to have been beheaded by the sword during the persecutions of Diocletian at Catania in Sicily. Her body was later brought to Constantinople and finally to Venice, where she is now resting in the church of Santa Lucia. Because her name means "light" she very early became the great patron saint for the "light of the body"--the eyes. Many of the ancient light and fire customs of the Yuletide became associated with her day. Thus we find "Lucy candles" lighted in the homes and "Lucy fires" burned in the outdoors. Before the Reformation Saint Lucy's Day was one of unusual celebration and festivity because, for the people of Sweden and Norway, she was the great "light saint" who turned the tides of their long winter and brought the light of the day to renewed victory.


Before the calendar reform, her original feast day (the day of her martyrdom) happened to fall on the shortest day of the year. The winter solstice was December 13 by the Julian calendar rather than December 21, which it became with the change to the Gregorian calendar in the 1300s, linking it with the far older Yule and Winter festivals of pre-Christian times. Lucy's lore survived the Reformation and calendar reform, which brought the solstice to December 23.


Another Scandianavian custom was for children, on the eve of December 13, to write the word "Lussi" on doors, fences, and walls. In ancient times the purpose of this practice was to announce to the demons of winter that their reign was broken on Saint Lucy's Day, that the sun would return again and the days become longer. "Lucy fires" used to be burned in many parts of northern Europe on December 13. Into the bonfires people would throw incense, and while the flames rose, trumpets and flutes were playing to celebrate the changing of the suns's course.



Santa Lucia of Sicily and the winter solstice festival

The original Lucia was a young Christian girl from the town of Syracuse, on the Italian island of Sicily.  The woman called St. Lucy refused to make a sacrifice to the emperor Diocletian She was beheaded by sword on the 13th of December in 304 A.D. during the persecutions of Christians that occurred in the late Roman empire. At the end she said: “I know of no other God than my Creator in Heaven and I am prepared to die for him.” Legend asserts that Lucia, during her life, was willing to sacrifice even her eyes for her true belief and so Lucia became a symbol of light in darkness. Her body rests in a church in Venice.

Saint Lucia was one of the earliest Christian martyr saints to achieve popularity: She is the patron saint of the Sicilian town of Syracuse and the patron saint of the blind. Her body is now resting in the church of Santa Lucia in Venice, north Italy.

In the middle of the 19th century the Lucia song was brought to Sweden from Naples and now the name Lucia is celebrated in practically every Swedish home and church, community and club, school and office.

Lucia appears, dressed in a white gown, with a crown of candles, accompanied by a group of girls also dressed in white and sometimes by young boys wearing tall paper cones with stars on them. They all sing the Lucia song and Christmas carols.

There are Lucia processions everywhere and every village elects its own Lucia. The 'Lucia Queen' leads the processions mostly consisting of a group of young girls and boys singing traditional carols. Lucia's day symbolically opens the Christmas celebrations in Scandinavia, bringing hope and light during the darkest months of the year.

In those early ages, the Norse used to celebrated the winter solstice
on the
same 13th of December, the shortest day and the longest night
of the year.
The solstice was a magic fest when people particularly feared
goblins and
ghosts, and bonfires would be burned to celebrate the
changing of the course
of the sun.

The Norse converted to Christianity around 1000 A.D. starting to adopt Christian traditions and to abandon their pagan beliefs. As the winter solstice festival fell originally on the same day than Saint Lucia's Day, both pagan and Christian traditions mixed to become the modern Lucia celebration: the festival of lights.

Julbock, the Yule Goat

The Yule Goat is a typical Scandinavian Christmas ornament made of straw which is used as decoration throughout the home

Norse Mythology and the origins of the Yule Goat

Before Christianity arrived in Scandinavia, the ancient Scandinavians used to celebrate the winter solstice around the same time that we celebrate Christmas today. The winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year, and from here the days gradually increase in length and bring us spring and summer. For the ancient Scandinavians, the beginning of the end of winter was a very important reason for celebration.

One of those traditional winter solstice celebrations was the Yule Goat. The Yule Goat was a person disguised as a goat who went from house to house entertaining families with songs and dances, and receiving drink and food in exchange for the entertainment.

Why would a goat be going from house to house to entertain people? In Norse mythology, the good-natured, protective god Thor traveled around in a charriot that was drew by two magical goats. It is believed that the ancient tradition of the Yule Goat represented the magical goats who came with Thor as he visited the Scandinavian homes bringing happiness and protection at this very special time of the year.

The Gävlebocken is today a world-famous typical Swedish icon. In 1993 the Gävlebocken got into the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest straw goat ever build (14.9 metres-high).

Source: www.scandinavica.com

Christmas Music: Nordic Christmas music  http://www.scandinavica.com/shop/music/christmas.htm

Scandinavian Christmas Cooking: Scandinavian recipes, baking and accessories. Norwegian Krumkake and Danish Ebleskiver irons, Swedish Rosette...  http://www.scandinavica.com/shop/kitchen/baking.htm

The Swedish Smörgåsbord

The buffet, which, under the name of smörgåsbord, has come to be internationally associated with Swedish Eating habits, also began life as a culinary import. It was modelled on the Russian way of starting a meal with a few savoury hor’s d’oeuvre as finger food and a couple of glasses of vodka, before sitting down a the table. This custom was adopted by the Swedish upper classes in the 18th century; they called it the ”schnapps table” (brännvinsbord). During the 18th century the “schnapps table” became increasingly opulent and elaborate, developing into the present-day smorgasbord with its immense variety of cold and hot dishes. The smorgasbord nowadays is mostly served at inns and restaurants along the main tourist routes, especially at weekends, but in December it invades practically every restaurant in the country, under he title of “Christmas Dinner”

Gravlax, a regular feature of the festive menu at home and further afield, also has humble origins. The name is connected with “grave” in the burying sense. Immense quantities of salmon were caught in the rivers during early summer, and storage was a problem. Salt was expensive, and so people would dig a deep pit, put the fish in it and sprinkle it with sufficient salt to ensure that, instead of rotting, it would just acidify and ferment. It could be kept for a long time in this state. Gravlax was a vital factor of the household economy in the farming communities of northern Sweden. Four hundred years ago, cooks in statelier homes discovered that, after it had been treated with salt, sugar and spices, salmon could undergo a process which eliminated the taste of “raw” fish without the flesh rotting. Gravlax today represents one of Sweden’s few contributions to the international cuisine.

Swedish Punsch

Sweet arrack punsch is Sweden’s most unique contribution to drinking culture in the West and a momento of the 18th century, when most of Sweden’s oceanic trade was with China and Indonesia. Java, for example, provided large quantities of arrack, which became popular in Sweden. Our won spirituous beverage, schnapps (brannvin), suffered, right down to the 1870’s from an unpleasant taint of fusel oil, which arrack (and rum) ware free from. Swedish punsch is the combined result of a supply of cheap arrack and the Anglo Saxon idea of mixing punch (base on rum).

Swedish Schnapps (Brännvin)

Sweden is best known for brännvin, the distilling of which from grain was an art transmitted by the Russians fro the Orient in the 16th century. As a relic of the days when this spirit could not be cleansed from fusel oil (which became still more obtrusive when potatoes were adopted as the raw material), there are any number of highly spiced brännvin varieties, some of them heavily sweetened, deriving their individuality above all from native herbs and spices like caraway, aniseed, coriander, fennel and wormwood.

The first glass of schnapps was filled to the brim, the second only halfway, and so the first two drams of a traditional banquet are still known today as “the whole” and “the half”. Before downing them the revelers sing a unison snapsvisa in their honour.

Source: Kay L. Nilsson

Surströmming is fermented Baltic herring which is an ancient method of preserving fish. Salt was expensive, so instead of salting down the herring the North Sea way, people used just enough salt to start the fish fermenting instead of rotting. That way it will keep for a long time. Nowadays it is put in tins and the fermentation continues, with the result that a year later, the times are nearly spherical. The new “vintage” is broken out one day in August, and when the tins are opened a strange and, to the uninitiated nostril, rather foul smell is released. The fermented herring are accompanied by the delicious northern Swedish variety of potato and the north Swedish, unleavened barley bread known as tunnbröd (“thin bread) and of course schnapps.

When the moon is on the wane and the nights have grown darker in autumn, people in the south of Sweden speak of “eel darkness”, the reason being that the eels are now unable to see the nets and can be trapped on their way to the Sargasso Sea. This is the season for eel parties, at which eel and nothing but eel is served, through there may be as many as ten of twelve varieties. fried, boiled, smoked and grilled with various kinds of stuffing.

Semlor: cream buns and cultural icons

.Much of today’s Swedish tradition can be mapped by the food associated with it. Eggs and lamb are inextricably linked with Easter; herring and snaps herald Midsommar; crayfish and fermented herring are the catalysts of parties devoted just to eating these tiny creatures in August and early September.

But as we approach the carnival season which precedes the Christian fast known as Lent, it’s all about “semlor”. 

And “semlorhave a culture all to themselves. They are so much more than just a bun. In fact there are fiercely-contested "Best in Test" competitions pitting city cafés against each other in a kind of annual regional semla Oscars. Mattias Sundberg, a semla enthusiast, explains what it takes to be a winning semla: 

Read more about the "Swedish Semla"


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