|SWEDISH CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS|
is a traditional pastry in
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.
King Adolf Frederick of
King Adolf Frederick of
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.
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
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.
|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 PoleOn the afternoon of Midsummer Eve, people gather for traditional games and ring-dancing around the maypole (see picture above).
|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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Santa Lucia of
The original Lucia was a young Christian girl from the town of
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
the Yule Goat
The Yule Goat is a typical Scandinavian Christmas ornament made of straw which is used as decoration throughout the home
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.
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).
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.
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.
.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 “semlor” have 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
Read more about the "Swedish Semla"
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