In the USA, most people don't start displaying their Christmas decor until after Thanksgiving - the end of November. In Sweden, however, the Christmas season begins at the beginning of November when the days begin to get shorter and darkness starts creeping in. Early in November, one begins to see wreaths, holly and pine outside each store, cafe, restaurant. I also noticed that suddenly every apartment, home and shop was displaying a pointed candle holder with 7 candles or illuminated stars in their windows. Imagine huge apartment complexes with every single window lit up. It is glorious to see.
These simple illuminations serve a myriad of purposes. They mark the beginning of the advent season, they stave off the impending early darkness and they cultivate the concept of coziness that is called mysig. Difficult to pronounce and even more difficult to translate, mysig or mys best translates as the creation of a mood of intimacy, togetherness and coziness.
At some points during the winter calendar one only sees light from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. The long dark days can leave people feeling alone, isolated and depressed. Mys is purposefully designed to provide a buffer against the cold, the darkness and the solitude that many feel during the long, dark days of winter.
Mys can be found in many situations and places. It is a fluid concept. You notice it immediately in the light previously mentioned, but you can also see it at the restaurants that provide blankets for outdoor seating or the open fires all over town that provide a place for people to warm their hands and chat with one another. Mys is also reflected in people's attitudes and behavior toward each other. Author Helen Dyrbye says, "it is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one."
ADVENT STARS, CANDLES AND CHIMES
Celebrating advent is popular here which is interesting to me as Sweden seems to be a very secular country. The choices of how to celebrate advent are plentiful. There are the candle sets with a 1,2,3 and 4 printed on them to be lit the four Sundays before Christmas or one can buy simple red or white candles with an advent tin holder for 4 candles. These candles and tins are also used for the four Sundays before Christmas and have moss at their base to catch falling wax. The two most popular displays, however, are the advent stars and the pointed 7 candle holder in the windows.
The advent star is said to represent the Star of Bethlehem. You see them in so many windows. They are read, white and gold. Some are simple. Some have a curlique design etched into them. Some are paper. Some are metal. All are beautiful. Particularly at night.
The more traditional display is the pointed 7 candle holder. I tried to find information on this and found nothing explaining the origin and meaning to Swedes. I even asked a few Swedish folks and all I was told is that they use them because it is traditional. I found scant information, but did come across a blog that stated that the 7 candles symbolize the creation of the world in 7 days and the triangular shape represents the Holy Trinity. Makes sense to me.
In many Swedish homes you will also find an "änglaspel" or angel chimes. I grew up with one of these in my home and always loved it as a child. The chime has a brass circle of angels and 4 advent candles underneath. The heat from the candles moves the angles around and as they move they hit two bells providing a lovely chiming sound. One of my favorite Christmas memories as a child is hearing those chimes.
Another way Swedes add to mys, is by adding greenery wherever possible. One sees wreaths on almost every door and in many shop windows. People put green julbocken (Christmas goat) on their porches or in their yards. They also hang these green sprigs that look like paint brush heads.
I kept seeing bulbs all over town which confused me until it was explained that most Swedish households buy hyacinth §bulbs at Christmas. Many of the bulbs are planted in advent candle holder tins alongside the advent candles. The bulbs are placed in the house and tended to so that they bloom and provide a splash of fresh color right before Christmas.
On December 13, Swedes celebrate Saint Lucia.
Lucia was a young Italian Christian girl who was killed for her faith and martyred in 304AD. It is told that
Lucia was secretly bringing food to the persecuted Christians in Rome who lived in the catacombs under the city. She wore candles on her head so she could see in the dark catacombs and so that she had both hands free to carry food. Lucia also means 'light' in Italian so this is a very appropriate name.
The celebration and complete incorporation of Santa Lucia into the Swedish Christmas culture is interesting to me. Lucia was an Italian girl and having lived in Italy for three years prior to this, her celebration is not the big deal that it is here in Scandinavia. How did this Italian girl became the patron saint of the Christmas season in Scandinavia? Legend has it that during the Middle Ages, the Swedish province of Varmland was experiencing a famine. The people of Varmland were starving to death. Then, on the longest night of the year, December 13, a large white ship appeared on Lake Vanem. At the helm of the ship was a beautiful young girl in a white gown with a red sash and wearing a crown of candles on her head. The ship was filled with food for the people of Varmland. The people hurried to unload the food and as soon as the ship was empty, the ship and Lucia disappeared. It was a Christmas miracle and a tradition was born as Lucia had saved the Swedish people.
Today, St. Lucia's Day is celebrated with processions through town and at every school. The procession is led by an older girl dressed in a white dress with a red sash round her waist and a crown of candles on her head. The crown is made of Lingonberry branches, an evergreen symbolizing eternal life - even in winter. Her red sash is a symbol of her death as the story goes that she was stabbed in the stomach.
Lucia leads a procession of other girls also dressed in a white robe and red sashes, but without the candles on their heads. The girls carry candles instead. Next in line are the young boys called "stjärngossar" (star boys). The boys also dressed in white gowns, carry stars on sticks and wear hats in the shape of paper cones on their heads. Young girls called "tärnor" (maidens) bring up the rear carrying small lanterns.
Each year, one lucky girl is chosen to be the national Lucia. This is a great honor and her duties include visiting hospitals and old folk's homes where she and her entourage sing songs, hand out cookies and spread good will.
One of the most interesting Christmas traditions in Sweden is the viewing of Donald Duck (Kalle Anka) on Christmas Eve. The animated Christmas Special "Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul" meaning "Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas" has been airing every Christmas Eve at 3:00 pm since 1959 at the same time on the same channel. From what I have gathered, this tradition is akin to Americans watching the Rankin-Bass stop motion Christmas specials.
Because it is animated, it was easy to dub into Swedish and so Bengt Feldreich, a Swedish journalist, has been narrating the voices every year since its inception 55 years ago. He also sings a Swedish version of "When You Wish Upon A Star" at the program’s conclusion. My kids noticed that "When you Wish Upon A Star" keeps being played along with the traditional Christmas songs. One can only surmise that it is considered a Christmas song here due to its connection with the Donald Duck Christmas special. It is so funny how things evolve based on circumstances. I am looking forward to experiencing this phenomenon this year.
Like much of Europe, the main meal of the Christmas celebration is eaten on Christmas Eve. In Sweden, the meal is called "julbord" which translates as Christmas smorgasbord. Served buffet style this feast is typically eaten midday on Christmas Eve, because after all, one needs time to digest before viewing Kalle Anka at 3:00.
Dishes include: herring served in more variations than I knew were possible, cold meats, cheeses, liver pate, salads, pickles, salmon cured in sugar, salt and dill or smoked, different types of bread, meatballs, sausages, meat stuffed cabbage rolls, jellied pigs' feet, "lutfisk" (dried cod served in a white sauce), potatoes, red cabbage and "Jansson's Frestelse" which are potatoes baked with cream, onion and anchovies.
Desserts are a selection of pastries and "pepparkakor" (gingerbread) cookies.
Throughout the season, one drinks "glogg" with their meals. Glogg is sweet mulled wine.
Traditional Swedish ornaments are made of straw. Most common are the advent star, the julbocken and angels, accented with red string or red felt.
Also common are paper hearts and strings of Swedish flags.
Seeing as how we are literally in the land of reindeer, I was surprised to see that reindeer play little to no role in the Swedish Christmas other than appearing as sausages. No joke. They eat them here. Swedes prefer instead, the "julbocken" or the Christmas goat.
From what I can find, the julbocken originates from pagan traditions and may be connected to the Norse god Thor, whose chariot was drawn by goats. The modern julbocken, however, is portrayed as mischievous companion to the tomte (more on them below). Some say the julbocken helps the tomte deliver presents to children, while others tell me that the julbocken demands gifts from naughty children. As I discovered, it really depends on the behavior of the children and the parents.
Friends are known to hide a julbocken in their friend's houses. Once discovered, the family who finds the hidden julbocken is to then hide him in another friend's house. In Sweden, the julbocken and his companion tomte are far more prolific than Santa and Rudolph.
"Tomte" are Christmas gnomes with a long white or grey beards. Tomte are usually depicted with a stocking cap pulled all the way down past their eyes. Very often they are seen with only a hat, nose and beard. It is not unusual to find them next to their pal the julbocken.
According to tradition, the tomte live in the homes and barns of Swedish people. The tomte will protect the homeowners and animals from evil and misfortune as long as they are treated well and with respect. When happy, the tomte have even been known to help with farm chores and housework. Once insulted or mistreated, however, the tomte is known to play tricks on the homeowner and animals.
At Christmas time, the tomte assist Father Christmas (Jultomte) with delivering gifts to children. It is customary to leave a small bowl of porridge (what I would call rice pudding) for the tomte in gratitude for protecting the family and bringing the Christmas gifts.
I, for one, will be leaving some porridge out on the 24th because the tomte are adorable and my favorite new Christmas tradition. Also, I hate housework, so I am hoping for their assistance.
Well, that is it - God Jul (Merry Christmas) to all!