Monthly archives: April 2011

Spring in Sweden is a nonstop parade of holidays; this is not a joke.

As if I needed any more reasons to love spring in Sweden, we appear to be in the middle of a period of non-stop holidays. Last weekend was Easter, and this weekend is the two-for-one combination of Valborg (April 30th) and May Day (May 1st).

For those of you who went to college or university after the point at which students were supposed to Behave With Decorum and Pay Due Attention To Your Studies, remember Spring Frolics? The weekend of partying and ridiculousness right before exams? The final BOOYAH before cracking down in the library? Well, I’m about to relive that weekend with several thousand Swedes… and without the looming specter of a week’s drudgery in the library to follow.

For those of you who actually did Behave With Decorum and Pay Due Attention To Your Studies without Indulging in Irresponsible Behavior, I’m sure there are a few movies you could watch to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

All I’ve heard about for the last couple of weeks is Valborg, and from what I can tell, Valborg is the real-deal Spring Frolics for all Swedes. Bonfires! Choirs! Day drinking in the park! And lest you start to think that I’m hanging out with the wrong kind of people, it’s not just other 20-somethings who are looking forward to the day of revelry. My middle-aged students—the successful professionals looking to hone their English for a competitive edge—are just as excited.

As with many Swedish holidays, it’s hard to sort out what the original reason for the holiday was: Christian tradition? Pagan customs? Something related to the current amount of sunshine? It’s still unclear, and even the Swedes that I’ve been asking seem to have a pretty fuzzy understanding of the story behind Valborg.

Is this a holiday for witches or saints? Or sunshine-loving Swedes? Photos courtesy (l-r) of www.rhine-river-lights.com and catholicheritage.blogspot.com

Here are the few facts I have gleaned from the internet and bugging the people around me:

Valborg’s technical name is “Valborgsmässoafton,” which is known in English as Walpurgis Night. More on the “afton” part of the name later. The holiday started out as a pagan grain festival and was later appropriated by the Catholic Church as a religious holiday.

Just in case you didn’t know what a Walpurgis is, she was an 8th century Catholic saint from England who traveled to Germany to be a missionary. Depending on what website you read (and I checked the Vatican’s website for credible information, but no luck), she is the patron saint of rabies, seamen, invalids, farmers and/or the common cold… and/or a protectress against magic arts and/or failed harvests. What can I say? The poor woman’s got a lot on her plate.

Walpurgis Night is also supposed to be a night of witches or a “Witches’ Sabbath.” This might be connected to the legend of Blåkulla, but it’s definitely important to modern-day Satanists. (Scary thought.)

So what is a modern day Valborgsmässoafton all about? If you live in a student city like Lund or Uppsala, champagne breakfasts, hanging out in the park, and fancy student balls can all be part of a typical celebration. If you’re a little bit farther out in the countryside, bonfires are the most important part of the celebration. Very large bonfires. In Lund, a there’s a famous student choir (Studentsångarna) that performs the next day, singing out the winter and singing in the spring.

Maybe at its heart Valborg is just about FIRE! Unbelievable displays of FIRE! Photos by (clockwise) dark botxy/Flickr, t_buchtele/Flickr, WixPix/Flickr

This whole April 30th/May 1st two-for-one holiday brings me to my final and biggest question about Valborg. We celebrated Easter on Saturday, on “Påskafton,” or Easter Eve, just like Christmas is celebrated on the 24th, on “Julafton,” or Christmas Eve. If Saturday is “Valborgsmässoafton,” why is Sunday just May Day? Shouldn’t Sunday be Valborg and Saturday be Valborgsmässoafton? How can you have an “afton,” or eve, without an official holiday following? When I posed this question to a group of Swedes, I got nothing but blank stares and exasperated sighs in return. Why, my friends? Why?!


Happy Easter or Glad Påsk from Sweden! Traditions, food, decorations and more

The signs of the season were everywhere: babuschka-like Easter witches, feather-bedazzled branches, a haunting and eerie emptiness on grocery store shelves previously occupied by jars of pickled herring… Easter season had arrived in Sweden, and it would be a long four day weekend before our lives could return to normal.

Truth be told, I was kind of surprised by the scope of the Easter festivities in Sweden, given that none of the Swedes I’ve met in my time here have seemed particularly religious. I always thought of Christmas as the secularized holiday of choice, not Easter, but Sweden has its own traditions that seem equally influenced by Christian tradition, pre-Christian folklore, and generalized Thank everything holy it’s not winter anymore sentiments (aka vårkänsla).

Swedish Easter activities: take a walk or picnic in the woods, paint eggs, hunt for eggs.

Here’s a rough recipe for a Swedish Easter celebration, based on my empirical observations of the weekend:

1 part Easter witch, 2 parts decorated branches;
2 parts fish, 1 part potatoes;
3 parts eggs, 1 part asparagus;
3 parts pickled herring, 2 parts chocolate (preferably in egg form), 1 part cake.

Season to taste with dill, mayonnaise, bread, and cheese. Pair with Easter egg hunting, outdoor picnics, and walking in the forest (weather permitting).

I got intrigued by news reports that Easter is the week in which the most food is bought in Sweden given all the attention paid to the pre-Christmas Julbord feast, so I started to investigate. According to a report by Tasteline.com (a Swedish food and drink website), Easter is not quite the biggest food-shopping week of the year, but it is up there. (The biggest was the week of Christmas.) Egg, pickled herring, and salmon were considered the most important foods to have for an Easter celebration, followed by lamb, a potatoes and anchovy dish called Janssons frestelse, and meatballs. Our Easter lunch had all of the first three dishes and none of the second three, so I guess we had a pretty traditional meal. We also ate something called “gubbröra,” which was anchovies and boiled eggs mixed together with some spices (probably dill) and eaten bruschetta-style on toast, asparagus, boiled potatoes, and a salad.

Parts of our Easter feast: salmon, hard-boiled eggs, and gubbröra!

One common element of a Swedish Easter that didn’t make it to our table was the snaps—shots of schnapps, vodka, aquavit, or other strong liquor. When I was asking my Swedish friends why Easter was celebrated on Saturday instead of Sunday, one of them suggested that a buffer zone was needed between the celebration and the workweek for everyone to have a hangover from drinking so much. This theory is still unconfirmed… for now. According to the same Tasteline report as before, the Thursday before Easter is the third-most visited day for the state-owned liquor store, so draw from that what you will.

Besides the food, there’s something worth mentioning: the Easter decorations.

I would like to know who thought that gluing feathers to branches was a good idea.

I mean, seriously. Did you think you were improving the branch? Because you weren’t. These feather-branch-things just might be the silliest holiday decoration I’ve ever seen, and I’m from the United States. Why? Why? WHY? I do not understand.

When my friend Katie and I were touring around Sweden, we were constantly speculating as to what the original thought could be. What we settled on (Katie’s idea) was this: since people eat so many eggs at Easter, this is a warning from chickens in the know that EVIL INTRUDERS are coming to take away your unborn babies and EAT THEM. Beware the Easter time massacre! Hide your hens, hide your eggs, because they’re taking all the eggs out there. (Alternate explanations welcome.)

This is just a small sample of the feather-bedazzling that was going on throughout the whole country.

As I tried to roll myself home after dinner, I realized that I had just as many questions remaining as I had answers. Why do Swedes celebrate Easter a day early? What’s up with the mutilated branches? Had everyone continued to refill my plate in a desperate attempt to keep me from asking more questions? I may never know.

Blåkulla, Easter witches, and other true stories of an obviously Christian holiday

As an English teacher, I’ve been invited to a number of events and special occasions by students, but never a witches’ coven. Until recently.

One of my Business English students is a middle-aged woman with a forceful personality and an offbeat sense of humor. We meet for three-hour sessions, so by the end of our time together we’re both pretty tired, which is one reason why I didn’t pay much attention when she started talking about witches. I chalked it up to being part of a slightly odd joke being lost in translation. But then she followed up on it with the email below:

Dear Kate,

Time flies and next week I’ll see you in Blåkulla?? Thursday is the big “flying day.” I’ll take my cat, my broomstick and my coffeepot. When I arrive in Blåkulla the party starts! Don’t miss this opportunity to meet other witches.

I started getting a little nervous. Was I supposed to understand last week’s “joke” as a real invitation to a witches’ coven? Does she think she can fly? Can she? And what does a coffeepot have to do with anything???

Long story made short: I didn’t have to get on a broom. But witches are a real phenomenon in Sweden… at least around Easter.

I started asking everyone I met about Blåkulla and the current witch situation there, and I met with a wide variety of responses from the disturbingly well-informed to the absolutely clueless. Most of the time, though, I got a vague description of witches flying to a place called Blåkulla, where they all “hang out” and “do witch stuff.” Those Swedes who actually knew the story told a far more interesting tale.

These cute little Easter witches were for sale in a shop in Gamla Stan in Stockholm. The perfect addition to your bedazzled branch collection! (More information on that later...)

According to legend, the Thursday before Easter (skärtorsdagen in Swedish) is the designated day of the year for all evil witches to fly on their broomsticks to a place called Blåkulla, where they have a wild rumpus, share potion recipes, and take part in a giant orgy with the devil. That’s right, an orgy. Plus all the other typical witchy things. Then they fly back.

Stranger still, the annual witches’ convention at Blåkulla has somehow become part of Swedish Easter traditions. The story of Blåkulla played an important role in Sweden during the second half of the 1600’s when the witch hunts were in full force. People claimed to have seen women flying on their way to exchange the latest tips and tricks for hexing unsuspecting villagers and then those women were usually put to death. Somewhere in between then and now, people thought, “Hey, this is a great activity for the kids to get in on.” And thus the tradition of “påskkärringar,” or “Easter hags,” was begun.

In practice, this means that on the Thursday before Easter,  for no logical reason that I can understand, Swedish children dress up as witches and go door-to-door spreading Easter cheer and receiving candies or small coins in return… a little like Halloween, but without the option of choosing your own costume.

It is also important to note that Swedes have quite a different outlook on what a witch should look like.  Observe.

Some adorable Easter witches ready to hit the streets. Photos l-r: konkret idé & kommunikation/Flickr, familjen benesch/Flickr

I’d call it “babuschka chic.” No pointy hat, no black cape, no warts: these kids just have rosy red cheeks, liberally distributed freckles, and shawls wrapped over their heads.

So there you have it! The perfect pre-Easter celebration. Be careful out there… there are witches afoot!

 

SHOW ME THE MONEY! Sweden’s social welfare system and families

When people talk about Sweden’s social welfare system, they often talk in terms of quantifiable statistics: the distribution of fathers and mothers on parental leave, infant mortality rates, and the number of entrepreneurs per capita, to name a few. It’s more difficult to trace the social welfare system’s effects on Swedish culture and families—effects that are just as important, but to which it is almost impossible to assign numbers and figures.

When I first came to Sweden, one of the most startling differences I saw between here and anywhere else I’ve lived—multiple regions in the United States, Italy, Austria—is the way that parents and children interact with each other as a family. It took me a while to understand why these differences exist, but I think they originate in large part with the far greater independence that young adults enjoy at an earlier age in Sweden than in most other parts of the world.

The biggest difference for me as a young adult and an American is that from what I’ve seen, the large majority of Swedish 20-somethings are completely financially independent from their parents. In the United States, young adults frequently have their finances interwoven with their parents’ to a much greater degree through, for example,  student loans, health insurance plans, and family cell phone contracts.

My Swedish family! (almost everyone)

It’s impossible to generalize about the behavior of parents and children in the United States versus in Sweden without stereotyping. It seems to me, however, that the safety net and the opportunities provided by the social welfare system makes a profound difference on how (in)dependent young adults are on their parents. Because young adults in Sweden have such a greater degree of economic freedom than in other parts of the world, a greater degree of self-agency at a younger age comes hand-in-hand.

Swedish parents seem just as willing as any others to help their kids out with money if they need to make a down payment on an apartment or buy a car, but barring large expenditures, young adults in Sweden don’t need their parents to underwrite the costs of their everyday lives. Because of this, the relationship seems to move beyond parenting into a more adult friendship mode at an earlier age than in other countries.

One giant difference is the cost of higher education. In the United States, parents often start saving for their child’s college tuition before the child is even born. In Sweden, it’s free to go to university, and full-time students get a monthly subsidy from the state to support them during their studies. They can also apply for a loan from the same governmental agency with lower interest rates than competing banks.

It’s also common for Swedes to take time off from studying for a couple of years after finishing gymnasium (something between high school and the first two years of college) and work or travel. This is the time when they’re expected to become adults, and once they’ve gotten a clearer idea of what they want to do, they’ll start studying at a university. Until their studies start, though, Swedes are relatively free to try things out, to travel, and to seek out life experiences rather than move quickly towards economic security.

There may be some Swedish families that are affected by the social welfare system less than others. Both photos CC from Flickr, esther1616 (l) and hellojenuine (r).

The strength of the health care system in Sweden also allows young adults to have incredible economic freedom from an early age. Having access to high quality, efficient health care that also happens to be provided at a low cost to the patient gives everyone in Sweden the luxury of not worrying. For young adults in the United States, the difference is even greater. Before you get the fancy full-time job with benefits included, your health insurance comes from your parents’ job and their willingness to include you as a dependent.

All this security comes at a cost, of course, and that’s where Sweden’s high tax rates come into play. Sweden’s social welfare system is a safety net sustained by the strong economy and the tax-paying population, and you’ll see a hefty chunk of your paycheck allocated to the system before it makes its way into your pocket. The tradeoff is that your contribution lets parents off the hook for taking care of their adult children and puts it on the government instead. In the end, I’ve got to say—they don’t do a half bad job. And then parents can just enjoy being parents.

 

Getting that SPRING! feeling

Vårkänslor, plural noun.

The feelings of extreme happiness, giddy expectation, dizzying euphoria, etc. one gets when it finally appears as though spring is coming.

Att få vårkänslor, idiom.

To get the spring feeling.

Translation: Ooooooooh yeahhhh!

For those of you who don’t live in a land far, far away from the Equator, let me tell you something: there is a kind of madness sweeping the country, a madness that can only be described as spring fever. All through the winter, complaints about the weather were coupled with promises about the eventual paradise that would follow as well as the tidal wave of happiness that would sweep the nation. And now it is here.

“Just you wait,” these supposedly-friendly Swedes would say, with a glint in their eyes and a cinnamon bun in their hands. “You’ll see… When the sun starts coming out…” And then their sentences would start to trail off, and they would look away at some distant point in the distance.

They weren’t lying. What’s more, I have to admit that I am a totally willing participant in this kind of craziness. Everywhere around me are vårtecken, or “signs of spring,” and I have become a slave to both the sunshine and tomorrow’s weather forecast. I can tell that I’m getting just as crazy as everyone else because I catch myself repeating my Swedish friends’ assurances that Spring is coming! Spring is here! to non-Swedes. “Feeeeeel the sun warming your body!” I implored an American friend, echoing one of my Swedish friend’s earlier exhortations. “It’s stroooong enough to warm your body now!!”

On the left, the Vitsippa flower, a common sign of spring. On the right, yours truly, caught in a moment of spring-induced euphoria. Vitsippa by Kiolero on Flickr.

Clearly, the spring feeling is contagious.

Flowers blooming are one of the more obvious vårtecken, but there are subtler signals as well. Some of the ways I can tell that spring is coming to Lund include, for example, the disappearance of the last lingering traces of the snow mountain created by plows during the winter downfall, the reappearance of outdoor seating areas at downtown cafes, a sudden proliferation of rabbits. You know, that sort of thing.

Flowers! Sunshine! A lawn for lounging! It is paradise.

With all the vårtecken visible around here, the past couple of weeks have been full of vårkänslor for me. Some of the ways I can tell that I have a bad case of vårkänslor are:

Feeling the sun warm my face on the bus to my babysitting job, promising to take the kids to get ice cream even though the wind outside the bus makes it less warm than it felt inside the bus, actually taking the kids to get ice cream.

Going to the grocery store with a friend, buying bread, cheese, and mustard, having a picnic outside on the grass, not even minding that the ground was somewhat damp.

Waking up and seeing the sun shining through the curtains; feeling suddenly compelled to make banana pancakes for my still-sleeping boyfriend and doing it.

Meeting friends for a beer in the sunshine, refusing to move from the outdoor seating area to the inside of the bar until the sun has completely disappeared from the sky and not even fleece blankets can stop our shivers.

Going for a walk outside, taking my coat off and putting it back on as I move between the sunny and cloudy parts of the sidewalk, all while grinning insanely at strangers and having them smile back.

Being a permissive babysitter: definitely a sign of (spring) fevered weakness.

The one thing I’m holding out on? Going from just talking about how I’m going to go upstairs to the storage space in the attic to bring down my spring clothes and actually doing it. I don’t want to jinx a good thing!

 

Surfing around on Twitter, I can see that everyone has different triggers and different things to say about vårkänslor in Sweden. What gives you “that spring feeling?” A sport? An activity? A special piece of clothing? An unusual tradition? Leave your answers in the comments.