SWEDISH SPECIAL OCCASIONS
Although tolerant of all religious beliefs, most Swedes are Lutheran. Church affiliation is begun almost at birth, but holidays and festivities are celebrated more out of tradition and sheer enjoyment than out of any deep religious convictions.
Perhaps it is to allay the cold and the months of darkness, or perhaps it is an inextricable part of their penchant for ritual and order. Whatever the reason, the Swedish calendar is dotted with important reasons for special celebrations, each demanding special foods.
It is of particular interest that while Christmas and Easter are undoubtedly the most important festivals, the three most joyous festivals, are pagan in origin — May Day Eve (Valborgsmassoafton), Midsummer Eve on June 24; and most beloved, St. Lucia Day, on December 13. For though Sweden can be classified as a modern sophisticated community, as recently as a hundred years ago almost 90 percent of her people were rural – deeply bound up in the land, the changing seasons, and the path of the sun in the sky. With traditions such a deeply ingrained part of Swedish life, it will likely be a very long time before any of these fade, if indeed their warmth and symbolism are discarded at all.
The Swedes accepted Christianity in 1537 and joined the celebration of Christ’s birthday with the ancient festival of “greeting the returning sun.” Christmas actually begins on December 13 with the celebration of St. Lucia’s Day. The early church assimilated the pagan tradition of Lussi Queen of Light with the Italian St. Lucia. In the home, the oldest daughter rises early in the morning and, dressed in a special white gown, a wreath of burning candles in her hair, she delivers to her parents a tray of fragrant saffron buns (lussikator) and fresh hot coffee. In the cities, a Lucia Queen is chosen and a huge party is given at which everyone enjoys the saffron buns and coffee.
The very next day, the hectic baking and preparations for Christmas begin in earnest. In the Swedish countryside it was always customary to slaughter a pig for Christmas with every portion being utilized: fresh meat cuts, hams and bacon, with the blood, feet, head, and offal all used in soups, sausages, puddings, and pates. In the past these dishes were served specifically in the Christmas season, but today they are readily available in specialty stores.
In pagan times, pigs, symbol of fertility, were sacrificed during the mid-winter bacchanal, and the Christmas ham of today is a symbol of that tradition. In fact the noon meal before Christmas Eve follows the ritual of Doppa I Grytan: dunking chunks of bread into the broth from the simmering ham and sausages. This too has its origins in the ancient belief that eating certain parts of the animal recaptured the animal’s vigor for the diner. Modern-day Swedes may be unaware of the symbolism; they just happily enjoy the delicious feast.
The highlight of the Christmas Eve dinner is the lutfisk. There is a ritual to the preparation of this dish too. About three weeks before, the dried salted cod is set to soak in a daily change of fresh water; an immersion in lye and ashes for a period, then it is ready to be scrubbed and again immersed for at least seven days in a daily changing bath of fresh water. Finally it is considered ready for gentle poaching then a glaze of velvety white sauce completes the festive fish. Boiled potatoes accompany the lutfisk and then everyone is ready for the suspense of the dessert. Although it appears to be a simple creamy rice pudding, the dessert has one whole almond hidden in It. The lucky finder of the almond may win a special prize, and, if a girl finds it, she will be wed in the next year. In some homes, no one is allowed to sample their rice pudding until they have recited a poem.
To complete the cheerfulness of Christmas Eve, the tree is decorated, gifts distributed and everyone enjoys delicious samplings of the many Christmas cakes and cookies all washed down with glogg (hot spiced wine punch with almonds and raisins, made especially for Christmas).
At each place on the Christmas breakfast table a delectable julhog awaits demolishing: this is an edible stack consisting of rye bread, a sweet yeast ring, a currant saffron bun, a crisp flat cookie, and finally a red apple on top. Add hot coffee and that is a Swedish Christmas breakfast.
The Christmas ham becomes the center of what is really a magnificent feast: the Christmas smorgasbord. For even today many Swedish women pride themselves in preparing all of the festive foods in traditional Christmas splendor. The centerpiece of fruits and nuts is a reminder of sacrifices made to the gods at this time to bless and provide plenty for the table.
Once again Akvavit is served with many skoals, although some prefer Glogg (hot spiced wine punch). Meanwhile the children eat, laugh, and play happily with their gifts, comparing those from Jultomte, the Swedish elf-like version of Santa Claus. And the woven straw julbocken (Christmas ram woven of straw) will swing from the chandelier as a reminder that long ago a Swedish Christmas was celebrated with straw strewn all over the floor.
This is the name given to the days between Christmas and New Year’s, days of parties, drinking, eating and, above all, gatherings of family and friends.
EPIPHANY – JANUARY 6
This holiday is the solemn commemoration of the Three Wiise Men, celebrated quietly in the home or in the church.
ST. CANUTE’S DAY
This falls on January 13 and is also called affectionately if a little sadly, Knut’s Day. This is the day when all the festive decorations of the holiday season are carefully put away. Even the Swedes know that there is a time to return to the realities of everyday living.
This is the day before Ash Wednesday, and throughout Sweden light yeast buns filled with almond paste and whipped cream or almond paste and hot milk are served for lunch. Each Tuesday through Lent the dessert will be these same buns, called semlor. It has always been a Swedish rural custom to give gifts of sweets such as buns, cakes, and biscuits for special occasions or just out of appreciation or affection. This may be the origin of the Shrove Tuesday custom of giving sweet treats to children.
Waffle Day takes place towards the end of March, and was originally called Var Fru, meaning “Our Lady”, to commemorate the Virgin Mary’s Annunciation Day. Later the name became Vaffer and finally Vaffel. And for each of the three meals of that day waffles are served.
Many old country superstitions have full sway at Easter time. After the house is cleaned, the broom is locked up so that the Easter Witch cannot spirit it away. During Lent birch twigs are picked and placed in the house; if they sprout green leaves by Easter it is said to symbolize growth in nature. There are many more such legends, and most are not taken seriously but followed out of fun or for tradition’s sake.
Good Friday is a quiet, solemn day; simple humble foods are eaten such as herring and boiled potatoes and a sweet soup of cardamom-flavored ale is often the dessert. Easter Eve is celebrated with a smorgasbord but this time the highlight of the table is the mass of hard eggs which the children share in delightful competition, to see who can eat the most. For eggs with all their symbolism of life, growth, and vitality are an important Easter symbol.
Also known as Walpurgis Night, the eve of May Day is celebrated with outdoor gatherings, singing, and the lighting of huge bonfires.
CHRIST’S ASCENSION DAY
Celebrated forty days after Easter, this occasion usually coincides with the fishermen’s first good catch of the season, so the menu features fresh-caught fish with horse radish sauce.
PINGST OR WHITSUNTIDE
A happy flower-filled holiday, just ten days after Christ’s Ascension Day. Most often celebrated with happy announcements of First Communion, engagements, etc. The menu invariably features fresh fish.
The festival to celebrate the longest day of the year, June 23, features dancing and the crowning of the Midsummer Queen in most North American Swedish communities. In Sweden, however, this is the special night when spells can be cast and dreams dreamed. With a mystical sun dazzling for almost twenty-four hours and resting for a brief two hours of dusk anything can happen. So this is the night that young Swedish girls gather nine different flowers to tuck under their pillows to conjure special dreams of their lovers.
The last of the bright soft summer nights coincides happily with the crayfish season, and outdoor parties abound. Lit by colored lanterns or flickering candles, the diners gather around a table set with a huge platter of crayfish, bibs for everyone, beer and Akvavit. For more reasons than one, it may be difficult to tell whether it is night or day by the time the party ends.
MARTINMAS OR ST. MARTIN’S DAY
Martin Luther’s Name Day, November 11, also happens to coincide with traditions much older than Christianity in Sweden. The slaughtering of animals, with all the attendant rendering of fat, smoking, and sausage-making, began, in olden times, towards the end of October in order to prepare for the feast at the end of December. November 11 was the time for the geese slaughter, and to this day, Martinmas is celebrated with roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes, preceded by a rich soup made from the goose blood. The spectacular dessert specialty of the day – spettkaka – is a wondrously intricate cake baked by dribbling an egg and sugar batter on a rotating spit.