ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “Advent”

When Christmas looms – of decorations, traditions and short stories

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Big, big thing in Sweden. In fact, it is probably the only Sunday of the year when our churches are full, the congregations adding loud and enthusiastic voices to psalms most Swedish people over the age of thirty know by heart. (The younger generation is a lost cause – they prefer other tunes)

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A whole table of woolen tomtes – Swedish somewhat more sinister version of the Christmas elf

By the time this Sunday comes around, most self/respecting Swedes will have decorated their homes. Not fully ( As an example, we don’t do trees until some days before Christmas) but there should at least be a poinsettia, some hyacinths, a number of paper stars, candles and a tomte or two. An evergreen wreath on the door is an added plus. Prior to decorating, a major cleaning operation should have taken place.

Now, Advent sort of kicks off the whirling pre-Christmas season. Us Swedes consume mountains of gingerbread biscuits in December, we drink glögg (hot spiced wine served with raisins and almonds) and bake. No Swedish Christmas without home-baked cakes, without a table that groans under the weight of the massive smorgasbord, containing everything from herring, salmon, ham, pork trotters, meatballs, sausages, three types of cabbage, potatoes, cheeses, bread, ribs, and rice-porridge mixed with whipped cream.

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Yum yum – saffron buns

Normally, I would spend December baking. Fruit cake, Swiss rolls, saffron buns, gingerbread cookies, almond cakes, fritters. As I do every year I’d have tried to convince my mother it is high time she gives me her recipe for chocolate and hazelnut cookies. As always, she would promise to do so but keep on forgetting to do so. I’d be considering just how many types of herring I need to pickle and whether it was enough with gravad lax or did we need some smoked salmon as well. By now, I’d have ordered the ham and the ribs. I’d be making toffee and fudge and other goodies. This year, I’m not doing any of that. This year, Christmas will be healthy and very non-traditional.

It’s strange how deep-seated these traditions are, especially if one considers that they’re not much more than a hundred years old or so. If we go back beyond the 19th century, most Swedes were far too poor to eat anything but cabbage and porridge. Only the rich could afford meat for Christmas. Those further down the social hierarchy may have had a pig, but once the beast was slaughtered they sold the meat to buy cabbage and dried peas. (Okay, they may have kept the trotters & feasted on them)

julbock 2Likewise, we burn candles like crazy in December – every self-respecting Swede has an Advent candleholder for four candles plus we do like combating the midwinter dark by lighting as many candles as we possibly can. Our forebears likely didn’t have much more than rush lights, and the very, very cold and dark Swedish winter had them huddling together before their hearths while throwing worried looks at the dark outdoors. After all, everyone knew there were trolls and elves and gnomes in the forest and anyone foolish enough to venture outside after nightfall might very well end up on the troll’s dinner table.

Swedish fairy tales tend to be of the darker type. Rarely does the princess kiss the frog and reveal a prince, Rather she kisses the frog and dies or reveals a huge troll that wants nothing as much as to gobble her down, nicely served on a golden platter (even trolls have style). I suspect these tales reflect the mood of our forefathers, sitting cold and hungry in one-room abodes housing entire families, beasts and a generous complement of fleas and lice. There they were, sitting close together and what better way to pass time but to tell each other stories? Preferably stories that would keep the young ones from exploring too far into the wintry forests…

DD-Blog-Hop-notoptextI like telling stories. (Duh!) So while I will steer clear of all the foodie traditions this year, I am proud to announce that I am taking part in a short-story blog tour which starts today and runs all the way to Christmas. Maximum 2 000 words long, these little nuggets go very well with tea and cake. Or wine and olives. Or coffee and chocolate. And they’re not nuggets – these Diamond Tales are more like sparkling jewels, the entire collection hosted by the Discovering Diamonds review site. So why not spend 15 minutes each day from now to Christmas escaping into a little bubble of glittering escapism? Who knows, you may encounter authors you’ve not read before – always a good thing, assuming you like what you read 😊

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A typical Swedish Xmas goat with a little “nisse” (elf)

Back to Swedish traditions: In Sweden, we have a Christmas Goat. Very strange, you might think, and there are various explanations as to why we have this fondness for Yule goats. One of the explanations has to do with the old feast day of Saint Nicolas on December 6. Tradition has it that on this day Nicolas would bring gifts to children and to show just how powerful this medieval saint was, he was often accompanied by a goat-figure named Krampus (originally representing the devil) whom Nicolas had on a leash to show that good wins over bad. Not that this was any truer six centuries ago than it is today, but we really do like hoping that the bad will be vanquished by the good, right? Over time, Krampus grew into his own: where St Nicolas would reward the good children, Krampus would punish or even carry off bad children.

After the reformation, St Nicolas was thrown on the scrapheap in Sweden. Saints were scoffed at (except for St Lucia) and instead of having a canonized bishop distribute goodies to the eager children on December 6th, the goat figure/ Krampus took over that role, becoming a mostly benign if stern figure who would reward the good children with presents while butting the bad children with his horns.

The goat was an established symbol here in Sweden loooong before Ansgar made it up here to christen us. Those of you who know your mythology will of course be familiar with the fact that Tor, god of thunder and war, rode a chariot drawn by two impressive goats. Long before St Nicolas & Krampus were household names, us Scandinavians celebrated the winter solstice with intense and wet parties that had as their primary purpose to ensure good crops and fertility in the year to come. One tradition was that the last of the sheaves harvested was saved until this midwinter event, at which time it was shaped into a rough representation of a four-legged animal. The resulting “goat” was used in various games but was also seen as a symbol for next year’s harvest, which hopefully would be better (or as good as) this year’s.

julbock 1These days, our goats are mostly decorative. And as we’re now officially in the Christmas season, my goat is already in place, candle and all. As to me, it is time to start clearing my throat and humming a few bars of the first psalm to be sung today!

 

Hosannah, here he comes!

adventsstakeTomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent. Even if one had no idea it was, it would be difficult to miss this is a big thing in my home country, as window after window is decorated with the ubiquitous Christmas electric candelabra. Candles – or light in general – are a major component in Swedish Christmas festivities, causing a number of serious fires each year as people forget to blow out their live candles when they leave the room.

Tomorrow, Swedes will flock to the churches. This one Sunday during the year has us Swedes turning out en masse, all of us eager to participate in the celebration of the Church’s New Year. Eh, what? Yup, people, the first Sunday in Advent is the first Sunday in the new religious year, having been preceded by the rather depressing “Doom’s Sunday”. Now, people don’t cram themselves into churches tomorrow out of any major religious fervour. No, this is all due to TRADITION. We go to church to sing the hymns we’ve grown up with, and we do NOT like it when progressive ministers decide to introduce new songs on the first of Advent. We grow sullen and mute, shuffling out feet in silent protest. Generally, the priest and the cantor are wise enough to stick to traditions, and so we can all inhale and belt out songs we’ve sung since we were three but never really thought about.

Carl Larsson (May 28, 1853 – January 22, 1919)LisbethLeyendo-1904-Take for example one of my favourite Advent hymn “Make way for the Lord” (In Swedish “Bereden väg för Herran“) In this hymn, the second verse states that we should spread palm fronds and cloaks before Him, to make his path smooth as he enters Jerusalem… Hang on a minute; Jesus enters Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion, right? And here was I thinking Advent was a countdown to his birth. Very confusing, especially as the set text for the first Sunday in Advent is all about Jesus entering Jerusalem, i.e. he’s an adult man riding towards his rather unpleasant destiny.

So how does this go together with Christmas. Well, apart from the obvious connection that Jesus had to be born to be able to die, I’m not quite sure I see any, but then there are a number of such rather confusing date collisions in the Bible, like the slaying of the Innocent on December 28th, in which Herod had all boy children in Bethlehem killed after having heard from the wise men that they’d just visited with a baby boy, destined to be king of the Jews. Except that the three wise men didn’t make it to Jesus in his manger until Epiphany, which is in January… It makes my head ache.

lussekatterAnyway, once we’ve done the church thing, it is time for more candles, hot chocolate, gingerbread biscuits and saffron buns. We call them “lussekatter” (Lucifer’s cats), which has a nice Christian ring to it, right? Actually, the buns are baked in the shape of the devil’s cat (primitive figures of eight) so as to absorb his evil and keep us safe. Just to make sure, we then eat the bun…can’t beat that approach to combating evil.

Personally, I am mostly thrilled by the fact that as of tomorrow it is only three weeks until the year turns. Three more weeks of shortening days (it’s not as if they’re anything but short already now, but they will get even shorter before we’re done) before we finally re-tilt the globe so that the sun will find us again. Can’t wait…

I am prepared for tomorrow. My buns are baked, my candlestick with four Advent candles is standing on the table, I have whipped cream to go with the hot chocolate and the house smells nicely of clean floors. Now I just have to find the energy to get up bright and early and make it to church in time to nab a seat. After all, I don’t want to stand for the whole service!

Happy Advent, everyone. And don’t overeat on those devil’s buns, okay? Too much baked evil may cause indigestion.

And here is my absolute favourite Advent song!

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