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julbock


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Julbock: The Swedish Christmas Goat

If you’ve ever spent the holidays in Sweden then you’d recognize this common Christmas decoration – the julbock. Usually made out of straw and sitting on a table, but sometimes as a candle holder, an ornament in the tree, depicted on Christmas cards or table clothes — goats are largely associated with Christmas here in Sweden.

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There is even a famously gigantic Julbock made of straw that has been built in a town called Gavle every year since 1966, which measures 13 meters tall (43 feet) and is  burnt down year after year. Although this is not the intention of the Julbock nor is it legal, it is an expected fate.

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There is a long history behind the Julbock which goes much deeper than the decorations we see today.

The origin of the Julbock dates back to before Christianity in Scandinavia, from the worship of the Norse God Thor and his two goats, Tanngnjost och Tanngrisner, that pulled his flying chariot.

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Later, the Julbock was depicted as a humanoid goat figure with horns and hooves, said to represent the devil, ensuring that people deserved their presents. This version of the julbock was altered into a scary prankster who caused trouble and demanded gifts.

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Julbocks being made of straw is nothing new, as it was always associated with the last harvest of the grain. It was once believed that the Julbock was only a spirit, and anything made of straw could be the Julbock. This spirit would check that the house was clean and the preparations were done correctly for the celebrations.

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For a long while the Julbock was the one who would deliver and hand out the Christmas presents – an original Scandinavian Santa. This is the most widely accepted and known version of the Julbock.

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Just as someone in Swedish families dress up as Santa to give out the gifts to the children nowadays, the same was done back then. Dressing up as the Julbock for Christmas also included singing, acting, and pranks while wearing something like this:

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During the 1800’s, people would throw the straw made Julbock back and forth, yelling “Take the Christmas goat!” The straw goat was also passed between neighbors, hiding it in each others houses without it being noticed, in an effort to get the Julbock out of their own house.

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Hoping all of my readers had a wonderful Christmas and that I taught you a bit of Swedish Christmas trivia. If you’re interested in reading more about Swedish Christmas traditions – follow these links:

Julbord: Christmas table (Christmas food)
The first advent
Swedish Santa: Tomte


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S:t Lucia in Sweden

Yesterday I finally got to celebrate Lucia for the first time!

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Photo Credit: Recepten.se

Days (or even weeks) before December 13:e, you can find Lussebullar (also called Lussekatter or saffronsbullar) in all of the bakeries in anticipation of Lucia Day.  This is a  traditional bun shaped like an “S” with saffron flavoring, which gives it the classic yellow tint and a distinct flavor.

Here is the  Recepten.se recipe.

Halmstad Lucia 2011

Preparations for Lucia festivities start about a month before December 13:e, because Lucia’s all over the country need to be chosen. Every town votes for a Local Lucia through a contest which is held in newspapers, such as the one to the left, Hallandsposten, where everyone can vote via SMS for their favorite Lucia. Contestants are always teenagers, and are meant to look the most serene, calm, and soothing. They also need to be able to sing, as you will see in this interview of this years crowned Halmstad Lucia: here. On the first advent the town’s Lucia is publicly named and crowned. All of the Local Lucia’s are also runner up’s to become the National Lucia on TV. This is not the only Lucia you will find on Lucia day, as every church and school (from universities to kindergartens) also has their own selected to perform for Lucia concerts throughout the whole day.

At 5:30pm yesterday we went to the library for a Lucia concert, which featured the Halmstad Lucia. The town Lucia often also visits senior centers, community centers, city hall, and schools. This was a beautiful bite-sized (15 minutes) performance, which a selection of all the most popular Lucia and Christmas songs. The smaller setting allowed me to see the halo of candles, wreaths of lingom, red sashes, and white robes up close. (although I was a scared of so many candles walking around so many books!)

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Lucia was first celebrated in Sweden in the late 1700’s, but not in the same way as nowadays – it wasn’t until 1927 that Lucia became a public event. Lucia was originally a celebration observed only within the household by each family. The oldest child would wear a crown of candles and bring their parents breakfast in bed (Normally consisting of Gingerbread cookies) while singing Lucia songs. This is still a common family tradition today, every year stores sell the Lucia Crowns that families can use at home:

Next was the nights main event. We arrived at the S:t  Nikolai church an hour early and it was already half full. After an orchestra performance the lights dimmed down low and the beautiful voices surrounded us. The Luciatåg (Lucia procession) of tärnor (Lucia maidens) holding a single candle each walked slowly up the aisles towards  Lucia, who lead them to the front of the church. It was truly magical.

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This Lucia procession was by an all women’s choir, but many Lucia performances include male members. Boys dress up as stjärngossar (Star boys), wearing cone shaped hats decorated with stars, tomtar (Santas) wearing all red, or gingerbread men, which is common for the much younger boys.

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Saint Lucia is one of few Saints celebrated in Sweden, representing the spreading of light when the dark nights are longest and warmth when the winter is coldest.  There are many different stories of Lucia’s history. Her feast day is widely celebrated as a Scandinavian tradition, holding Germanic pagan traditions. Born in Sicily (283-304), she is said to have become a Christian Martyr after seeing an angel in her dreams when she prayed for her dying mother. She devoted herself to Christianity, distributed her wealth and dowry to the poor, and refused to give up her virginity even after marriage.

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Some versions say that when she was sentenced to be defiled at a brothel and refused, nothing could move her. Not even 1,000 men and packs of oxen could make her budge from where she stood. Instead they built a fire around her, but she did not burn. They stabbed her in the throat but she continued to sing and preach.

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St. Lucia is known as the patron of sight, often portrayed holding a platter of two eyes. Some say this stems from her being tortured with eye stabbing when she wouldn’t move or burn, but she was still able to see. Other versions state that she removed her own eyes because they were too admirable and attracted attention from men and unwanted lust. In both cases, God restored her eyes to be more beautiful and with better sight.

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Lucia is seen as a protector. She cared for her mother when her father was absent. She spreads light to cure the darkest part of winter. In the old almanac it was believed that December 13:e was the Winter solstice, and thus this longest night of the year. It was also on this night that “Lussi’s,” known as witches or demons, supernatural beings, trolls, and evil spirits of the dead would roam the darkness. It was Lucia who would protect people against harm by bringing hope and joy through spreading the “light in her hair”.

Others say the date of Lucia is to celebrate the first of the “12 Days of Christmas.”

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It was an amazingly beautiful event to see. Now I know why it is a beloved tradition  in Sweden. Even without understanding all the lyrics to the 15 songs they performed, I had goosebumps the whole time. They did sing (in Swedish) a few songs I recognized such as Silents Night and Hark the Bells.

A video so you can experience Lucia, too!


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Today: Fars Dag & Veterans Day

“Don’t forget Father’s Day!” signs are posted throughout the town in bookstores, bakeries, and flower shops. The reminder surprised me, as in the US, Father’s Day is celebrated on the third Sunday of June. Father’s day was created in the USA in June 1910 to compliment Mother’s Day, so most countries celebrate around that time time. Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Estonia celebrate it on the second Sunday of November instead. Father’s day is said to have traveled to Sweden in the 1930’s, but like Mother’s Day, did not become popular very quickly. Today my husbands father was celebrated with a homemade cake.

This year the Swedish Father’s Day falls on the same day that Veterans Day/Remembrance Day is observed in other countries, which marks the end of WWI; “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” A red paper poppy is worn to remember, commemorate,  and honor all veterans. They are made by veterans and the profits go towards

a veteran charity. This red flower was inspired by a poem, “In Flanders Fields” and represents the first flowers that grew on the graves of fallen soldiers. In the U.S. we also celebrate Memorial Day in May, which is a more popular “Poppy Day.”

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Happy Fathers Day to dads that celebrate it today and thank you to all veterans, present and past.

Vocabulary:

Today: Idag

Don’t forget: Glöm inte

Flowers: Blommor

Books: Böcker

Father: Far, pappa

To celebrate: Firar

Remember: Minns


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Gustavus Adolphus

…more commonly known as King Gustav II Adolf here in Sweden, is remembered today. Becoming king at the age of 17, from 1611- 1632, today we observe the date of his death. We eat special pastries in his honor:

I asked if all former kings are celebrated, which they are not. So, it was time for some research to find out why a delicious pear and chocolate treat is eaten today.

Titled as Gustav Adolph the Great, he is considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time. The Swedish Empire was built with his help, especially through the battles during the Thirty Year War. If he were not killed in battle at the age of 38, he would have been a major European leader. It was because of his innovative tactics and military advances that Sweden was able to dominate for the next 100 years. There are statues of Gustav Adolf in Stockholm, Helsingborg and Gothenburg:

He was also considered a progressive leader, especially in Estonia where he opened schools (which are still open today). It was during Gustav Adolfs rein that Sweden ruled over Estonia, a time that is referred to as “The Good Old Swedish Times.” Gustav Adolf Day is a holiday in Sweden, Estonia and Finland, where it is called “Swedishness Day.”

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More names for Gustav Adolf:

“Father of Modern Warfare”

“The Golden King”

“The Lion of the North”

Vocabulary:

King -Kung

Sweden – Sverige

Leader – Ledare

War – Krig

Pastry – Bakelse


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About The Nobel Prize

This week the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prizes were announced. Aside from knowing that the Nobel Prize is from Sweden, it wasn’t until I moved here that I bothered to learn more about it.

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833 and died in 1896 with the creation of the Nobel Prize in his will. Being the inventor of dynamite (among 355 other things), he had a large fortune to share. After his brother died in 1888 there was an obituary titled, “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” in a French newspaper that thought Alfred was the one who died. Upon reading this he revised his will many times concerned with how he would actually be remembered. 94% of his 31 million kronor ($4.7 million) fortune was to be used to create awards for those who give the “greatest benefit on mankind” in Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Peace. It took years to verify the authenticity of the will, set up committees that would award such prizes, and to create guidelines for the awards.

Since 1901 these awards have been given annually by four different committees. Each committee only awards and has influence over the Nobel Prize/Prizes they are responsible for. All of the committees were specifically created for this purpose after Alfred Nobel’s will was approved: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute, the Swedish Academy, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

The award ceremony and banquet for the Nobel Prizes are always held in Stockholm, and the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, on December 10th – the anniversary of Alfred  Nobel’s death. The week leading up to the banquet is “Nobel Week” when the Nobel Prize winners give lectures on the topic for which the award was given. This year each Nobel Prize will award 8 million Kronor (Most split among two joint winners) along with the traditional gold medal and ornate diploma.

Some Interesting History:

  • It wasn’t until 1968 that Economic Sciences was added to the Nobel Prizes.
  • Nobel’s will specified that prizes should be awarded to scientific discoveries from the preceding year, which had to be changed due to awarding someone a Nobel Prize for finding the cure for cancer in 1926. Nobel Prizes are now given to discoveries that have withstood the test of time and which the full impact of has been recognized, which sometimes takes decades.
  • At the time of Nobel’s death Sweden and Norway were in a union, and Nobel asked that The Peace Prize be awarded by the Norwegian Parliament, which in turn created a new committee to do the job. The Norwegian Parliament selects the 5 members in the committee.
  • 77% of the Physics Prizes have been given to discoveries, only 23% to inventions.
  • The Norwegian King did not support the Nobel Prize ceremony and refused to participate because it would be awarded internationally- to foreigners. Unlike in Sweden where Prize winners personally receive the award from the Swedish king, a chairman traditionally gives out the Nobel Prizes in Norway. In 2006 the King and Queen of Norway started to attend the Nobel Peace Prize awards.
  • In 1948 the peace prize was not handed out due to “no suitable living candidate” after Gandhi died that year.
  • 1949 5,000 lobotomies were performed in the US immediately after it received the Nobel Science Prize.
  • The Norwegian Nobel Committee building was a safe haven from the invasion of Nazis into Norway during WWII because it was Swedish property and Germany was not at war with Sweden.
  • In 1979 Mother Theresa refused to have the five-course banquet for 250 people and instead used the money to feed 2,000 homeless people on Christmas day.
  • The Nobel Foundation has assets of 3.628 billion kronor ($545 million US dollars) and has been exempted from taxes since 1946.


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Standing in Shakespeares Inspiration

As I crossed the cobblestone courtyard, ducked through the small dark and narrow passageways, climbed the steep and sagging brick stairwells, marveled at the untouched chapel, watched the swans swim around  the castle moat, heard my voice echo in the tremendous ballroom, looked out the windows to see the cannons pointed towards the coastline of Sweden – I was imagining Hamlets plight. Envisioning the ghost of his father, eavesdropping, deceit, secrets, murderous plots, revenge, and a death stained fencing match. Shakespeare may or may have not ever been to the Kronborg Castle (known as Elsinor), but he was inspired by it nonetheless, and framed the most famous play in history within these walls.

Exploring the underbelly of the castle, originally built as a stronghold fortress in 1420. Continue reading


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Sweden Wins Eurovision AGAIN! A History Starting With ABBA

Last night was the annual Eurovision song contest- an event not to be missed if you live in Europe!

It’s hard to believe that Eurovision began in 1956 with only 7 countries. Since then 52 countries have participated over the years, and this year 42 countries competed against each other. From those 52 countries, 26 different countries have won over the years. Eurovision is always hosted in the country that won the year prior- which means that next year it will be in Stockholm thanks to Loreen and Euphoria!

This years competition was hosted in Baku, Azerbaijan. They have been competing since 2008 and won for the first time last year. The Azerbaijan venue truly set the stage for this years performances. Baku built a very impressive venue for the occasion, the Baku Crystal Hall, which holds 25,000 persons and a VIP lounge. The construction took eight months (completed only four weeks before the contest) and cost approx. 150 Million Euro (190 million USD). The hall was built with more than Eurovision in mind, wanting a notable landmark for the country, and it succeeded – I for one was in awe of it, inside and out!

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Thankfully, Sweden will not have to undergo expensive and stressful last minute construction in order to host Eurovision 2013. Not only has Sweden already hosted the Song Contest four times in the past, but it has always been held at a different theater each year.

After ABBA won in 1974 Eurovision was held at the Stockholmsmassan, which was constructed in 1971 and held a mere 4,000 people.

In 1985 Sweden used the Scandinavium in Gothenburg, which was built and used primarily as a sports arena, also completed in 1971, which could hold 14,000 persons.

Then in 1992 the contest was hosted at the Malmö Isstadion, which was built in 1970 with a capacity of 5,800.
Most recently, in 2000, the Globen, built in 1989, was home to Eurovision, where 16,000 spectators enjoyed the show.

This time will be no different. In 2009 construction started on a new Concert Hall in Stockholm, and will be completed by November 2012. The Friends Arena will be the largest stadium in all of Scandinavia, with a capacity of 65,000 persons, a retractable roof, and a football (soccer) arena. A project that will cost 1.9 Billion SEK (170 million Euro/ 212 million USD). Alongside the venue, hotels and the largest shopping center in Scandinavia are also being built.

Sweden was the 11th country to participate in the Eurovision song contest in 1958. Since then, Sweden has won the competition FIVE times, which is the second most wins tied with Luxemborg, France, and the United Kingdom. Ireland has the most wins, with a total of seven. Since 1958 Sweden has only missed participating in the contest three times, out of those 52 times Sweden has ALWAYS made it into the final show, except once, when losing by five votes. In order to find the song that will be entered into Eurovision Sweden has its own competition every march, Melodifestivalen – which I wrote about here and here. Not only has this pre-contest generated five winners, but has also landed Sweden in the top FIVE 20 times, and the top TEN 32 times. This year Loreen’s Euphoria won with the second highest margin in Eurovision history- 113 points. The win was so predicted and expected after her show in the Semi-finals on Thursday that betting offices closed placing bets on her because the odds were too much in her favor. Right now Euphoria is #1 on the radio in 13 countries. #Sweden and #Loreen were top trending World Wide on Thursday during the semi-final and again last night.

The competition used to have a requirement that the song writers must be from the country participating. That is no longer the case, which is something the countries take advantage of, especially fond of using Sweden as it is known for having talented song writers, lyricists, and composers. Many entries through out the years have been created by Swedes, most notably last years winner. Ten out of the 26 finalists in this years contest were songs written by Swedish song writers.  Additionally, the host country used Swedish back up dancers, song writers, choreographer, and wardrobe this year as well.

For many years it was required that all countries must sing  in official languages of their country. This was put in place in 1966 after Sweden performed a song in English. Once the rule was lifted in 1973, Sweden won the following year with Waterloo- in English. Twenty-seven out of all the 56 winning songs have been sung in English. Three out of the five Swedish winning songs have been in English.

It was really exciting to be in the winning country watching Eurovision for the very first time. It was fun to watch and comment on, through both the good and bad parts. I didn’t expect to get so excited and nervous when the votes came in from the 42 countries, but I was sitting on the edge of my seat and applauding when ever we got any score above an Eight. (Only one country didn’t give us any points, and another only gave three points- all 40 other countries gave at least six points – but usually 10 or 12!). Grattis Sverige!!

Enjoy these clips from all the Swedish Eurovision Winners:

ABBA – Waterloo, 1974

Herrys – Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, 1984

Carola – Fångad av en stormvind, 1991 (Caught by a stormwind) (With translation)

Charlotte Nillson – Take me to Your Heaven, 1999

Loreen – Euphoria, 2012

See the cutest-ever runners-up here. Russian Babushkis singing “Everybody dance.”

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