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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.

julbock

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:

mask

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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First SomethingSwedish VIDEO: Valborg in Halmstad, celebrating Spring in Sweden

Last year was my first time experiencing the celebration of Valborg in Sweden. Here, let this link to last years post refresh your memory: **Links are currently broken – search for “Valborg- How We Welcome Spring in Sweden” to learn more about this tradition **

This year I decided to do something a bit different – I decided that text and photos are no longer enough for the fans, friends, and family of SomethingSwedish – so I started a Youtube channel, recorded a video, edited it, and am now sharing it for your viewing pleasure!

A lot of you have said how it feels like you are living vicariously through my words and captured moments, I want it to feel like you are really in Sweden with me. A picture can say a thousand words, but is that enough to feel the atmosphere, hear the language, and listen to the music?

Enjoy this video of the Valborg celebration, I hope it to be the first of many! Tell me what you think and what you want to see videos of next!

Julbord: Christmas Table

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I’ve eaten Christmas dinner in Sweden four times now, but it wasn’t until this year that I realized how traditional it really is. A week before Christmas we had lunch at a restaurant, which happened to be serving a “Julbord.” Christmas in Sweden is all about the Julbord – think “Smörgåsbord” but with all the classic Christmas foods. The restaurant Julbord was serving the exact same Christmas foods as I’ve eaten in Sweden the last few years; it’s not just a family tradition.

Come noon on December 24th (Swede’s celebrate on the eve, or afton) our Julbord looks something like this every year:

Except this year we somehow forgot the boiled eggs – a Swedish tragedy. So, whats on this Christmas Table? Let’s see!

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Julskinka: Naturally, The Christmas Ham – only eaten after smothered in mustard.

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Dopp i gryta: “Dip in the pot” –  Using the rich flavored Christmas Ham broth, it is very traditional to dip dark bread and to eat the soaked bread along with Christmas dinner.

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Janssons Frestelse:  “Janssons Temptation”a delicious dish with very thinly cut potato ‘sticks’ is cooked in the oven with a secret ingredient that makes many non-swedes squirm…

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Anchovies. and anchovy juice.  Sounds gross, I know, but it’s awesome and full of flavor!

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Kålpudding:  Cabbage pudding. Thinly chopped cabbage, fried with syrup, baked with a thick layer of seasoned ground beef in the middle.

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Some Kålpudding and Janssons Frestelse  preparation.

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Fläskkorv: large pork sausage

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Prinskorv: “Prince sausage”  mini hotdog-like sausages

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Köttbullar: The homemade meatballs, of course.

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Brunkål: Brown Cabbage, served as a side dish. Cabbage is boiled and fried and seasoned with vinegar, salt and syrup.

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Christmas Bread

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Cheese, bread, butter, and salad.

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My Christmas feast. Bottom center is the Kålpudding and Janssons Frestelse.

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Alongside we drank Julmust, beer, and snaps.

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Julmust is a very popular cola beverage that is Christmas themed and has a distinctly different “holiday” flavor.

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After dinner and before the presents we eat Struva and glögg - a Swedish mulled spiced wine served warm with raisins and almonds.

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Later that evening we enjoyed Swedish cheesecake, icecream, jam, and cream with coffee, tea, and liquor.

If we had any young kids in the family our Christmas eve festivities would be very different, having to schedule around the must-watch 3:00pm Christmas cartoon, “Kalle Anka,” or as we know him – Donald Duck.  Every year half of Sweden faithfully sits around the television and watches “Kalle Anke och hans vänner önskar God Jul” or “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Which would probably be followed by a mysterious Santa knocking on the door and giving out presents.

Christmas eve is also filled with tons of chocolate treats and candy, both as dessert and presents.

On Christmas Day, as if we aren’t full enough, we have our next food tradition – Lutfisk served with boiled potatoes.

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Lutefisk is a white fish that is air dried to later be re-hydrated with water and lye. The fish soaks in the lye water for weeks before it is ready to be cooked. The fish has a strange consistency the first time you eat it, but it is easily forgotten because it is served with a ton of white sauce, salt, and pepper. There are very small bones in the fish,  so be careful!

One last thing – it is very popular to make gingerbread houses in Sweden, as well as to eat ginger bread cookies throughout the month.

This gallery contains 23 photos


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Cooking Swedish: Falukorv med Bostongurka

Today we pondered what we can have for dinner and my husband told me to look up “Falukorv med Bostongurka”  After looking at a few photos, I chopped a few veggies, spread some condiments, sprinkled some cheese, baked, and enjoyed!

 

Falukorv is a large traditional sausage made of pork, spices and potato starch flour. It is commonly eaten fried in a few popular meals, as well as atop of a smörgås. Bostongurka is a type of pickled relish that is very popular in Sweden.

This is a pretty common Swedish meal, something kids learn to make in school. It would be considered a “vardag” or “husmanskost” food, because it is simple, traditional, and made with common local ingredients.

Vocabulary

Sausage – Korv

Cucumber – Gurka

Pepper – Peprika

Tomato – Tomat

Onion – Lök

Cheese – Ost

Dinner – Middag


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Swedish Cake Culture

This week my husband came home with flowers and a cake for me because I took my SFI C test to move onto the next Swedish course and am very positive about it.

Having cake in Sweden is a very traditional was of celebrating, but it is a little different than I am used to. If I were truly Swedish, I would have bought my own cake.

Whenever someone has a birthday, achieves something, gets a promotion, graduates, etc.,  it is that person who buys or brings their own cake to celebrate. No need to worry about who will bring the cake,  it is always the person of honor. The upside is you can always buy your favorite type of cake for your own special occasion, instead of pretending to enjoy the flavor someone else picked out (Although, don’t we all buy princess tarta anyway?).

This tradition is very strange for me (And other expats I’ve met), as I wouldn’t ever think about buying my own cake in the U.S., but wait for some one else to do it.

If you are congratulating someone is  Swedish you would say “Grattis!,” but if you say “Gratis” instead you are saying Free.


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Crayfish Party!: “Kräftskiva”

I celebrated my first Kräftskiva this weekend! With special decorations, special food, dedicated drinking songs, and plenty of snaps –  to call it a crayfish “party” isn’t enough. All throughout the month of August Swedes are throwing or attending Kräftskivas. While its not an official holiday, it is a festive tradition with history.

The king of Sweden started eating crayfish in the early 1500’s, then in the mid-late 1500’s crayfish were brought to Swedish waters. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that normal country men began to eat them. In the early 1900’s a bacteria started to wipe out the crayfish in Europe. It became illegal to fish for crayfish in Sweden throughout the year, except for a short period in August – thus Kräftskiva, a celebration of being able to eat crayfish once a year. Even now that the prohibition was lifted in 1994, and crayfish are readily available all year long, Swedes wait until the “Kräftpremiär” date to celebrate and eat.

The Man on the Moon plays a big part in Kräftskiva, presumably because fishing for crayfish takes place at night, guided by the moonlight. Continue reading


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The Magic of Midsummer

The summer solstice is a pagan holiday when the sun rises the earliest and sets the latest which was said to be the most powerful day of the year, when magical elements are strongest. In Sweden the summer solstice is called Midsummer, once celebrated by sacrificing for fertility.

 Nowadays it is celebrated differently, but traditions and symbols are still recognized. Midsommar traditions in Sweden are so beloved and important that the day was debated to become the country’s Nationaldag, and to many people it is.

Until 1953 Midsommarafton (Mid summer eve – Most Swedish holidays are celebrated on the eve, instead of the day) was always celebrated on June 23rd. Now it is always observed on the Friday that falls between June 19th and the 26th, giving Swedes a three day weekend to properly enjoy the longest day of the year.

You can’t have a Swedish midsommar with out the maypole, “midsommarstång” (Midsummers pole). The central part to midsommar is decorating, rising, and dancing around the maypole to traditional music and traditional clothing.

One of the most popular maypole songs isSmå grodorna”  (The Little Frogs), where the dancers hop around the maypole.

“Små grodorna, små grodorna är lustiga att se.
Ej öron, ej öron, ej svansar hava de
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack,
kou ack ack ack ack kaa.”

“The little frogs, the little frogs are funny to observe.
No ears, no ears, no tails do they possess.
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack,
kou ack ack ack ack kaa.”

Not only do maypoles get adorned with flowers and ribbon, but it is also common to decorate a crown as well. From wild flowers, string, and ribbon it is traditional to make and wear a “midsommarkrans.”

From 2010, when we celebrated mid summer in New York City

Flowers and greenary are an important part of Midsommar, once believed to hold the potency of magic on this day. Herbs are stronger, plants can bring good luck and health, and picking nine different sorts of wildflowers and placing them under your pillow would make you dream of your future spouse on this night.

Fresh Swedish strawberries are a top priority when celebrating Midsommar.

This year I picked berries for the first time ever, these small sweets are called “smultron,” and are a great addition to the strawberry desserts.

So very tiny, tasty, and fun to pick!

We had bowls of strawberries and smultron with mint and vanilla ice cream. We also had a strawberry and whipped cream cake, and a rhubarb and Strawberry pie!

Midsommar is also known for the new potatoes. Fresh from the ground, covered in dirt, and ready to be scrubbed –  new potatoes are one of the centerpieces of the midsommar meals. New potatoes paired with an assortment of pickled herring and boiled eggs followed by fresh strawberries is the way to go.

Aside from the food, the flowers, the magic, the maypole, the dancing, and the music, there are the games. Many friends and families play group games on midsommar as part of the festivities.

We played a classic Swedish game called “Kubb”

The real magic though, is in enjoying the 18 hours of daylight with great company.

Glad Midsommar!


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Valborg- How We Welcome Spring in Sweden

The warmth of Spring showed its shy face yesterday, and we think it’s here to stay this time. We felt the sun on our faces, admired the beautiful blue skies, enjoyed the smell of barbeques cooking, saw people enjoying picnics, and soaking up the rays – sunbathing anywhere and everywhere. We spotted our favorite gelato truck and knew it is finally Spring. What perfect timing as yesterday was Valborgsmässoafton, which is the eve of Walpurgis Night – a time to welcome and embrace Spring. Thankfully it embraced us right back.

This celebration of Spring is common in many European countries but not in the States so I was very excited. The festivals are most popular in Southern Sweden (maybe because of the climate difference?) and may be influenced by the pagan Northern European traditions of May Day. Large bon fires litter the Swedish towns as the main event for the celebrations, which is said to have originated because on May 1st farm animals were allowed out to graze and fires were set in an effort to protect them from predators.

In Halmstad our bon fire is set up on the Nissan River- out of reach for any pranksters to light it early.

The band started at 7:30 and people started to gather an hour before, some early to enjoy a picnic in the park and others to grab a good spot near the river. Thousands of people show up to listen to the music, the choirs, the speech, and watch the fire burn. Traditional spring songs are a huge part of the celebration, along with the national anthem.

The speech was given by the headmaster of the university, aside from a few random words the only sentence I caught was “We hope Spring always comes back.” The first choir was students from the school, named köörmit (kör=choir, the name is a wordplay to sound like Kermit) and the second is the ‘Men Choir’- which oddly enough was lead by a women conductor.

Some examples of traditional Spring songs:

Vintern rasat ut
Vintern rasat ut bland våra fjällar,
drivans blommor smälta ned och dö.
Himlen ler i vårens ljusa kvällar,
solen kysser liv i skog och sjö.
Snart är sommarn här i purpurvågor,
guldbelagda, azurskiftande
ligga ängarne i dagens lågor,
och i lunden dansa källorne.

The winter raged among our peeling;
drift flowers melt down and die.
The sky smiles in the spring’s bright nights,
sun kisses lives in forests and lakes.
Soon it is summer here in purple waves,
gold coated, azur shifting
lie the meadows in today’s flames,
and in the grove the wells dance.

Majsång (Sköna maj, välkommen)

Sköna maj, välkommen till vår bygd igen!
Sköna maj, välkommen, våra lekars vän!
Känslans gudaflamma väcktes vid din ljusning;
jord och skyar stamma kärlek och förtjusning;
sorgen flyr för våren, glädje ler ur tåren,
morgonrodnad ur bekymrens moln.

Beautiful May, welcome to our area again!
Beautiful May, welcome, our playful friend!
emotions godly flame rose at your dawn;
earth and clouds stutter love and delight;
sorrow flee for spring, happy smiles from tears;
morning blush from troubled clouds.

At around 8:45 we spotted a kayak approaching with two flames, which were held by a small boy who looked very excited to light the fire. They circled and lit it from all sides- quickly plumes of smoke filled the air.

Then came the flames. Then out came the ducks! Only two or three but they swam away at full speed:

Once the fire was roaring more kayaks came to perform the torch parade. There was 10 kayaks with fire at the front and end of each. The circled the fire a few times, making different shapes and patterns.

The fire did not burn for as long as I expected, I’m sure it lasts longer in other places where this tradition is an even bigger deal such as Goteborg, Uppsala, and Lund which are known for having a large Sista April (Last Day of April) celebration including events from the graduates of their universities.

For someone who has never experienced such a celebration it was something special. What else is better than celebrating wonderful weather? This is the time when Sweden shines.

The rest of the night was celebrated with great friends and liquor, the best way to spend Valborgsmässoafton.


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Swedish Easter

A light dusting of Easter snow.

Daffodils are a very festive part of Easter- here they are named Easter lillies. Tulips also make an appearance.

Paper Easter eggs are everywhere, they are used as gifts, decoration, and just a place to hold Easter candy. It is common to save them from year to year to display. This is a common size, although they come smaller and larger- more ornate and fancy as well as less dressed up and plain.

The biggest Easter egg I’ve ever seen!

My favorite Easter decoration are the plumes of colorful feathers found everywhere. Attached to birch twigs, these beautiful rainbow of colors are the centerpieces on tables, in store window displays, casually adorning windowsills, and some times even found in the branches of trees outside, near houses or on the side of a road. I think they are the perfect Easter decoration, bright and playful but elegant and beautiful- a nice contrast to dyed eggs.

Easter cola – Paskmust. (It’s the same as Julmust, Chrstmas cola, but with a different festive label) Unique taste, very popular to have during the holidays.

On Friday we had a feast of traditional Swedish food: herring, ham, meatballs, sausage, potato and meat casserole, and most importantly for Easter- lots of eggs. Both hard and soft boiled.

The next day we enjoyed a fish soup and this wonderful lamb with orange marmalade sauce.

Great food and even better company! Easter in Sweden is something special. So much more enjoyable once you begin to understand the traditions and culture. I didn’t see any kids dressed as witches, but the topic did come up at the diner table!

 


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Witches in Sweden

Today, the Thursday before Easter, when you are out and about in Sweden you might find yourself face to face with a witch. A child pretending to be an Easter witch, “påskkäring” dressed in colorful mismatched aprons and scarfs with painted rosy red and pocked cheeks. Going around dressed as a witch knocking on doors in hopes of candy or money in exchange for a drawing might sound like Halloween to me or any other American, but in Sweden it is part of Swedish Easter tradition. A tradition with roots that reach back hundreds of years.

In the 15-1600’s the Thursday before Easter, “skärtorsdag,” was a dangerous and frightful day; the day when all the witches (häxor) flew to a mountain called blåkulla to visit the devil. This visit was to “meet,”  “party,” “dance,” “dance naked,” or “have sex” with the devil (djävulen) – depending on who you ask or where you read. Regardless of what the witches did with the devil, they had to fly on their broomsticks to & fro over Sweden in order to get there. People made huge fires to ward the witches away from landing near them, they closed their chimney flutes and shutters, they shot into the air. This fear struck on both Thursday and three days later upon their mass return on Saturday. These witches were said to go to church on Sunday with everyone else, but would be discovered because they said their prayers backwards.

The execution of the last witch in Sweden was in 1720, with gruesome witch trials in the 1670s, since then children have started to take on the role of the witches. You will also find many houses witch decorations, both beautiful and ugly. Even the black cat is found, believed to be the devil. It is not only the witches that stuck around throughout the years, but also the fires. If you celebrate Easter in Sweden be prepared to encounter some bonfires and/or  fireworks.

Easter is a very big deal in Sweden, up there with Christmas and Midsommar. Instead of celebrating on Sunday, as I am used to, we celebrate on Saturday in Sweden with a four day holiday. Some Swedes will go to church for pask, but as you can tell by this hexing tradition alone, Swedish Easter predates Christian beliefs. There are also eggs, chickens, rabbits, candy, and more traditions that I am more familiar with that I will go into detail about when I am back from our Easter weekend, “påskhelgen,” with family.

The very first time I came to Sweden it was for Easter three years ago, upon arrival I saw a little girl in the airport dressed as a witch and I thought that either she or I was crazy. Now that I know what it all means I wish I snapped a photo. This might not be my first Easter in Sweden but it all means so much more now, the culture, tradition, food, and language.

Glad påsk! Happy Easter!

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