A celebration of the longest day

There are two very important times of year in Sweden. One is the time of longest dark, and the other is the time of longest light. Both are celebrated with eating, drinking (and drinking), good company and the playing out of traditions that have long outlasted explanations. And, generally, joy.
We’ve been marking the lengthening of days for some time now, noticing that when we’re walking home late/early at night that the sun never properly sets, leaving the sky a hazy blue even down here out of sight of the Arctic circle. As of last week the balance tipped, and from now on the darkness with get darker and longer until we won’t be able to imagine relaxing in the sun on our balcony at 10:30pm.
A sad thought indeed. However before we and the rest of Sweden let ourselves dwell on that we all have a celebration. The day of longest light*, in which we eat, drink, enjoy good company, dance and admire a large somewhat phallic pole.

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

Midsummer! Or to be more precise, Midsummer’s Eve. Being the good little Swedish residents that we are, we had a picnic planned at Slottskogen, where we had celebrated the day last year. Loaded up with food, drink and a bbq we met our friends at the park and were soon settling in for an afternoon of merriment. There was cider, the lighting and subsequent going out of the bbq, napping in the sun and eating, which are fairly typical of any picnic. Slightly atypically for us, more or less the whole picnic was also in Swedish, which was the lingua franca between us and our Czech friends.
As we chatted and ate, the sun played hide and seek above us and we joked that the Summer had finally arrived during the warm patches of sunlight, and was replaced by Autumn as the clouds covered the sky. By looking to the north we could even see if we might get another moment of Summer and once past watch as it eventually drifted over the horizon. Though it had been nicer last year, we reminded ourselves in true Göteborsk fashion that it could always be worse.

After a few hours had passed, people began to gather around the garlanded pole set in the middle of the grass. Closer up we could see the two loops hanging from the cross piece, yellow and blue flowers tucked among the green foliage. Our attention was soon taken by the movements of the crowd, who began to spin in circles, some with three people and some with as many as 40. On a stage fiddlers, flutists and singers called out instructions and belted out the traditional songs. Among the crowds people in traditional costumes lead the dances, demonstrating the claps and kicks and leading their circles in twisting snake like lines, all while singing along. Many of those not in costume also seemed to know the words, and I can only assume that part of every Swedish child’s education involves learning the song about the drunk shoemaker, the one about the various pigs that you and I are, how to clean the house before going to church and of course the frog song.

Dancing crowds

Dancing crowds

I asked my mum about this, and her response would have been matched by everyone else on the field, which was that of course we sing songs about animals and drunk shoemakers. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, when we forget about the staidness of everyday life and give ourselves over to dancing, laughing and making fish noises. That is tradition after all; something we do as a group, that defines us and keeps us together, despite whatever silliness anyone else may think about it.

The young folk dancers leading the way

The young folk dancers leading the way

After at least an hour the dancing was over and the professionals took to the field. Most looked to be over 60 but were as spry as anything, and definitely knew what they were doing. They twirled, skipped and clapped to the applause of the crowd, with steps that I hope they’ll pass on to the other, younger costumed folk. There were no songs about animals, but rather folk jigs and reels that got your foot tapping and conjured images of an idyllic and possibly imaginary rural past, all green fields, mooing cows, clean kirtles and neatly ordered hedges.
As we had watched, we found a couple of friends in the crowd and spent the rest of the long patch of sunlight chatting and enjoying icecream as the light began to fade.

Before too long it was time to pack up, but before we went home we paid a visit to the animals on the hill. The first that we saw was an elk, lying down by a fence and not looking all that well. We were amazed as usual by its size and strange combination of elegance and ungainliness. We also saw the deer, ducks, swans, geese, goats and ponies, most of whom seemed to be trying to get some sleep despite the light and visitors.
As 9:30 passed and a sunset bloomed overhead we headed to the tram stop, hugging and waving our friends goodbye before stepping on our own tram and making our way home.

Another Midsummer’s Eve done, half the year has past and the lengthening of days has begun, at least until the next tipping of the balance in the dark of winter.

*Technically the celebrations don’t always take place on the solstice, and the dates are adapted each year to make a long weekend. It’s usually within a week of the solstice though.

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The days after Jul

The day after Jul has always been associated with resting and recovering, at least in my old home. We’d wake up late, have a brunch of leftovers, reorder our rooms with the new gifts, flick through the inevitable books and consider the age old question of whether it’s sensible to float around in the pool on the new inflatable sofa while holding a full glass and avoiding spillage. And how long it would be before my sister bombied in and overturned both the sofa, myself and the glass.

For various reasons, not limited to the lack of inflatable sofas and my sister, we had a different day after Jul last year. It was on the 25th for a start.

As mentioned previously, I’m used to having Jul on the 24th according to Scandinavian tradition. I am also used to having it again on the 25th, according to Australian tradition, which isn’t followed in Norway. As such rather than two Juls we had two Boxing Days, both of which we spent in Norway. The first was spent recovering from Jul, heading out for wintery exercise and then a family meal and the second getting into a bit more exercise and finally beginning our journey back to Sweden.

The Julenek

The Julenek

After we had woken up and refreshed ourselves, we had a chat with family back in Australia. Thanks to the miracle of Skype, we were able to chat to a whole party of people enjoying a sunny bbq, and try to get our collective heads around the 50+ temperature difference at either end of the call.

We then packed on layers of jackets, beanies and gloves, grabbed some skiis and went out for some much needed exercise. It isn’t the custom in Norway to spend a whole day relaxing when there is snow outside, and it seemed that the rest of the town had the same idea. My own attempts weren’t quite as skillful, but we managed about an hour before we called home for a ride. While we waited I realised that my eye lashes were freezing together for the first time in my life, and my partner was developing long, frosty threads on my beanie and scarf. Around us the sunny weather belied the cold, and almost fooled us into not noticing the cold. Almost.

If only there was an automatic setting

If only there was an automatic setting

Back at home we unlayered ourselves and dressed up nicely for the visitors who would be arriving soon. They were the family we had met to visit the graveyard the day before, and soon after we had smartened ourselves up they arrived and the Jul celebrations continued.

The tradition on this day is to have a long lunch on the leftovers from the Jul dinner and have another go at the schnaps, which is what we all duly did. Chat, food, jokes and laughter rolled around, and soon we found ourselves under the tree enjoying a selection of biscuits, cakes and treats. The eating and chatting continued long into the evening, and then the guests departed with hugs and hopes to see each other again before too long.

Evening falls

Evening falls

In the relative quiet by the fire, my partner and I unwrapped the final gifts that had been sent my his family, that we had kept back until the Australian Jul day. More chatting, sipping wine, playing with the nutcracker, snacking and reading followed, finished off by sleepy goodbyes and curling up for one last night in Norway.

The nutcracker

The nutcracker

On our final day we decided to have one last go on the spark, and see if we could take some photos at Maihaugen, the local open air museum. The temperature had dropped even more by this time, and clouds covered the sun, so despite the beautiful surroundings and our energetic walking and kicking along, we were soon chilly. During the walk back my chin went completely numb and I ceased to have any feeling in my toes. We did have fun sliding down slopes on the spark, though and going ‘weee’ in a way that I hope didn’t disturb the neighbours.

The stave church at Maihaugen

The stave church at Maihaugen

Before too long is was time to pack and get ready to go, and as we did so snow began to fall, the first we had seen during our trip. So it was with the outside world slightly muffled by falling snow that we said goodbye to our hosts, trying to express our enjoyment and gratitude for the wonderful Jul we’d been invited to share. Then we were out, in the car and then at the station, tromping over to the waiting train.

The snow fall

The snow fall

Jul was over for another year, our first white christmas and hopefully not our last. It was one of the loveliest I have had, and I hope that my writing conjures up the memories of it for you as writing it has done for me.

Marzipan pigs, almonds, family and light

An unexpected benefit to having parents from Scandinavia and Australia is that not only do you get an untraceable accent but two christmases. I can still recall the glee of opening presents a day before everyone else I knew, and the conviction that I’d better not question it in case my parents changed their minds.

The tradition has always been to have a big lunch with family and friends, and then in the evening, when the children’s patience had reached fever pitch, someone would burst in wearing a santa suit and the unwrapping would begin. Over the years the unwrapping would creep earlier and earlier, and the santa suit was left in the cupboard, though the dinner and gathering of those nearest and dearest always remained. These are the traditions I associate with christmas, and what I had expected to an extent when we were invited to the Norwegian family Jul last year. A few weeks prior to Jul I got an email detailing what would happen, a list of traditional meals and events that we would be following. We were intrigued and I was  slightly nervous that we would upset the carefully orchestrated flow of the holidays. As it turned out I needn’t have worried, though perhaps more effort at stretching the capacity of my stomach may have helped.

Julafton morning light

Julafton morning light

So it was that when the 24th dawned and we had all enjoyed a hefty breakfast, one of the important family rituals was prepared. I set up my laptop in the study and made a call across the world, and was soon chatting to my family, who were drying off from a dip in the pool. We marveled at the snow and 30+ weather outside our respective windows, gossiped and laughed and tried to bridge the gap of distance as much as technology can allow.

After the call was finished my partner dashed off to try out his skis for the first time, which my cousin had kindly waxed the night before. While he zipped back and forth on the snow I relaxed at home taking photos and helping with some work. There were a few visitors who stepped in to wish the family God Jul and hand out biscuits and best wishes, and before too long the skiers returned, cheeks flushed from the cold and ready for a little something to eat.

Jul decoration

Jul decoration

Lunch on Julafton in this house is risengrynsgrøt, or rice porridge, served with butter, sugar and cinnamon and crucially one almond. The almond is mixed into the rice and whoever happens to find it in their serving gets a chocolate covered marzipan pig. My cousin was the current reigning champion, with the last 5 almonds under his belt, and so seemed fairly confident of victory. But what about beginner’s luck? Thus ensued a meal of careful munching, poker faces and surreptitious poking through the thick, milky rice. After the first serving no one admitted to finding the almond and so second servings were offered, and despite my stomach beginning to groan I got a few spoonfuls. With tensions mounting and suspicious glances filling the room, my spoon hit something solid. I am terrible at poker faces, so when I spat it out a few minutes later, I think I had lost the element of surprise. There was cheering though, and cries of ‘You come to my house, and you take my pig!’ from my cousin and among it all I received the pig. Victory was sweet, even if I did feel as though I could never eat again.

Traditional wafer cakes

Traditional wafer cakes

All the excitement and eating required a bit of relaxing so for the next few hours we sat around, read a bit and helped with preparations for dinner. As the light faded from the sky we headed out the door for another tradition, with family I hadn’t met and would never meet.
The first time I had visited had been a few days after Jul the previous year, and we had been taken to the graves of my grandfather and great grandparents. Their gravestones had been slightly reclaimed by the snow that had been cleared not long before and the candles were still there. It was this tradition that we would be continuing.
The first stop was my aunt’s mother’s house where my uncle and his wife were staying. After a brief stop to say hello and introduce ourselves we were on our way to the church. Inside a mass was underway, the notes of Silent Night drifting out to us as we made our way past the crowds of candlelit gravestones. All around us candles flickered and families stood, clearing snow or lost in thought. There was a continuity there that I haven’t seen in Australia, where generations are so often split up by oceans and forgetting.
Soon we found our family and after clearing the snow off the stones a candle was lit and laid by the grave of my great grandparents. I was then given a candle and as I lit it, my aunt explained that I was the first of my grandfather’s line to light his candle. It was with great care that I set the candle down and scraped snow out of the curved lines of his name, and wished I had met him more than once.

My grandfather

My grandfather

Back at home we changed into our finer clothes, and sat around to enjoy schnaps and a Jul concert on tv. The cheers and wishes for God Jul continued, and followed us as we settled around the dinner table and watched as trays of food, sauces, creams and delicacies were piled around us. The main dish was pinnekjøtt, or salted lamb ribs, which is the traditional Jul dish of the area of Norway where my aunt’s husband comes from. It was served with mashed swede and potatoes and washed down with yet more schnaps, wine and julbrus. Full of food, drink and good spirits there were speeches to accompany the meal, about welcome, family, traditions and gratitude, and cheers all round.

When we reached the point where we absolutely couldn’t fit anymore food in, we tidied up and relaxed around the fire. A box of music appeared by the piano and my aunt treated us to Silent Night and a few old Norwegian carols and I wondered if anything would ever feel more Jul-ey than this.

A skier in the tree

A skier in the tree

The Jultree soon called us and we settled around for the last of the big events. There was no santa suit or ho ho ho-ing, but anticipation as my aunt’s husband announced each gift and we all watched the unwrapping. Our gift to them, a candelabra, seemed to be appreciated and stayed lit for much of the remainder of our stay. In return we got handknitted mittens in a local design which turned out to be the warmest mittens we have owned so far. I was also given some pieces of family heritage, two wooden spoons hand carved by my great grandfather. I felt, and feel, privileged to be entrusted with them.

After the unwrapping was complete and the wrappings had been gathered, dessert was served around the tree. It was handpicked cloudberries in homemade wafer cones with cream, and was delicious.

Replete with food, gifts, drink and happiness, we sat around until late, chatting and reading until the struggle to keep our eyes open became too much. With more calls of God Jul and best wishes, we climbed the stairs and slept the sleep of the contented.