Sacred Texts  Miscellaneous  Index  Previous  Next 

Festivals of Western Europe, by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, [1958], at


NYARSDAGEN (New Year's Day) January 1

    After morning services which everyone attends, the day is spent quietly at home. The New Year's Day dinner almost duplicates the Christmas feast and always includes smorgasbord, a magnificent array of appetizers, which serves to introduce the main meal; lutfisk, a specially prepared stockfish, usually served with light cream sauce and boiled potatoes; holiday ham, and risgrynsgrot, or rice pudding dessert, with a "lucky" almond inside.

TRETTONDAG JUL (Twelfth Day, Epiphany or Holy Kings' Day) January 6

    Trettondag Jul, a church holiday which commemorates the Magi's finding of Jesus in the manger, was celebrated during the Middle Ages with ecclesiastical folk plays. In towns and cities it is still customary for Stjarngossar, or Star Boys, to present pageants which dramatize the march of the Holy Kings from the East. The lads wear white garments and white cone-shaped caps, adorned with pompons and astronomical emblems. The boys always carry large transparent paper star lanterns, mounted on long poles and illumined from within by lighted candles.

    In many country villages the youngsters, dressed in all kinds of fantastic costumes to represent various biblical characters, go about from house to house singing old folk songs and hymns that have been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. Judas is one traditional character who often accompanies the Stjarngossar. He wears a huge false nose and carries a money bag jingling with the thirty pieces of silver.

    The day following Trettondag Jul is a legal holiday.

TJUGONDAG KNUT (Saint Knut's Day) January 13

    Saint Knut's Day, the twentieth day after Christmas, brings the Swedish Yuletide to an official close. The occasion is celebrated with dances and, finally, by dismantling the Christmas trees lighted for the last time on this night.

    In some places young people dance about the Yule table while their elders sing,

Twentieth day Knut
Driveth Yule out.

    According to some authorities Saint Knut's Day originated in the laws of Canute the Great, written between 1017 and 1036, which decreed that fasting between Christmas and the Epiphany Octave should be eliminated.

FASTLAGSAFTON (Shrove Tuesday) The Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday

    The traditional luncheon treat for the last day before Lent are Fettisdagsbullar, or hot cross buns. These buns, which are filled with almond paste or a mixture of chopped almonds, confectioners' sugar, and cream, are served in soup plates with hot milk.

FASTLAGEN (Lenten Period) The forty day fast (excluding Sundays) that precedes Easter

    During Lent, when trees are still bare and the ground often covered with ice and snow it is customary to cut birch branches and decorate them with chicken or rooster feathers that have been dyed red, yellow, purple, orange, or green. As the weeks advance the twigs gradually produce feathery green shoots. The unique decoration of the green branches with their fluffy colored feathers adds gaiety and charm to many an indoor window ledge.

    In early times people switched one another with birch branches as part of spring purification rites. Today the branches serve only as picturesque symbols of awakening spring.

SKARTORSDAG (Holy Thursday) The Thursday preceding Easter

    There are many folk beliefs associated with Holy Thursday, the time when people once thought witches rode broomsticks to a Blakulla mountain rendezvous, where they stirred steaming cauldrons and uttered evil spells. Farmers tried to protect house and barn from the Easter Witch by marking crosses in tar above the doors and placing pieces of steel across thresholds. Of course, ploughs had to be placed under lock and key, and no brooms could be left about, lest witches ride them away. Bonfires were built on hilltops and rifles shot into the air to further discourage the prowling powers of darkness.

    Today old witch superstitions are the joy of Swedish boys and girls who impersonate the old crones by donning horrible masks and dressing up in gaudy colors. The children often decorate their playrooms with clever paper silhouettes of hags on broom handles, black cats, and coffee pots presumably containing witches' brew.

LANGFREDAGEN (Good Friday) The Friday preceding Easter

    The day is observed with special church services and musical programs in commemoration of Christ's Passion and crucifixion. In Stockholm and other metropolitan centers, theatres and many restaurants are closed and newspapers suspend publication.

    In olden times families observed the Good Friday custom of "birching," or switching each other with birch branches, in remembrance, people said, of the lashings Jesus suffered before the Crucifixion.

PASKDAGEN (Easter Sunday)

    Throughout the country the egg, symbol of life and resurrection, is featured in all Easter foods and Easter games. Every household has egg dyeing parties. Often eggs are decorated with delightful flower designs, accompanied by amusing rhymes; others are colored plain red, blue, green, or orange. In some places children tuck the brightly dyed eggs among rose bush branches or garden shrubbery. Egg rolling contests are the favorite Easter activity of younger boys and girls.

    Since winter sports are at their height in Dalarna, Jamtland, and many of the northern provinces at this season, thousands of people from Stockholm and other southern cities board special excursion trains and spend the Easter holidays in the country.

ANNANDAG PASK (Easter Monday) The Monday after Easter

    This church holiday commemorates Jesus' walk to Emmaus with the two disciples whose "eyes were opened" as He sat with them at meat, blessed bread, and broke it.

    Friends and relatives spend the day visiting and sipping tall glasses full of aggtoddy, or egg toddy. This beverage--a delicious mixture of egg yolk, sugar, sherry and boiling water--is as traditional to Easter as glogg is to the Yuletide festivities. Wherever groups of friends gather at this season aggtoddy is served.

MARIE BEBADELSEDAG (Annunciation, Lady Day) March 25

    Ever since the seventh century Annunciation Day has been a church holiday. This is the only day dedicated to the Virgin Mary which the Church accepted when, in 1593, the Lutheran faith became Sweden's state religion.

    In olden times people regarded March 25 as important in predicting weather for the coming months. In the province of Varmland, particularly, many quaint customs were observed on Annunciation Eve. People "honored the Sun," for example, by eating supper before sunset and retiring without lighting candles. Since cranes arrive in Sweden about this time, parents always told children that the birds would come into the house with lights, to make sure everyone had gone to bed.

    Annunciation, or Lady Day, is popularly called Waffle Day, since waffles customarily are served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Some think that the word Vaffla meaning waffle, originated from Var Fru, Our Lady, and that in time the two words became slurred and corrupted, first into Vaffer, then to Vaffla.

VALBORGSMASSOAFTON (Walpurgis Night) April 30

    This festival has survived from Viking days, when warriors of old celebrated an annual feast in honor of returning spring. Bonfires lighted on mountain tops were thought to frighten away demons of darkness and gloom. Today people observe the festival throughout the land by lighting fires on hills and mountain peaks in symbol of welcome to the lengthening days.

    This is the night when university students at Upsala, Lund, Stockholm, and elsewhere, wear their white velvet caps for the first time, pin sprays of spring flowers in their lapels and march from their fraternity and clubhouses, singing traditional Swedish spring songs. The bonfires that blaze from every height flare dramatically against the dark sky.

    In Stockholm thousands of people celebrate the festival at Skansen, the city's outdoor museum and animal park, where the tremendous bonfire of logs and tar barrels which blazes from the top of the Reindeer Mountain, is visible for many miles.

    If spring comes early many townspeople go to the country to search for the first spring flowers and spend the day out-of-doors.

KRISTI HIMMELSFARDSDAG (Ascension Day) The fortieth day after Easter

    Many old peasant superstitions exist in regard to Ascension Day, which is celebrated by special church services. One saying is that the person who fishes from dawn until night on this day will learn the hour when fish bite best and will be a lucky angler during the next twelve months.

    Another folk superstition is that "the dragon who guards hidden treasures throughout the night, exposes them to view on Ascension, when he sets them out to air."

PINGST (Pentecost or Whitsun) The fiftieth day after Easter

    Whitsun, "time of ecstasy," according to the Swedish poet, Esaias Tegner, is a two-day religious festival which is widely observed with excursions to the country, picnics, and visits to rural estates.

    City as well as country people decorate their houses with branches of green in welcome to the returning spring. Even the old brewer horses of Stockholm share in the holiday since their masters decorate their collars and wagon shafts with sprays of green.

    Annandag Pingst, Whit Monday, is a general holiday.

MIDSOMMAR (Midsummer) June 23

    Midsommar, the festival of the summer solstice, is celebrated throughout Sweden. Every town and village erects a majstang, or maypole, on the village green. The pole, usually made from the peeled trunk of a tall spruce, is characterized by a transverse bar placed near the top. Wreaths of greens and field flowers are suspended from either arm of the bar. The pole itself, wound round with evergreen garlands, interspersed with sprays of tender young birch, is crowned by the Swedish flag.

    Raising the majstang is a traditional rite in which every man, woman, and child likes to have a hand. Once the pole is in position the village fiddlers strike up merry dance tunes which have been handed down for generations in different localities. Old and young dance about the maypole the whole night through as the witching music floats through the sweet summer air. Since pagan times Midsommar has been the night of rejoicing and merrymaking over the return of spring. Nobody ever thinks of going to bed. In some places dancing is held in village barns rather than out of doors.

    In Rattvik, on Lake Siljan, in Dalarna, the dancers hold their festivities on the pier of the bridge. Often somebody tumbles into the water when merrymaking and excitement reach a boisterous climax. Leksand, another village in the same province, is especially famed for its Midsummer celebration which is one of the most traditional in the country. Throughout Dalarna, indeed, the festival is particularly colorful not only because of strict adherence to the old customs, but because of the richness and variety of the regional costumes.

    Since Midsummer Night is kind to young lovers, village girls used to practice all sorts of romantic charms which were thought to evoke visions of their future mates. One favorite rite was to pick nine different kinds of flowers which, when hidden under the pillow would surely cause a clear image of the beloved one's face.

MARTEN GAS (Martin's Goose Day) November 11

    From Skane, the province famous for geese, comes the old-time custom of feasting on goose in the fall of the year. The typical foods which are eaten at the great family Marten Gas parties are roast goose, luscious with stuffings of apples and prunes, sauerkraut and green cabbage. Blood soup is also highly esteemed. This concoction is made from the wings and neck, as well as the blood, heart, and liver of the goose. Additional ingredients are dried apples and prunes, with flavorings of ginger, pepper, vinegar, sugar, and wine.

    In some northern provinces surstromming, a fermented delicacy made from the small Baitic herring, is a special gastronomic delight of the season.

LUCIADAGEN (Saint Lucy's Day) December 13

    The Swedish Yule begins on December 13 with Luciadagen, Saint Lucy's Day. Although essentially a home festival, the day is widely observed in factories, offices, hospitals and other organizations throughout the land. Saint Lucy, represented by a young girl wearing white dress, crimson sash and lingon-leaf crown with white lighted candles, visits each household at dawn with a tray of coffee and cakes. This charming, custom originated in the legend of Santa. Lucia, a fourth-century maiden who was condemned to death during the reign of Diocletian.

   Lucia as already seen, was born in Syracuse, Sicily. Tradition says she had her eyes plucked out because their beauty attracted a heathen nobleman. She was denounced as a Christian and martyred for her faith. The story of Lucia's death was carried to Sweden. Since the saint's day comes at the season of deepest winter darkness, the legend of the young martyr whose name means "light" took deep root in popular imagination in the north. Observance of Lucia's festival in Sweden, as elsewhere, has come down through hundreds of years.

    In some parts of the country old people used to say that the Lucia Bride, clothed in white and crowned with light, might be seen at dawn moving across the ice-bound lakes, with food and drink for the parish poor. Perhaps this tradition has given rise to the modern custom of the Lucia Bride. In the homes Lucia usually is represented by the oldest daughter in the family. In towns and villages some young girl is elected to re-enact the role by taking a tray of coffee and cakes to each household. In Stockholm, Lucia is chosen by popular vote, in much the same way that beauty queens are selected in the United States. Of course, in large communities there are many Lucia Brides. In urban centers morning trams and buses are crowded with members of the Lucia group, still in costume, who have been making rounds since dawn and are going to their offices to repeat the ceremony.

    In smaller places Lucia sometimes makes her rounds alone. Often, however, she is accompanied by girls and boys of the parish. The girls wear long white gowns and carry white candles. The boys, known as Stjarngossar, or Star Boys, also wear white, and have tall peaked silver caps, decorated with star and moon cutouts. One boy holds an illumined paper star lantern which is fastened to a pole and revolves like a pinwheel. Sometimes Lucia is attended by baker boys who carry Lussekatter, or "Lucia cats," delicious cardamon-flavored buns made in X-shapes, with curled up ends and raisin eyes. These buns, together with crisp Pepparkakor, or ginger cookies, and steaming hot coffee are the usual refreshments.

    This is Mrs. Hannah Johnson's family recipe for:

Lussekatter (Lucia Buns)

1 cup milk, scalded
1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
Dash of salt
1 yeast cake, crumbled
1 egg, beaten
4 cups sifted flour
1 cardamon seed, crushed

    Add milk to butter, sugar, and salt and stir until dissolved. Cool to lukewarm and add the yeast. Stir well, then add egg. Gradually stir in flour and the crushed cardamon and beat thoroughly. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Knead on a floured board for a few minutes. Roll a small portion at a time and cut into strips about 5 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Place two strips together to form the letter X on a greased baking sheet. Brush with beaten egg. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.

    Bake in moderately hot oven (400'F) for about 12 minutes.

    Yield: Twenty-four to thirty buns.

    Lucia and her little band, like Christmas carolers of other countries, sing old Yuletide songs as they visit the various homes. Contrary to usual custom, however, the Swedish boys and girls offer, rather than expect hospitality.

    As they enter the house the young people sing these words to the tune of "Santa Lucia:"

Night goes with silent steps
Round house and cottage.
O'er earth that sun forgot
Dark shadows linger.
Then on our threshold stands
White clad, in candlelight
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

    Many interesting folk practices exist in connection with Luciadagen. The year's threshing, spinning, and weaving must be put in order for the Christmas holidays. Before this day young people finish making their Christmas presents; the housewife completes her weeks of holiday baking and finishes making the tallow dips for table and Christmas tree decorations. Floors are scrubbed, pewter, brass and copper scoured and polished; and most important of all, lutfisken, the traditional holiday fish, is buried in beech ashes so it will be sweet and tender for the Christmas feast.

JULAFTON (Christmas Eve) December 24

    The period between Luciadagen and Julafton is devoted largely to baking Christmas cakes, cookies, and breads and making the unique decorations which beautify every Swedish home at the holiday season. There are, for example, intricate paper cut-outs to put on the walls; festoons, stars, wooden toys, and straw animals--the Julbockar, or Yule goats, and the Julgrisar, or Yule pigs--to hang on the Christmas tree. The straw animals, which are found throughout Sweden, are intimately related to ancient Norse mythology; for the modern figures originated in legends of the sacred animals of the gods--the goat of Thor, the thunder god, and the pig of Frey, god of the sun.

    Before Christmas Eve, all the presents are wrapped and seated with red sealing wax. Each offering is accompanied by an appropriate jingle which generally tells something about the article or its use. These verses are read aloud when the gifts are distributed, adding much merriment to the occasion.

    A few days before Christmas the men of the family go to the woods with a sledge on which to bring back a fine straight hemlock or spruce tree and branches of juniper and pine. Soon the house assumes a festive air. The tree, set up behind closed doors, is decorated with homemade candles, with shining red apples, nuts, gingerbread figures, the straw goats and pigs and all the other delightful trifles various members of the family have made. The national flag often holds place of honor on top of the tree, while smaller flags decorate the branches.

    On Christmas Eve the family gathers at six o'clock around the kitchen stove for the time-honored ceremonial of Dopp i grytan, or "Dipping in the Kettle." The room is festive with paper garlands and candles in three branched candlesticks. The freshly-scrubbed pine floor is strewn either with straw--in memory of the manger birth--or with fragrant juniper twigs. On the stove there is a big kettle of appetizing broth containing sausages, ham, pork, and other hearty meats.

    Each person, including members of the family, guests, and household servants, sticks a slice of vortbrod, that is wort bread, on a fork, dips it into the pot and eats it with a slice of pork or a bit of sausage. Traditionally this bread is eaten "for luck" before the Christmas feast begins.

    Then toasts are drunk--sometimes in glogg, the concoction of wine, rum and spices, which is lighted and poured over lumps of sugar, sometimes in another type of beverage. After laughter and jests and the exchange of wishes for a God Jul, the company sits down in the dining room to the meal which begins with an elaborate array of smorgasbord, or appetizers, followed by lutfisk, served with boiled potatoes or with green peas and drawn butter. The preparation of this delicacy, which requires fully three weeks of soaking, cleaning, and scrubbing, is the most important item on the holiday menu. Lingon berries stewed in sugar, the Christmas ham, roast goose with prune stuffing and all kinds of preserves are among the many rich foods that may be served on this occasion.

    Dessert consists of risgrynsgrot, or the rich rice pudding which also is eaten on New Year's Day. The grot is cooked with milk and sugar and is decorated on top with intricate designs in cinnamon. Inside a single almond is hidden. Whoever gets the almond will be first to wed during the coming year. According to custom each guest should make an original jingle before taking his portion of grot.

    At last the long feast ends. The moment comes when doors are thrown open and the tree is revealed in all its glory. The father of the family sits beside the twinkling branches and reads the story of the Manger Birth. Then follow old carols in which everyone joins.

    Suddenly there is a knock at the door. The children jump up excitedly to admit Jultomten, the Swedish Santa Claus, who arrives by sleigh, drawn not by reindeer but by Julbockar, the goats of the ancient thunder god. Jultomten (usually impersonated by an uncle, brother or other male member of the family) wears a long white beard, red tunic and trousers and carries over his shoulder a sack bulging with sweets and presents for "good" boys and girls.

    Originally Jultomten, the little white-bearded, red-capped gnome who is so old nobody remembers when he first appeared, belonged to rural Sweden; but of late years he has found his way to the cities where he now seems equally at home. Traditionally Jultomten was guardian of the farm, where he dwelt in the hayloft and kept a sharp eye to all that went on. If cows were to give milk, horses to foal and crops to prosper, Jultomten had to be treated with respect--especially at Christmas time, when he always received a big bowl of risgrynsgrot as his holiday treat.

    After the gifts Jultomten brings have been distributed and enjoyed, the Christmas Eve ceremonies end with the gay dance song about the tree:

Now 'tis Yuletide again, and Yuletide will last, methinks,
'Till Easter; no, this cannot be, as 'twixt the two comes Lent!

JULDAGEN (Christmas) December 25

    Regardless of how late the family lingers about the tree on Christmas Eve, everyone--in cities as well as rural districts--is up in time to attend Julotta, the six-o'clock church service.

    In country places candles twinkle in the windows of almost every farmhouse. The winter stars hang low and bright in the sky. Chimes peel joyously through the crisp air. Sleighs drawn by prancing horses carry loads of worshipers across the frosted earth. Each sleigh is lighted by a pine torch which casts eerie shadows against the blackness of the sky. When people arrive at the church they throw their torches into a great pile, which flares up dramatically in the blackness.

    The church is lighted with hundreds of candles. Hundreds of voices sing well-loved Lutheran Nativity hymns to stirring organ accompaniment.

    "God Jul," says one Swede to another on Christmas Day. "God Jul," is the hearty response. "May God bless your Christmas and may it last until Easter."

    Christmas, which is a church holiday, is spent rather quietly with family and friends.

ANNANDAGEN (The Day after Christmas) December 26

    The day after Christmas is also a church holiday. From Annandagen until Tjugondag Knut, on January 13, parties, dances, and all kinds of festivities are held from house to house in the neighborhood. Old and young consume quantities of rich holiday foods and indulge in general merrymaking.

Next: 12. Festivals of Switzerland