I have no idea what to expect for Christmas. So far everything has been a (most pleasant) surprise. I've experienced my first julbord (traditional Swedish Christmas buffet), my first real month of Advent celebrations, my first Swedish Christmas desserts, and my first Lucia ceremony.
The julbord was an very unique experience. At a mere $60 per person, you dine on cold meats, cheeses, breads, seafood of all varieties (eel, pickled herring, crayfish, and more), potatoes, pork, and of course, meatballs. The only salads were either creamy salads similar to coleslaw, or an olive pasta salad of which I was the only person partaking. We went with Martin's parents and it was an experience I won't forget! (And to those of you who know me well -- no, I did not eat eel or herring or anything that still had eyes in it.)
Advent is observed all across Sweden, by religious and non-religious alike. It is difficult to find a house that does not have Advent "candles" in their windows. (They make a killing selling electric Advent lights.) It's not an exaggeration to say that 95 per cent of the population has one or more adventljusstaken, or julstjärna (Christmas stars) in their house. Our neighbours told us about their friends who bought something like ten adventljusstaken for every window of their new home. This makes every street a beautiful, cheerful reminder of the coming of Christmas, but serves a practical purpose -- warding off the darkness. Dusk comes around 3 p.m. these days, and at times it seems that the sun has barely risen and already it sets. Depression can set in easily, but Martin says I am doing pretty well with the winter, which is encouraging to hear.
But back to Advent and Christmas. All throughout December there have been special performances, Advent singing and at church, fika after every service. (Fika is one of the best Swedish customs of all -- the best translation in English would be "coffee", except it's so much more than that.) Usually fresh bread, butter, cheeses, meats, small sandwiches with tomatoes and cucumbers, and baked goods. Most of the Swedes we know like to bake and I like to enjoy their baking. The most interesting baked good is called, literally translated, Lucia cats, an s-shaped pastry baked with saffron and two raisins. If you haven't had saffron -- it's a rare and extremely expensive spice -- it tastes pretty unique, especially baked in a pastry. People often get small smiles when I have bit into one and ask me what I think of them. Martin's cousin Erik and his girlfriend Malin were the first ones to bring them to our house, and pointed out as I tried them that they have been eating saffron pastries at Christmas since childhood, and although it's normal to them it must be very strange to me. (For the record, they are alright.)
Last weekend was also a weekend of firsts, as I sang for the first time (as an adult) in a Christmas concert and sang part of "Stille Natt" (Silent Night) in Swedish. We sang in a church built in the late 1700's, where the acoustics were absolutely astounding. (There is a point in the church where one can stand and hear, clear as day, a person speaking on the opposite side of the church. I've never experience anything like it.) Concert night saw about 400 - 500 people in the church, and I am SO glad I didn't goof my Swedish!
We also visited a julmarknad (Christmas market) in a nearby town and it was one of the loveliest experiences I've had. Martin bought freshly roasted almonds, (so hot and chewy and delicious I could have died) and we walked around looking shops and stalls in the old town, which was built up in the 1500's.
And last, but most certainly not least, my first Lucia ceremony. This is a ceremony based on the life and martyrdom of a Christian saint named Lucia, who was tortured and killed for the vow of chastity she had made to God. (That's the short version of the story.) The ceremony now falls in December, where a young woman dons a crown of lit candles, accompanied by other children dressed in white, and carries food -- now candy -- and a blessing to people. If you have a hard time imagining what this would look like, check out this video. WARNING: It's a terribly shot video and don't watch past the first 30 seconds. I picked this video because it's the closest to the Lucia I experienced.
So, this Lucia ceremony was extra special, as staff from the school arranged with Martin to come by our house around 6 a.m. Martin didn't share this with me. The clock said about 5:45 a.m. when I awoke to footsteps in our house and singing as one, two, three, four, no, seven people filed into our bedroom singing Santa Lucia and carrying candles. They blessed us, gave us our candy, and filed out again singing, and it was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had! The crowd included three male staff (two guys in their 20's) and one of the founders of the school who is in his late 60's. Along with his wife, and three other staff women. Now comes the exciting part. Not having been aware of all that was to come, I neglected to put on pajamas the night before! I have never felt so strange, huddled under the covers for fear something might fall out and I would be completely mortified. The two staff guys came over to bless me with their little star wands and I am sure I visibly shrunk under the covers! Check out the photo. You can barely see me and I didn't dare touch the bag of candy they put on me.
There's a little rundown of a bit of Swedish Christmas, and I am interested to see what Swedish Christmas food will be like, and how Martin's family celebrates together. God Jul and Merry Christmas!