Thursday, March 27, 2008

Preparing for Christmas in Sweden

Lighting up the Darkness

The darkness of midwinter settles in damply and drearily in the South of Sweden. What little stretch of daylight is available might be covered with gray sky or a misty gray dampness. When the sky turns a deep winter blue and the sun comes out, the winds are especially icy. Swedes call it “miserable weather” and plan holidays for warmer, sunny places like Italy and Spain. They don’t leave, however, until they have enjoyed seeing the first lights of advent lit throughout the cities and towns.

In early November, cranes and cherry pickers blocked walkways and streets for the purpose of stringing thousands of Christmas lights around Malmö city (as well as the neighboring towns), across walking roads and major in-roads. The tiny lights appeared as mysterious dots against gray skies promising something wonderful on frighteningly windy days when the sky turned blue.

By U.S. Thanksgiving time, tents popped up in town centers, on weekends, selling hand crafted goods. More complicated arrays of light strings swooped down and across everything in anticipation of outdoor chorus concerts, tiny carousel’s, and the many shoppers who would pass by. Thousands of candles lit park pathways and front stoops of shops and restaurants. By the first Sunday of advent, in the blowing rain and gray curtains of darkness, a message of light swelled up from the ground and lifted ones eyes as high as the uppermost windows of the many-windowed apartment buildings. More than a month of preparation led to beautifully lit cobbled streets as well as new and ancient buildings. Within most, if not each, of the windows in a house, high-rise, office building, church or storefront, stood the distinct seven candled, tiered Christmas lamp, lighting up the winter (not one of my photos of such a phenomena turned out, consider yourself warned).

From my point of view, before the flu hit me for three weeks, during Christmas and after, the people of Scandinavia (Finland, Denmark, Sweden and probably Norway, too) committed to keeping their lamps lit between 3:30 pm to 10 am from Advent through Epiphany or 20 days beyond Christmas. It didn’t matter how cold the wind, I was drawn to walking the streets or peering out our rental house windows to see how the comforting lights were displayed. Some people used the traditional lamps, some used more modern facsimiles in typical sleek Swedish design, but all celebrated the lights of Christmas.

In Höllviken, special light displays graced the centers of rotaries (or round abouts) on the main streets. Few people displayed lighted crèches or Santa’s on the outside walls or yards of their homes. One house down the street had a fancy lit entry way complete with chandelier and complementary swags of lights to each corner--all formed with Christmas light strings. There were lights along walkways and candles flickering deep inside the houses as well as at the doorsteps. One hardly noticed the darkness for the touch of human warmth displayed in so many windows. Even the narrow sea passage between Denmark and Sweden was alight with the Oresund Bridge, the red and green guiding lights for the big ships, and the huge ferries strung with more lights than usual. There were lights for the trees and bushes, too, so that gardens stood out in the darkness. When I say that trees were lit, I mean that oftentimes someone had taken the time to outline nearly every branch of the tree within their own yards.

Christmas Trees

We hardly saw Christmas trees. They didn’t even appear for sale (in rows leaning against a fence board, usually tightly wrapped) until well into December. The tradition is to put the tree up on Christmas Eve and leave it up for twenty days after. Nevertheless, by December 14th, or so, we set up a tree to enliven our home. Phil found a perfect Noble Fir (illegal to cut in Idaho!) and bought one string of lights. When I asked why he purchased only one string of lights, he said that the one string cost $20. Wow! We enjoyed what light we had. Our decorations were either home-made or those I had been collecting on our travels since we left Idaho.

Before I was sick, I purchased some of those large paper stars you can hang from the ceiling. We rigged up a little lamp to go inside one and enjoyed the other two hanging from curtain rods in the living room. Mostly, we enjoyed the lights in other people’s windows.

In fact, the consistency of each day’s lighting of the lamps became a comfort to me. Here, where I could not understand the language, I understood light and the commitment of these kind people to light up the darkness. There was more to this, however. It seemed to me that these people relished the time of darkness; relished the coziness of lighting more candles and situating other decorative points of light. This was illustrated to me by a man who had lived his whole life in Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle. He said, "People ask me how I can stand the darkness of winter, but I wouldn't trade it for any other time of year!

I tried to buy one of the seven candled lamps at a discount (they often cost between $20 and $100). However, the customer representatives told me that the lamps are so popular that they sell them back to the wholesaler for full value at the end of the season, which is more profitable than discounting them. Sigh. I bought a five candle, cheap lamp and before Christmas time was over a bulb had burnt out such that no other bulb on the stand lit. Furthermore, Phil tells me the light will be difficult to use in the U.S. because of the difference in electrical cords and such (don’t ask me to explain this, I can’t).


The Viking Museum/Community (during the summer, they live on the premises) had a one-day sale during Christmas. This Viking fort is just down the road from our little town. We enjoyed seeing the people dressed as Vikings (clothes they wear on a regular basis), watching the leather-worker, the iron smiths, the lady dying wool, as well as purchasing things made of cow horns, nails and leather. The only other time to visit the Viking Museum is in the summer, so we were fortunate they had this one other day in the year to visit. Hunter and I enjoyed ourselves as much as we could, but we both had fevers, the cold air was brutal on our lungs, and Hunter kept asking if we could go home. He does, however, enjoy the hand-made wooden sword we bought during that time.

Christmas Shopping

Phil took us to down town Malmö to go Christmas shopping just before we left for Turku, Finland. It was great fun to wander down the streets and visit the makeshift store fronts for the purchase of hand-made goods. I found a few gifts for prices far below what I could find inside the big shopping centers. No matter what, though, Hunter and I just couldn’t shop as long as we might because our strength was so low. It was good to be out among the festivities and to see Hunter’s eyes dance in the toy store. The city was beautiful, especially reflected in the canals throughout the downtown area.

Christmas Music

The greatest percentage of music heard in shopping centers and piped onto the streets was from American Christmas classics and favorites. A few Swedish songs played intermittently. We thought this pretty interesting. Most radio stations we found, in Southern Sweden, as well as into Stockholm, played Christmas songs in English, too. Have you ever heard the song, “We believe in Santa now that Grandma was run over by a reindeer last year?” Those are not the exact words, but it’s sung in country twang and is one of the strangest Christmas songs I’ve ever heard. I heard it for the first time in Sweden.

December 21st

On December 21st, (“In the Bleak Midwinter” rang in my head) we packed the car full of gifts and luggage for a road trip to Stockholm where we stayed the night before lining up to drive our car onto a Silja (means seal) Line Ferry to Turku, Finland. The drive was too long, grey, rainy and dark to be of much interest. However, while Phil and Hunter napped, I was able to drive through some lake country that was just high enough to enjoy cooler temperatures and humidity to frost the trees and fields. Such beauty was a highlight to me on such a long drive.


One particularly interesting stop was at Ljungby. Phil didn’t want to drive all the way into the town for easy entry back on the freeway. So we had two choices, McDonald’s or a restaurang (as they spell it) within a Volvo industrial building. I had in mind some nostalgically, traditionally “country Swedish” food, which I figured would mean pressing in closer to town. But, no, Phil turned toward that industrial parking lot.

A double-trailer, eighteen-wheeler was backing into an impossibly narrow section of the same building about where one might hope to park for the restaurant. I asked Phil to pull up to a man in a yellow safety suit so I could ask, “Do you speak English?”

Came the typical reply, “Little.”

“Is the restaurant for normal people or workers only?” I asked.

“Normal people can eat.”

“Is it good?” I motioned with a thumbs up.

“Is very good,” the man said with a smile, returning a thumbs-up.

Phil drove in circles in the huge parking lot to find a space. He kept wanting to park in front of one of those semi-truck entrances. We finally parked parallel to some work vans and a flatbed truck.

“It’s a truck stop, alright,” Phil said, peering at a long row of eighteen-wheelers. No one wearing civilian clothes got out of normal passenger cars toward the restaurant.

We entered the building into a long, stark stairway up to a tiny cafeteria--so tiny we had trouble standing at the tray/ordering counter and not knocking the dirty tray rack over. Phil peered at the menu a long time, trying to decipher it. He finally ordered a hamburger each for himself and Hunter. I asked for the special, which the woman behind the counter told me was “schnitzel” (something I remembered singing in “My Favorite Things” but had never actually tried).

Then, we walked two steps to a table. No sooner had we turned from the counter and I realized it must not be normal for a woman to eat in this restaurant. All eyes followed me and our little family. Phil got a big kick out of this, coming to the same conclusion. Even when he went up to retrieve our orders, I was being observed by every eye in the place. I chose to divert my attention to Hunter, who had felt cooped up in the back seat for too long and enjoyed some attention. Somehow, I made him laugh his wonderful little laugh for a good, long time and everyone in the place smiled, too. When Phil sat down with us again, everyman turned back to his food.

The fact that we spoke English was probably another curiosity.

Hands down, my schnitzel with fried potato slices and steamed broccoli was the best of all. Phil wished he had purchased it for himself, but Hunter downed half of his hamburger (which was the widest burger I had ever seen) without the smallest complaint.

We went the opposite way from the stairs, out of the cafeteria, toward the restrooms for a pit stop. In the stall, Hunter asked me, “Mommy, why do we choose to do bad?”

“Do you mean yourself?” I asked to gain some time answering this question.

“No, I mean everybody,” Hunter said, really wanting to know.

Hoo boy, what a question in such a place! I thought. And I answered the best I could, hoping to revisit both the question and better answers later in the day. How does one explain the sin-nature to a child except that by his question, he had already observed it?

We left that tiny cafeteria, with its seven candeled tiered lights in each of three windows, next to red geraniums and tiny palm trees (Don't ask me. Swedes have a thing about palm trees). It took us 8 hours to drive what was supposed to take only 5 ½ hours from Höllviken to Stockholm.

Tired of driving, we had pizza near the hotel, then let Hunter enjoy the children's play room while we checked our e-mail. Later, from our hotel room we enjoyed watching the big ferries come and go, bedecked with strings of lights. We could see a little Christmas tree stand set up in the parking lot, below. Hundreds of apartment windows in the distance confirmed the Swedish commitment to make festive this long midwinter darkness.

[NOTE: I am told that, originally, Swedes used hand-carved four-candle stands for these lights--one candle for each Sunday in Advent, lighting the candles in order each week. Somehow, the hand-hewn stands with real candles have been replaced with electric, seven light stands which people light from the first Sunday of Advent until nearly the end of January.]

No comments: