Sunday, April 24, 2011

5 (odd) Swedish celebrations for traveling kids and adults

When we arrived in Gran Canaria on our recent family vacation, there was a carnival in progress on that  same day. My brother tried to find out exactly why the carnival was happening, but when he asked a local woman she just gave him an hilariously exasperated look and said "Because it's the carnival". Of course.

Experiencing the holidays and traditions of other countries is a great part of the experience when traveling with children. It introduces kids to something new and different, maybe even something fun, and shows them that there isn't just one set way of doing things all over the world.

Sweden, the country where I was born and grew up, has quite a few more or less unique (or odd) traditions, and my children have experienced some of these. Here are 5 traditional celebrations you might encounter when in traveling in Sweden:

1. Easter - It's Easter Saturday here in Canada when I'm writing this, but if I was in Sweden, there might be some children knocking on the, door expecting me to give them candy or coins. And they might be dressed up as "påskkärringar", "Easter old-ladies", usually meaning they'd wear skirts, scarves on their heads, and that their cheeks would be colored bright red or pink. To be really traditional, they'd collect their coins and candy in an old coffee pot.

I'm not totally sure about how this tradition got started, but it has something to do with the fact that in Swedish folk lore, witches ("Easter old ladies"?) flew to a special meeting place around Easter-time. Still doesn't explain the coffee pot though...

Other Swedish Easter traditions include painting eggs (which is a lot of fun for kids), and giving away chocolate and candy stuffed inside large cardboard eggs (påskägg).

2. Midsummer's Eve - "Midsommarafton" is perhaps the biggest traditional holiday in Sweden, and I think it's importance is only rivaled by Christmas. It's celebrated on the Friday between the 19th and 26th of June, and it is a Very Big Deal.

For kids, there is lots of fun to be had on Midsummer's Eve. There are cookies, cake, good food, and usually children and adults stay up late into the Swedish summer night (which is about as bright as daytime, especially in northern Sweden). More Swedish Midsummer fun for kids includes:
  • gathering flowers, branches and leaves for "midsommarstången", the May Pole;
  • dancing around the pole once it's all dressed, and 
  • picking 7 kinds of flowers to put under your pillow (it's supposed to make you dream of your spouse-to-be).

3. Kräftskiva, aka crayfish party - Crayfish was, and still is, considered a great delicacy by many Swedes. It's usually cooked in dill-flavored water and served cold with cheese, toasted bread, and various other side-dishes. Once upon a time you could only fish for crayfish in Swedish rivers for a few weeks in August, and this made the "crayfish premiere" when that fishery opened, a big occasion for feasting.

Nowadays you can buy crayfish year round of course, imported from all sorts of countries, but Swedes still have crayfish parties in early August.

If your kids like crayfish, they'll enjoy that part of this celebration, and otherwise they might enjoy the silly hats that are sometimes worn at the parties. Also, both kids and adults who didn't grow up with this tradition might enjoy the general exotic weirdness of it all. Like my Canadian husband said the first time he was at a crafish party "They make this big a deal for a meal of cold shellfish?"

4. The "surströmming" premiere - This one isn't even a national Swedish affair, it's a regional thing that is celebrated mainly in Norrland, the northern part of Sweden (where I grew up). Surströmming, "sour herring" or "fermented herring", is a traditional food in this part of the country and it is quite an experience for the uninitiated. Fair warning: it smells. And by that I mean it stinks. It's usually eaten outdoors for this very reason.

The premiere takes place in the fall when the fermented fish (canned many months previous) is finally fermented and smelly enough to be eaten. For kids the big enjoyment may not be so much eating the fish as being totally and utterly entertained by its yucky smell.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by how horrible it smelled. It also fascinated me that when the cans of surströmming were opened, the juices were promptly dumped in some far-off corner of the yard so that the flies that inevitably gathered wouldn't come too close to the table. Yes, it smells that bad.

And then you eat the fish with potatoes and chopped onions on traditional, thin, white crispbread, or thin soft bread. Sounds nuts right? Well, it kind of is. If you have kids who enjoy dares, it's a pretty good dare to challenge them to taste some surströmming. In all fairness, it doesn't taste like it smells, but I'm still not a fan.

Flight-related tidbit: Surströmming is one of the few food items I know of that is specifically banned as cargo on airplanes, something that might add to its coolness and ick-factor for kids.

5. Lucia - December 13th is Lucia Day in Sweden, and if you're in the country on this day, you will definitely know there is something special going on because you'll see:
  • lit candles everywhere in the dark, wintry night (and Sweden is really, really dark in December)
  • children singing Christmas and Lucia songs at every mall, preschool, school, church, and office
  • gingerbread cookies and yellow saffron buns with raisins (lussebullar) on offer wherever you go
  • Lucia processions with a girl dressed in white, carrying candles in her hair (Lucia), accompanied by a gathering of "tärnor" (girls in white carrying candles) and "stjärngossar" (boys dressed in white carrying gold-paper stars on sticks)
It's an excellent pre-Christmas holiday for children, providing some much-needed entertainment and festivities so that the wait for Santa doesn't feel as long.

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