March in England was the coldest since 1962 and the second coldest since records began so April’s first warm, sunny days were very welcome. Ann and Lars were over from Denmark and even though it was still too cold to sit outside in comfort a visit to the east coast and the West Mersea Oyster Bar enabled us say thanks and goodbye to the native oyster season. This is becoming a tradition for Mission Control and me; the oysters are matchless and the fish and chips pretty good too, especially after a bracing walk along the Mersea seawall or beside the Blackwater.
I like traditions and believe they can have great value even if, in some respects, we’ve lost sight of what we are celebrating. Mark Twain reflected on it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he wrote “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” and so it appears in real life. In Sweden traditions are important; anything that attracts more than three people becomes a celebration and any celebration that’s repeated becomes a tradition. As a consequence, the calendar overflows with them and, not content with those they have, more are being added. We find our travel is often framed around one particular gathering or another.
We never miss Fettisdagen – Fat Tuesday – at the start of lent, where the tradition is celebrated with fastlagsbulle or semla – delicious buns filled with cream and almond paste. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras is an old tradition with roots in the Middle Ages. It gets a ‘thumbs-up’ from me on the merits of these scrummy little treats alone but at the other end of the dental cavity scale the new kid on the block is Kanelbullens dag. This piece of nonsense, which was started in 1999, is a tribute to the cinnamon bun and while accepting that it’s a staple of any coffee morning in Sweden I wonder if it really justifies its own web page. In between Valborgsmässoafton, when the evil spirits are driven out and fertility is invoked with bonfires, singing and drinking and Kräftskiva, when we eat crayfish, sing more songs and get hideously drunk, bookend Midsommarafton, the most celebrated of Swedish traditions.
April’s weather was fine but cool although summer really started for us on 1 May, where the tradition of heralding the arrival of long, light evenings, deserted offices and phones switched to voice-mail, needs a bonfire. So a few days after the oyster season closed we were in Sweden celebrating Valborg or Walpurgis Night, as it’s known in England. The village turns out to light an enormous and – it has to be said – dangerous fire, sing folk songs and offer a few prayers for a plentiful bounty in the coming year. Actually, warding-off evil spirits and invoking fertility come a poor second to alcohol on these occasions so we were inside drinking elderberry flower and gin cocktails long before there was any danger of having to deal with first-degree burns. The singing – as always – was led by our local patriarch Henry Ekelund, who has been warding-off evil spirits since he was born in the village over ninety years ago. It was clear and cold that evening; perfect for our fire but a night of contrasts. I recall hearing the first nightingale of the summer and seeing Henry’s wife, our beloved Signe, for the last time; she passed away shortly after.
My Swedish is little better than my knowledge of brain surgery but every year they give me song-sheets and every year I stumble through lyrics about buds bursting into leaf that I don’t quite understand while trying to carry tunes I don’t really know. The important thing, of course, is being there, sharing the occasion and contributing to the friendship and community spirit that pervades the evening. I’ve found it helps if you can hold your drink, too, so I practice at every opportunity. Rejoicing in the invention of the cinnamon bun seems a little silly by comparison.
Spring and early summer in Sweden can be a mixed blessing. Time spent in the wide open spaces and lengthening days are often tempered with a chill in the air. May was cold but with clearer weather, on balance, than in England so we ended up spending most of the month there, indulging ourselves in the richness of Sweden coming to life, anticipating a warm June and looking forward to the next celebration.
As a measure of how important the return of the long, light days are midsummer’s day was at one point considered a candidate for National Day. It’s always a very social occasion but dancing around the maypole, singing traditional songs and holding hands with people you’re normally only on nodding terms with doesn’t come easily to a bloke from London’s east end. Prodigious amounts of alcohol can be consumed but tales of drunken abandon and debauchery tend to mythologise a national treasure and are not entirely true. That being said, anyone with a modicum of concern for their liver will avoid the traditional celebration of Midsommarafton. Anecdotes involving alcohol tend to define the occasion, the essence of which was captured perfectly in Ikea’s German TV ad. It was banned on the grounds of implying inappropriate rectitude but, that aside, most celebrations are far less riotous. Nonetheless, each of Sweden’s traditions is observed with great seriousness.
As a foreigner I’m very happy to go with the flow but somehow, though, I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of that singing.