Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas in the USA

Merry Christmas from Southern California. I just couldn't resist our famous "Surfing Santa, " but no, this is not the typical Christmas activity, even in the land of the sun. The Christmas Eve Linköpinglivin edition proved to be a bit too ambitious, so if you noticed the delay, thanks to you for being an admirably attentive blog reader.

Usually, the intended audience for Linköpinglivin is people who know me, but are unfamiliar with Sweden and Swedish life and culture. The Swedes who eavesdrop on this ongoing conversation, and often add to it, are a welcomed and enjoyable part of this weekly tour of Sverige for the novice.

This week however, the audience is one of a Swedish background and all the non-Swedes, mostly American, get to listen in and offer some insight into how Christmas is celebrated in the U.S. The funny thing is that it is a whole lot easier for me to stand on the outside and observe someone else's culture than to stand on the inside and try to gain perspective on what I've always known and loved. We'll see what happens as I try to take on the daunting task of describing this most beloved holiday in America.

The stereotype of an American Christmas is overdone lights and an altogether over-commercialized holiday. While I cannot pretend this is not the case, there's certainly more to Christmas than lights on our roofs and too many presents under the tree. In a society that works too much and often sacrifices relationships for the almighty dollar, Christmas provides an opportunity to re-connect and re-establish ties that bind.

Family and friends are the highlight of the season, in addition to a time of the year when spiritual reflection is widely supported through advent church services as well as acknowledgment of Hanukkah and other religious traditions. Some choose to celebrate culturally, some choose spiritual celebrations and most bring the two together for a complex mingling of great gift expenditures and deeper personal meaning. Not unlike the cultural and religious celebration of other Western societies, the U.S. celebration is an individual and collective experience that cannot be adequately described or summarized, but reveals the great diversity of a country made up of immigrants who share a big land.

Specific elements of the Christmas celebration are simply variations on a familiar theme of Santa, stockings, trees, angels, music, Christmas food and drink, red and green, the wishing for and sometimes receiving of snow, etc. Many people begin their celebration around the tree sometime Christmas Eve and continue on through Christmas Day, from where I write you at this moment. The upcoming week will be gloriously unproductive as many vacations last right through the New Year. A personal favorite, the upcoming week culminates the American college football season with multiple games referred to as "bowl games" to determine the best teams of the year and preview next season's potential favorites.

Finally, the picture above is of my cousin Alexis, five years old and full of Christmas spirit, as well as one of the few reasons I found to not move to Sweden....

Check out Linköpinglivin next week for the continued State-side editions and a special "USA: Fact or Fiction" effort aimed at debunking and confirming popular stereotypes of America held throughout Sweden, at least what I've heard from people courageous enough to share their views. Until then, enjoy the week and take some time to rest. You deserve and need it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Till alla från Linköping, Stockholm och överallt i Sverige-

Jul i Sverige är jättekul och din firande, från Lucia till vinglögg till den många ljusstaker på fönster, är mycket vacker. Jag tyckar om detta land så mycket, men under Jul, jag älskar din land (men, när jag kommer tillbaka från USA i Januari, jag vill se snö). Igen, jag tackar er för min "Välkommen" från er under min fem månad här i Sverige. Jag lämnar på tisdag till Seattle, så "vi ses nästa år!" Titta min blogg nästa vecka för något från min hem i USA.

10 words you must know to understand and appreciate Christmas in Sweden:

1. Glögg--a sweet-tasting Christmas drink similar to our cider, but, much like fika, glögg (pr. "glerg") is more anticipated, celebrated and ever-present during the Christmas season in Sweden. Non-alcoholic and, of course, alcoholic versions are widely available.

2. Pepparkakor--"Gingerbread Cookies" are as much a part of this season as Santa. Usually thin and heart-shaped, they are widely known to make you "sweet and nice" and therefore the more you have, the better. Highly recommended with glögg.

3. Lucia--Santa Lucia is the patron saint of light and her legacy is honored throughout most of Scandinavia, and especially in Sweden, during the calendar's darkest period on December 13th every year. A "Luciatåg" or "Lucia train" consists of the honorary Lucia wearing the crown of candles and a "train" of followers wearing white and holding candles singing to the delight of Swedes everywhere. The Lucia concert at the Domkyrkan Cathedral was truly something out of a fairy tale, almost angellic. See a picture above for a version of the Lucia celebration.

4. Ljusstake--Whereas Americans put Christmas lights on the roof or around the window or throughout the front yard, Swedes and Germanic Europeans in general have a refined acknowledgment of the season through lights, the "Ljusstake" in the window. See above for a picture of the Ljusstake, which is in virtually every window in Sweden this time of year, creating quite the festival of lights on facades of buildings.

5. Julbord--The Swedish smörgåsbord, Christmas style! More food and drink than you could ever imagine, buffet style, so tempering your appetite for multiple return visits is a must during a Julbord. See above for a Julbord picture.

6. Lussakatt--a special bread, widely available during fika, for this time of year. Similar to our saffron bread.

7. Julmarknad--"Christmas Markets" are the most popular community gatherings in Sweden this time of year. Besides the glögg and pepparkakor available around every turn, Julmarknads offer the best of Swedish handicraft and gifts perfect for, well, your Mom, and not too many other people.... See above for a picture of the Julmarknad in Gamla Stan's square in Stockholm.

8. Advent--The four Sundays before Christmas are known as Advent, which is recognized and celebrated in churches throughout America, but in Sweden is much more well-known among common culture. "Adventljusstake" is a very common item counting down the Sundays until Christmas.

9. Disney--You read that right, "Disney." Swedes and most Europeans do the majority of their gathering and celebrating of the season on December 24th. Every Christmas Eve Day at 3pm, the number of switched-on televisions supposedly equals that of switched-on Christmas trees as Swedes nationwide participate in their annual Christmas practice of watching Donald Duck (the lead Disney character in Sweden, not Mickey) for an hour, which I presume would make this the Super Bowl of television marketing in Sweden?

10. Snö. This fictional weather condition, "snow," used to grace the land during December, but Sweden hasn't seen a flake of snow since early November. If you have any extra, send it our way...

In a land where holidays and festivals are cherished, Sweden at Christmas does not disappoint. Music, lights, food, drink, community gatherings, "Julklappar" (Christmas gifts), public displays and decorations, celebrations both spiritual and cultural and yes, commercialism, are all a distinct part of the Swedish Jul season. Overall, much like my previous thoughts on "my" two countries, the differences are outshined by the similarities during this time of year.

I did observe however, that Sweden has a more refined, subtle and simple seasonal experience, but that is to be expected given my Linköping location and other well-known cultural differences between the U.S. and Sweden. Another significant difference is due the homogeneity of Sweden--there is virtually no public acknowledgment of other holidays such as Hanukkah or Kwanza. And lastly, "Tomta" or Santa does not come down the chimney in the middle of the night when no one is watching, but comes to the door in the middle of the day when everyone is watching and asks, "Are there any good children around here?" He then proceeds to pass out all the gifts. And while I have not heard that Santa then partakes in fika, he is indeed offered glögg and pepparkakor!

I leave for home on Tuesday not to return until 2007, but watch for a State-side edition of Linköpinglivin next Sunday, Christmas Eve, when my Swedish friends will receive a small window into an American Christmas. And if you think you already know what an American Christmas is like, I will start with the declaration that not all of us celebrate like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation, just some of us....

God Jul till alla i Sverige!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Barn" and Strollers

In preparation for my experience here, one of my cultural guidebooks stated plainly that in Sweden "children are sacred." Believing that children are sacred everywhere, I was unsure what to make of this declaration. I soon discovered what this meant.

Whether you're in Linköping, Stockholm, Uppsala, Tranås or any other place in Sweden, children ("barn" in Swedish) are more present and involved publicly than in the States. There are two reasons for this and they are inter-related. First, as a society, Sweden is prepared for the presence of children in more places. Almost all public places are accessible to strollers and welcome the excitement that children bring. Second, and this will make all American mothers wince with "what ifs," the new Swedish mother receives 18 paid months off to care for her newborn and infant child (compared to just four months in the States). This eliminates the need for newborn day care and brings me to the other part of this week's observation of Swedish culture...

...strollers. The phenomenon of strollers in Sweden cannot be understated. To a Swede, "strollers" will seem like a mundane and matter-of-fact topic for a blog entry, but that's just the point. Public places filled with strollers during every season of the year is like air, food, water and "fika" to a Swede. It's always been and always will be, so normal it goes unnoticed. Someone in Södermalm (south Stockholm) even created an icon to this phenonmenon as seen above. When I saw this statue of mother and stroller, I knew a blog entry was not far off. And these strollers come in all shapes and sizes, often including luxuries that cause strollers to be locked up when not in use. When you come to Sweden and walk around her beautiful cities, make sure to look both ways when you cross the street. If not, you may very well be run over by a bike or a stroller (cars are the least of your worries!).

Because the Swedish mother is off for 18 months, mother and child are together all day long, in private, in public and everywhere. The 18 months law gives mothers freedom from work, which leads to children-in-strollers-with-mothers everywhere you go, which only reinforces the "children are sacred" Swedish cultural truism. Not a bad way to run a society, quite frankly. I just can't figure out how the birthrate in Sweden remains similar to other developed countries--from walking around this place, it seems the population would be skyrocketing every year.

This Wednesday, Sweden pauses to honor Santa Lucia, Patron Saint of Light. With the daylight being just six hours this time of year (sun rises at 8:30am and sets at around 3pm), Lucia precedes Santa Claus. So next week, we will enter the world of Julbords, Julmarknads, Glögg, Pepparkakor and say "God Jul till alla."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"LHC" and Swedish Sports

Those of you that know me well are aware that following and occasionally playing sports takes up far too much of my mind and time. I was under the illusion that coming halfway across the world might add a deeper dimension to my life and reduce my interest in American sports. Well, thanks to the wonders of the internet, my sports following has remained at the "overly preoccupied" level all through autumn and an exciting college and NFL American football season. Picture #4 above is a special Linköpinglivin tribute to my UCLA Bruins and one of the best games I've ever seen, no matter where in the world I was watching. Down goes Troy!

Now back to Linköping. This weekend I attended my first "Sverige Ishockey Liga" match between the hometown Linköping Hockey Club ("LHC") and last place Malmö at the new Cloetta Center here in Linköping. The Cloetta Center is just a few years old and a fantastic place to watch hockey (since I'm such a conoisseur of hockey arena enjoyment). With a capacity of 8,000 seats, the Cloetta Center is large enough to be a respectable arena and small enough to make every seat a good seat and to feel like you're a part of all the action. Everything else (food, accessability, parking, entertainment) was all very similar to the previous arena experiences I have had (the last hockey game I attended was at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2003). On this day, Malmö played tough and LHC had to show some grit just to end in a tie, 3 - 3.

Overall, football (I am confident enough in my American readers not to have to qualify what "type" of football I am referring to) is the dominant European sport and Sweden is no different. Ice hockey and other winter sports are the focus all winter and track & field is very popular during summer. Cloetta Center-sized arenas are all over the country and Stockholm and Gothenburg have larger stadiums and arenas for the larger populations.

My sense is that sports are not as much of a cultural obesession here as they are in the U.S. Trying to explain to Europeans why we care so much about 18 - 22 year-olds who play sports is a challenge and also helps to put things in perspective, but generally they understand the "these are athletes that don't get paid and simply love to play" argument, though I know that this argument is questionable with the current state of college football and basketball. Yet the fans at the Cloetta Center clearly love their Linköping Hockey Club--love that White Lions cheering section--and I hear that roughly 10 million out of 14 million Swedes and Finns watched their teams clash for the gold medal in last year's Winter Olympics. The Blue and Yellow prevailed--keep up the love, Sverige!

And as for UCLA, #1 in basketball rankings and the de-throning of the crosstown rival isn't a bad way to head into the holidays with my Trojan-heavy family. See you in a couple weeks.

"Jul" has descended upon Sweden. Watch for that blog entry coming soon.

And that's a friend, Andreas, in the picture with me above. Thanks for my welcome to Linköping, Andreas. Go LHC!