Saint Lucia's Day is one of the few saints days celebrated by the Lutheran Swedes, with many remnants of midwinter pagan rituals. It is held on 13 December, the date of the Winter Solstice on the pre-Gregorian calendar.
Stockholm – Long Read

Held in thrall to the season’s light

Photo by Chad Ehlers

Stockholm – Long Read Held in thrall to the season’s light

Hello Stockholm, where the northern climate holds its citizens in thrall to the season’s light, from the long summers where they flee to country cottages to soak up the sun, to the winter solstice when Saint Lucia’s candles help dispel the winter darkness. Perhaps it is no wonder Sweden's capital is a place of extremes, famous for design but whose most famous attraction was a design disaster.

Dan Hayes
Dan Hayes Travel Writer

Low winter sun is lighting up the buildings of Stockholm’s Gamla Stan with a warm, golden glow. My watch is showing a little after 8.30am, but the daylight is only just beginning to break through the early morning mist, casting reflections across the waters that flank this most handsome district of the Swedish capital.

“Gamla Stan is the oldest part of the city,” says Nina Lindgren, who was born and raised in Stockholm and is passionate about Swedish culture. We became friends when she was in London for a few years teaching history at my son’s college. “It’s the place most visitors head to first, partly because it’s such a historic area and partly because there’s so much to see and do here.”

It is also somewhere that has a romance all its own, with narrow, cobbled streets leading to wide squares that are lined with café tables in summer. At the impressive, Baroque-styled Royal Palace visitors convene three times a week – in winter – to observe the changing of the guard ceremony.

Perhaps in keeping with Sweden’s rather democratic approach to monarchy, the event seems comparatively understated, with youthful soldiers in heavy, blue-grey greatcoats and distinctive, bright-white spats, marching, wheeling and stamping – largely in time with each other. “It’s more of an event in summer,” says Lindgren, slightly apologetically. “Then they have full bands playing music and it’s all very bright and colorful.”

Winter may be at its height, the days may be short and the wind may be whipping through its narrow streets, but Gamla Stan is certainly not without drama and color at this time of year, particularly on 13 December – the festival of Santa Lucia – when a procession of children dressed in white robes and holding glowing candles moves through the old town’s streets and squares.

Wonder and excitement in the air

It is a magic moment for the youngsters – and for adults, too. Faces are lit up by the candlelight – though those worn in participants’ hair tend these days to be more safely powered by electric bulbs – and there is a palpable sense of wonder and excitement in the air.

The festivities can trace their origins back to a somewhat darker episode, though. “The original Lucia was a Roman who helped the early Christians when they were in hiding in caves beneath Rome,” says Lindgren. “To keep her hands free to carry food and water she’d put candles in her hair to give her light in the underground passages.” Unfortunately, as was often the way with saints in Rome, things did not end well. Lucia was caught and duly martyred in 304AD.

Not unusually for Scandinavia there is more than a hint of the pagan about proceedings. Many of the children’s heads are ringed by garlands of evergreen leaves, a reminder that nature endures even in the darkest depths of winter – 13 December was, under the old Julian Calendar, the shortest day of the year and a time when evil spirits would make the most of the long hours of night to get up to mischief.

These days, though, the Santa Lucia procession reaches its conclusion in the solid precincts of the Stockholm Cathedral, known as Storkyrkan or Great Church, close to the Royal Palace. Hymns and carols are sung in anticipation of the upcoming Christmas festivities and its attendant feasting on glazed ham, meatballs, pickled herring and a literal Smörgåsbord of other delicacies.

Santa Lucia signifies a turning of the tide, the moment when light imperceptibly begins to gain mastery over darkness and when people can begin to look forward to long days of summer. That’s when many will escape from the city, attractive as it is, to summer houses out in the Stockholm Archipelago and the wider countryside.

Simplicity, functionality and light

“Lots of people own them,” says Lindgren as we warm up over a cup of coffee and a saffron-colored, raisin-studded Santa Lucia bun, a specialty of the festival. “Our family has had a summer cottage since the 1960s, though the building actually dates back to around 1900. It’s built entirely of wood and is a classic example of a traditional country house.

“What’s important in terms of its design is simplicity, functionality and light. In summer we want to make the most of the sunshine because in the winter we don’t see much of it. So we have stripped wooden floors, simple furniture and south-facing windows. Outside it’s painted in a famous red color known as falu rödfärg,” she says. “Traditionally, that was made from by-products of copper mining and it is used on wooden houses to make the timbers resistant to wind and rain. It also looks pretty good against the dark green background of a forest.”

As many as 20 per cent of Swedes own a second home to which they can retreat during the long days of summer. And the attraction of a bolthole out in the woods or on the banks of a lake is not restricted to the locals. The nation’s country cottages are being increasingly snapped up by outsiders, with Norwegians, buoyed by their enduringly strong economy, proving particularly enthusiastic investors.

“Norwegians and Swedes have a lot in common,” says Lindgren. “We both have a long history of loving the outdoor lifestyle – and lots of us aren’t really satisfied with living in cities all the time.”

They wanted to find the spirit of nature

To find out more about that cultural heritage and the desire to get away from it all in summer, I make my way to Stockholm’s Nordiska Museet, a showcase of Swedish traditions on the island of Djurgården, adjacent to Gamla Stan. Here I meet up with historian and folklorist Jonas Engman, who tells me the Swedish love affair with the country cottage can be traced all the way back to the 19th century: “That was when middle-class people from Stockholm began buying up second properties out in the archipelago. They wanted to connect to a notion of their origins and to find the spirit of nature.”

The irony, he says, was that their cozy concept of the peasant life was a long way removed from reality. “They wouldn’t have liked the real thing very much,” he says. “It would have been horrible; cold, smelly. There wouldn’t have been anything much inside most houses, not even food. In the 19th century Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe.”

Engman, though, has fond memories of his own family’s summer cottage, in the southern province of Skåne. “My parents bought a place in the late 1950s and I spent summers growing up in the sunshine. We were the incomers from the big city and we were regarded as very exotic. I was the only person in my school class who’d seen a pig or a cow. I even got to drive a tractor on one of the local farms.

“All the way from the 1960s to the 1980s people found they couldn’t make farming pay and so they moved to the cities. At the same time middle class people bought up cottages in the country. That phenomenon is still happening today. People are trying to express an idea of what it means to be Swedish, wanting to retreat to a countryside where they think they belong. We’re striving to create an aesthetic that we’re copying from late 19th-century art and design.”

The color of wood as it ages

The myths are deeply ingrained, he adds. Even that famous red hue, falu rödfärg, isn’t quite what it seems. “It wasn’t until around 1850 that Swedish people even began to paint their houses,” remarks Engman. “Before that they’d have been grey – the color of wood as it ages.”

Cottages in Skåne, meanwhile, where Engman’s own childhood was partly spent, were often white. And I do not have to travel far to see an example. Skansen – an open-air museum that uses 150 rescued buildings to tell the story of Swedish home life, design and culture – is also on Djurgården and it includes just such a house among its numerous exhibits.

In December, Skansen hosts a Christmas market, complete with carol singers and infused with the smells of gingerbread and glögg (mulled wine), but that is just one of the place’s many attractions – as the museum’s Christina Hamnqvist makes clear as we walk among building after building that has been transplanted lock, stock and barrel from across the country.

“People come here to celebrate all the major festivals of the year, including Santa Lucia. We even invented the Swedish National Day,” she says.

We stop in a cobbled street, flanked by 19th-century town houses painted in warm shades of yellow and orange and with rough-hewn wooden shutters designed to shut out the worst of a northern winter and the excesses of summer light.

They can learn to renovate old windows

“Visitors come here to connect with their past and understand their family history,” says Hamnqvist. “They can learn to renovate old windows, eat warm cinnamon buns directly from the oven in the bakery, greet the brown bears when they come out of hibernation, dress in period costume for the Autumn or Christmas markets, listen to concerts in the church, on the stage or in the houses themselves.”

We move on, via a shoesmith staffed by volunteers wearing period dress of white shirt, colorful waistcoat and cream stockings, past stilt-borne wooden storehouses and solid 18th-century farmhouses. The phrase stepping back in time was rarely more apt.

Hamnqvist says: “In every open building and the area surrounding it you can take part in a moment in Swedish history from around the 17th century to the 1930s. You can learn about the way of life in the part of Sweden that the house represents. That includes farming techniques, crafts, clothing, traditions, music, fairy tales and many other aspects of life.”

We have arrived at what could perhaps lay claim to being a precursor – at least philosophically – of many of modern Sweden’s summer cottages. Painted in yellow and grey this version once belonged the Swedish intellectual and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg and it looks much like a particularly alluring version of a modern shed. Indeed, the great man’s use of the building – which was originally at the bottom of his large garden in Stockholm – would seem familiar to many men today. He would take himself off to it when he felt the need of a quiet hour or two to contemplate, away from the pressure of everyday life.

Plants that Swedenborg himself cultivated

With a sense of historical accuracy, it is still flanked by plants that Swedenborg himself is believed to have cultivated, with roses, hyacinths and tulips that bloom in spring and summer. It is a backdrop that the great thinker might still find conducive to grappling with the intricacies of faith, nature and the human condition.

Even such humble buildings as Swedenborg’s summerhouse provide a reminder of this country’s long-standing association with attractive and practical design styles. There is a certain irony, therefore, that Stockholm’s most popular attraction – in terms of official visitor numbers – tells the story of a disaster linked to design failings on an epic scale.

In 1628, the Vasa, the newly built flagship of the Swedish navy, emerged from Stockholm’s harbor on its maiden voyage. Despite a relatively calm sea and a light breeze, the warship was soon yawing alarmingly and, just over a kilometer from port, capsized and sank. Settling in 32 meters of water, only short distance from shore, the wreck was still beyond the technology of the day to salvage.

Today, painstakingly and continually restored since being raised intact in 1961, the Vasa rests in a purpose-built building a few minutes’ walk from Skansen and virtually next door to the Nordiska Museet. It is not a place that is easy to miss, partly because three masts sprout from its pitched, grey roof.

Museum curator Magnus Olofsson is an enthusiastic mine of information about how the vessel came to grief and its reincarnation as one of the Europe’s most remarkable visitor attractions.

They just hoped for the best

“The reasons for the ship’s sinking are complicated,” he says. “The easiest explanation is that it had been designed to be far too narrow. People seem to have realized that at the time. They certainly recognized that it wasn’t stable, but they were in a hurry and they just hoped for the best.”

One of the reasons the shipwrights and sailors made what was in retrospect such a foolhardy decision was that nobody was keen to tell the Swedish King, Gustav II Adolf, that his flagship project (literally, in this case) had gone horribly wrong.

The current Vasa Museum opened in 1987 and the ship is kept in a large hall whose humidity and temperature is designed to slow the process of decay as far as possible. The vessel itself is an impressive sight, gunports open, intricate carvings still intact and masts rigged, it appears like a wooden cliff-face above the heads of visitors. That, says Olofsson, is the whole point. “The ship is bigger than almost everybody expects anyway,” he says, “but the space has been very cleverly used to make it seem even larger and more dramatic than it actually is.”

At a level with its keel, visitors look up with expressions of awe and surprise towards the bulwarks, gunports and decks above their heads. King Gustav would no doubt have approved of the emotions his mighty warship can still engender to this day. But it is more than just the ship’s size that lures visitors, adds Oloffson. “This is the only complete vessel from the 17th century anywhere in the world and it’s easy for people to understand its story. The mystery surrounding how it sank is also something that intrigues people and that’s partly because what was created that day was a time capsule that can take you back to 1628.”

Restoration is a never-ending story

Indeed, so complete and seemingly solid is the vessel, it is all too easy to forget that it spent three centuries beneath the waters of the Baltic Sea. Its very existence is a tribute to those who restored it and continue to labor so the ship can hold off the ravages of time and elements for as long as possible.

“The restoration and maintenance work is a never-ending story, it just goes on and on, all the time,” says the curator, with a hint of a shrug. “Wood that’s been under water for so long doesn’t really like to be exposed to the air. It begins to oxidize and that starts a chain reaction that basically means it isn’t as stable as it was in the 17th century. We know nothing lasts for ever, but we think Vasa should be here for at least another 1,000 years.”

The curator has also recently overseen the opening of a new temporary exhibition. Entitled Meanwhile, it focuses on what was happening in the rest of the world when the Vasa set out on its ill-fated voyage. Putting it together proved to be something of an eye-opener even to an expert such as the museum boss.

“It was interesting to find out how much was going on in Asia and Africa at the time – independent of European activity,” says Magnus. “Globalization was already starting to happen and there was already a lot of worldwide trade. Ideas were spreading across the globe, but so was disease, and war was rife. People were beginning to question the nature of god, while the great religions were growing in influence.”

Then, as now, the pace of change was perhaps more rapid that many people realized, and Sweden wasn’t immune.

Back amid the yellow facades of Gamla Stan, though, with the sound of Christmas carols and the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air, you could be forgiven for thinking that all is exactly as it was hundreds of years ago. Except, of course, for those fluttering, electric candles in the hair of the girl leading the Santa Lucia parade.



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