St. Lucia

It’s weird to think that this week last year I was in Sweden going to a Luciagasque. Now to those of you who have never lived in Sweden, that might take some explaining. First I have to explain a gasque…it’s like a fancy party, I suppose. They may be unique to student nations, which is another entirely confusing topic. In short, student nations are very old student clubs that have some similarities to the residential colleges at places like Yale or Oxford. They were originally for students to gather with others from their region in Sweden. Kalmar was for people from around Kalmar and Norlands was for people from the far north. There are 13 Nations in Uppsala and they are open to student from both Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agriculture.

These days you can join whichever one you want, so there is a large degree of self selection. Kalmar has become not the Nation for people from Kalmar, but for hipster indie-music listening vegans. Stockholms Nation is the Nation for preps (who are called “brats” in Sweden) , and bizarrely enough, exchange students from California.

I loved them because I’ve always been a little jealous of places like Yale with their Harry Potter-like residential colleges. Each nation had a pub, restaurant, cafe, choirs, and sports teams. There were several gasques each semester based on Swedish holidays and the traditions of individual Nations. Some of the latter included the cheesecake gasque at Kalmar Nation and the sheep’s head gasque (yes, that means they eat sheep’s heads) at Gotland Nation. But most had Luciagasques because the festival of St. Lucia is a big one in Sweden.

The popular American Girl Doll...

Like many American women of my age, I am familiar with St. Lucia primarily through the popular American Girl Dolls. Kirsten, one of the hugely popular and overpriced dolls, is supposed to be a Swedish immigrant and one of her outfits was a St. Lucia costume, which is a white robe with a red sash and the famous crown of candles.

Swedish songbook and a beer from Slottskällans Bryggeri, the local microbrewery

Candles are extremely popular in Sweden, perhaps because the winter is so dark. I never really thought much about using candles before I moved to Sweden. Swedes were horrified to hear that they are outlawed in college dorms in America. I often found my roommates doing homework and watching TV by candlelight.

Candles are so popular that hordes of blond women dress up as St. Lucia and violate municipal fire codes by wearing them on their heads. St. Lucia may or may not be accompanied by a bunch of Star Men, which basically wear dunce hats and carry around a pole with a star on it.

Of course the Luciagasque had a St. Lucia and her minions, as well as Christmas flavored Snaps, which are vodkas infused with flavors like lingonberry.

What do you do at such an event? There were several courses of julbörd, traditional Swedish Christmas food, and in between lots of singing by both the Lucia choir and the guests, which gets progressively worse through the night. The reason for that is the truly absurd amount of alcohol served with the meal. Between the two dark beers and the snaps, it’s inevitable.

The best dishes are probably:
– Fresh homemade gravlax, which is salmon curd in salt, sugar, and dill
– Smoked reindeer hearts. Seriously. They had a wonderful foie gra-like texture and none of the earthiness of other offal cuts.
– Roe.

Foods I avoid on a julbörd:
– Janssons Frestelse (Jansson’s Delight): Potatoes, cream, onions, and anchovies.
– Lutefisk. Fish cured in lye anyone? It smells and tastes like soap.
– Kalvsylt. I just know that translates to calf jelly. While I like pates, I’ve never warmed to the idea of meat jellys.

Of course, the Julbörd isn’t the only holiday eating tradition. I enjoyed glögg parties. Glögg is a spiced wine of which there seemed to be many varieties based on different spice mixes, levels of sweetness, and type of wine used at the base. We drank it warm accompanied by delicious hot cinnamon rolls, saffron rolls, and pepperkakor (ginger snap-like cookies).

An interesting fact is though spiced cider is available, it’s considered odd to drink it hot.

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