Christmas is celebrated across many different cultures in different ways. This is a little story about my time at a Swedish Christmas party in Portugal.
A few Fridays ago I was having one of those days. Mum to the rescue, she came to pick me up and we went to her house. Mum offered me a drink and I was all no, no, it’s only 3 pm, but she said it was a celebration and so I gave in, a beer then. Mum poured herself a drink and we said skål! which means cheers in Norwegian. Mum is Norwegian.
It felt really good to be sitting with my mum in her living room having a drink and a chat in the middle of the day on a Friday. I’ve lived away for such a long time, it was probably a decade ago since we last sat like this.
I’m going over to the Swedes’ house for some glögg around four, she said. But I’ll be back in two or three hours. I was going to catch up on some work while she was out, but suddenly changed my mind. Can I come with you? I asked. Yes of course! Mum said. That would be nice.
We arrived at the Swedes a little before five. A pot of glögg was infusing on the stove. Mrs. Swede was taking a hot tray of samosas out from the oven and slid them onto a large serving plate. Mr. Swede spooned some sweet chilli sauce into a bowl and placed it in the middle of the plate for dipping the samosas. We gave kisses hello and I was offered another beer and to taste the glögg. How is it? Asked Mr. Swede. Good, I like it. I replied. Maybe a bit more brandy! Mum tried a sip. A little sugar, perhaps. She said looking at Mrs. Swede who was nodding enthusiastically.
The doorbell rang and a Swedish couple arrived. After a little chat in the kitchen we all took a seat in the living room and Mrs. Swede set the plate of samosas down beside another plate of pepparkake (ginger biscuits) and a bowl of salted crisps. The other couple brought some Swedish saffron bread “lussekatter” with them.
Time for glögg! Glögg is like mulled wine but Swedish or Scandi style, which includes port and brandy. The Norwegians also like to add vodka. It is often served in teeny tiny espresso sized cups, apparently to help encourage Scandinavians to drink slower. Usually before Christmas, Scandi’s will visit a few different friends on the same night, drinking glögg at each house. Since people kept falling over drunk in the snow they started serving it in smaller and smaller cups to help them get to the next house.
Some raisins and almonds are added to each cup. You’re supposed to eat those little alcohol-bombs once you finish your drink. The Swedes broke into song as I sipped on my first little cup of glögg. Not knowing the words, I just listened while they sang their merry tune, admiring the fun quirks of their culture. We ate and talked until the glögg was all gone.
This is usually the time to go home, but we were all having such fun. Dry martinis, anyone? Proposed Mr. Swede. Why not? I thought, having come this far. Mr. Swede poured a martini for himself, one for the other Swedish man and one for me. I held the glass down by my lap, but the fumes still found their way up into my nostrils, making a bee-line for my brain. What’s in it? I asked. Not sure what kind of dry martini I was looking at. Mostly gin and a little bit of dry martini. He replied. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad…
The other ladies took a glass of red wine, I noticed, realising I should have done the same. Another drink, another song! Two beers, three cups of glögg and two dry Martini’s later, we moved over to the dining table to partake in yet another Swedish party staple: a game of Yahtzee! The other Swedish woman found a blank sheet of paper and started marking columns for the players and rows for the Yahtzee combinations and points.
Yahtzee is a dice game. Each player takes his turn to throw the dice. He gets three throws each turn, and needs to roll one each of poker combinations such as a pair, two pairs, three of a kind, straight, full house, etc. To get yahtzee, you need to roll the same number across all five dice. It’s a great moment and gets a solid round of high-fives and fist-bumps from the other players. It’s an excellent game to play with friends while drinking. As long as you can still throw the dice, you’re in. At the end, the player with the most points wins.
Next, Mr. Swede broke out the Aquavit. Linie aquavit is a truly special Norwegian drink. The alcohol is kept in 500 liter oak barrels that are stored on ships as they travel the seas and cross over the equator before returning home.
The story goes that in the early 1800s, a Norwegian ship carrying food and aquavit was headed to Indonesia to sell its wares. However, the people there had absolutely no interest in the drink, so the Norwegians brought it back home. But when they opened it, hoping it had not spoiled during the long journey, they realised something had happened. It tasted different, better. And so the tradition was born.
Scientists have long searched for an alternative to these long trips, but nothing has come close. It’s quite an incredible story, I thought, as I stared at the yellowish liquor taking a moment to respect the long journey it has made before ending up in my gut.
We played a few games of Yahtzee and drank more aquavit than your average non-Scandi can handle. It’s in our blood. At one point the other Swedish woman raised her glass of aquavit for a toast and said “snapschat!” Throwing us all into hysterics. Snaps is the Swedish word for a small shot of strong alcohol (the same as schnaps in German). You see, earlier in the evening, I had been teaching them how to use Snapchat filters…
Mrs. Swede became concerned that I was going to get sick since we didn’t have a proper dinner and given that I was a newbie to their parties. It was supposed to be a two or three hour thing, after all, that ended up going on until past midnight. She encouraged me to eat some knekkebrød with butter and cheese, and so I did.
We drank, we played, we ate, we sang, we laughed. It was a proper Scandinavian Christmas party. The Swedes and Norwegians love to pretend they don’t get along, but this homage to neighbourly bickering is, beneath it all, neighbourly love.
Love thy neighbour! Merry Christmas to you all!