Swedish Christmas Past in Skansen

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Skansen, Stockholm, Sweden

When I was about 14 years old, I went to a Carl Larsson exhibition at the V&A Museum in London and ever since then I’ve had this obsession with his Sweden.  One of the images I’ve always liked was of his daughters dressed in a long white gown, wearing a crown of lit candles.  This shows the traditional celebration of St Lucy’s Day – St Lucy, blinded during her martyrdom, is the patron saint of light.

On the 13th December, the shortest day in the Julian calendar, St Lucy is celebrated by having the eldest daughter in the family wear a crown of candles and bring sweet treats and a warming drink to the others in the household.

These days, there are also public processions and events at schools, so the tradition of dressing up just like Carl Larsson’s daughter over a hundred years ago is still going strong.

This is why our Stockholm trip was planned to coincide with spending St Lucy’s Day in Skansen, which is itself an iconic Swedish institution.  It’s the world’s oldest open-air museum and celebrates traditional Swedish culture, with houses and farmsteads brought in from around the country and preserved as time-capsules of history.  They have a number of events celebrating St Lucy’s Day and I wanted to go to one of the church services to see a row of singing St Lucys, their crowns all aglow with real candles.

But somehow, we got so caught up with everything else that we missed it.  So much for my planning.

Christmas is a great time of the year in Scandinavia.  They have such cute Christmas traditions it’s just all too adorable – with the snow and the decorated trees and the elves and the smell of mulled wine, it’s just so magical you want to box it up and keep it forever.  If we’d visited Skansen at a weekend, the Christmas Market would have been open, but perhaps its closure was a good thing for me and my uncontrollable Christmas-shopping habits.  As it was, there was a gloriously Christmas-y vibe throughout Skansen because many of the buildings that were open to visit were styled to demonstrate the Christmases of various periods past.

The experience starts with Skansen’s old Town Quarter, which is a little Swedish stereotype, full of red wooden buildings and cobbled streets.  The first building of note is a 1930s Glassworks where you can watch the manufacturing – though we couldn’t because they were filming in there.  You can buy what they make, and the shop was filled with intricate, as well as gaudy, glass items.

Going down the hill from there, you come to a Furniture Factory (Snickerifabriken), which was originally from Virserum in Småland.  The building itself is from 1897/8, but the machines are still in place from the 1920s, a period that sealed the destiny of the Swedes: for not only did they start mass producing furniture, but they sold oak, birch and elm furniture by mail order!  Småland became the centre of this trade and in the early 20th century, there were twenty small factories in Virserum itself.  That’s a lot of furniture being mailed around the country.

Opposite the Snickerifabriken are the Engineering Works (Mekaniska verkstaden), which were founded in 1889.  From the 1870s onwards, farms and factories become more mechanised and needed new tools and machines.  Iron-making technology was able to keep up with demand thanks to steam power, and later electricity, and some of the machines on show in the works produced lathes, drills and milling machines.  It’s lovely to think that little factories like this helped the progress of the whole country.

Next we visited the wonderfully evocative Ironmonger’s shop (Järnhandlare) which was from the late 1880s, but with the partial modernisations of the 1930s.  It was lined with old wooden cabinets, filled with all sort of objects from screws to shovels to hammers, hinges, brackets, latches, buckets, heaters, weights…. basically if you needed something handy, the ironmonger would likely have it.  The objects were fascinating to look at, but the visit was really made by the gentleman who worked there who told us a lot, not just about the ironmongers, but also about old Swedish life.  Plus you can buy really cute things from there, like cookie cutters and candlesticks and a St Lucy crown.  And he serves you on a proper old till!

Just behind the shop was the Ironmonger’s house (Järnhandlarens hus).  This was set up to show a 1930s family Christmas.  The smell that first hit us was that of the cookies being made fresh in the über-functional kitchen.  We got to try one and while it seemed to be a simple butter biscuit, coming straight out of the oven on a cold, cold day made it taste like ambrosia!

It set us up nicely to admire the rest of the house, which was apparently very representative of the way middle class traders would have lived.  There was a really cosy atmosphere, particularly lovely because of the Christmas decorations, but anyway it was the sort of place you can imagine yourself living in.  It is extraordinary how there are items of furniture or rugs or ideas that inevitably remind you of Ikea.  Coming in a house like this made me appreciate just how clever Ikea are, building on their country’s amazingly stylish heritage and keeping it feeling modern.

After toddling around the extremely cold streets, the bright lights of a little cafe caught my eye.  Not just any little cafe.  This is Café Petissan (from petit cafe), set up, interestingly, by a woman (Karin Åkerman) in 1870 on the the corner of Drottninggatan and Kungstensgatan in Stockholm, which soon became a popular student hang-out.  I never even went to popular student hang-outs when I was one, so I felt very cool and with-it.   It’s warm, woody and filled with happy, comfortable customers, all eating by the light of candle on each table.

The next stop was a building complex dating from the early 18th century from the Sodermalm district, which housed the bookbinder, the engraver and the saddler.  It also includes an old shop and a home.  As your eyes adjust to the darkness of the Old Shop (Kryddboden), a wonderful grocery kitted up in the style of 1840 shows all the produce that was available to the increasingly gentrified Swedish population.  There are spices, flour, tobacco, grains… there were dried beans and hops, which all combine to give the shop a close, warm, quite pleasant smell.  The only light came from a small window and a couple of ‘modern’ candles – that is, the mass-produced type that became available in the mid-1800s.  Once again the lady who worked there was wonderfully informative and explained the history of various objects and life in Sweden in the 1840s as well as describing the middling status of shop-keepers.

We  toddled next door, to the Printer’s Family House.  And who should we meet but the shopkeeper from next door!  We commented on her presence in this house, and she stayed in character beautifully and said that she’d married well, and gone up in the world.  It didn’t take long to see that this house, not tacked on to the back of a shop like the place next door, was rather more grand.  The Christmassy kitchen and the drawing room, set for a meal, were extremely cosy and evocative and it doesn’t take much to image ladies and gentlemen of the the 1840s wafting around in their Sunday finest on Christmas day.

Leaving that maze of buildings, and walking up the street brings you to a Golden Pretzel sign.  This marks the presence of a Bakery from the 1870s, which still sells bread and baked goods – and on St Lucy’s Day, they had special Lucy biscuits.  The smell in there was just divine, and even if you don’t want to buy anything (which would be crazy) it’s worth going in for a sniff.

Saffron buns (Lussekatter) are a famous treat for St Lucy’s Day.  They have a pretty S shape, though the Swedish name means Lucy Cats, which is a bit odd.  Anyway, if you are a fan of saffron, I’m sure the buns are fantastic.  I am, I’ve discovered, not a fan of saffron.  Or maybe I shouldn’t have got my bun from the local supermarket?  Anyway, these are apparently available throughout the Christmas period and are worth a try!

A little way along is the Pottery, which was equally alluring.  As a fan of pottery, I found the shop just too overwhelming – the simplicity of the designs made everything look so easy to buy and fit into your home.  It turns out that a lot of the designs are based on originals in Skansen, which explains their classy functionality.  And you can watch someone throwing pots, though luckily the lady wasn’t doing that when we were there, or we’d have never moved on.

For the next half hour or so we just wandered around – many of the buildings were shut, and we went through the farm area, passing the few sturdy animals that were happy being out on a cold, icy day.  This section is clearly more interesting in any other season, because the farmland really grows crops like rye and flax, and there are Scandinavian domestic animals to see.  There were beautifully picturesque scenes, though, and there were times when it really felt like you were walking through the Swedish countryside.

This next stop was the Delsbo Farmstead, from Hälsingland, c1850.  This farmstead, like many in the province, grew flax, which was used for textiles and linseed oil.  Presumably they made quite a good amount of money, because there are some beautiful wall-paintings in the house.  However, by this time it was getting rather dark – for it gets extremely dark, extremely early in Sweden in December – it was quite difficult to see anything.  As atmospheric and authentic as this was, with reluctance we decided that maybe we had to call it a day.

So In Summary

It was an incredible experience visiting Skansen, and even with a lot of the buildings shut for the season we had more than enough to visit.  It felt like we’d been transported totally back in time, peeking into the lives of people who really lived and worked in these buildings.  Then the Christmas settings added an extra layer of gorgeousness, and made everywhere worth lingering in.

And I’d also just like to add that the people who worked in the houses and shops all spoke beautiful English and were so informative, chatty and helpful, they made the trip even more enjoyable.  Seeing people in the costumes relevant to the period was also extremely evocative, particularly with some of the men, whose outfits were somewhat more colourful and patterned than in England in the same period.

I can’t stress enough how magical the experience of Skansen was, and somehow it didn’t matter that I’d missed the St Lucy’s events after all.  Actually, that just gives me an incentive to go back…

As if I needed one!

Practical Information 

The opening hours do vary and to make sure you get to see what you want to see, it’s worth consulting the website www.skansen.se which is available in a number of languages.  It is very comprehensive, giving the history of the buildings and detailing  upcoming events.

During each season there are lots of different things to engage children, with a number of attractions specifically aimed at them.   Open all year round is the Children’s Zoo, the super-cute Squirrel Playground and the Aquarium.  There’s also a Funicular Railway, though this isn’t open everyday.  During the spring and summer, there are events aimed at getting children to help out on the farms etc., but again, the website provides an abundance of information.

Be aware that Skansen is very up and downy – and on days when there is snow and/or ice, some of the routes can be quite perilous.

We visited on the 13th December 2016.

How to Get There

The best way to get to Skansen is by public transport, as there is no parking on site.  For details in English, check out the extremely handy Stockholm transport’s website: www.sl.se



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