Today is Anna’s Day in Sweden, during which Scandinavians honor all those born with that name, which is about a third of the population.
What’s the reason behind or the purpose of Anna’s Day, we have no idea, but right now in Scandinavia it’s dark 20 hours a day, so who would blame them for throwing in as many December holidays as possible?
Today’s the day Scandinavians begin preparing the Swedish delicacy lutefisk, to be consumed on Christmas Eve.
Any fish that take 15 days to make better be darn-tootin’ good.
Lutefisk however is the exact opposite.
According to Swedishologist Rich Tosches, lutefisk means, literally, “cod soaked in plutonium.”
But, as writer Dave Fox points out, the Scandinavian tradition of soaking fish in lye–that’s right, toilet cleaner–developed not because…
“they thought it was tasty. A long time ago, in the pre-refrigeration epoch, salting and drying fish was an efficient way to preserve it…A century ago, lutefisk really was a staple in the Norwegian diet. Also a century ago, a lot of Norwegians fled the country.”
It’s worth wondering how a people noted for their healthy physique could be gastronomically symbolized by a cinnamon bun. The thing is a black hole of caloric intake.
Cinnamon buns, or kanelbullar, have been a Swedish staple since at least the 1920s. According to Birgit Nilsson Bergström of Sweden’s Home Baking Council:
“We found that the cinnamon bun was the best symbol for Swedish home baking. I don’t think there are any Swedes who don’t like them.”
These angelic looking, yet devilishly tasty swirls of dough and sugar made their way across Northern Europe during the 20th century, and finally got their big Hollywood break in the hit 1977 film Star Wars.
I decided to celebrate today by finding the world’s best cinnamon bun, and came across a National Cinnamon Bun Day blog by baking aficionado Anne of Sweden. The Swedish cinnamon expert has sampled some of the finest buns in the world and proclaims she found the perfect bun, not in Scandinavia, but in a distant land…
“My favorite cinnamon bun is not a bun, but a roll, from Sweet Jill’s. That’s a small pastry shop on Second Street (Belmont Shore) in Long Beach, California. Needless to say, I don’t eat them very often. But on my California trips…The rolls are huge – incredibly large, I bet they weigh a pound. And so incredibly delicious.
So at great expense and hazard to my own person, I undertook the perilous journey to this quaint and mystical seaside town of Belmont Shore.
I was surprised to find the workers at Sweet Jill’s unaware of Cinnamon Bun Day. When I asked for a world-famous cinnamon bun, my server replied, “Walnut or low-fat?” He may have noticed the disappointment in my face, or the tears welling up in my eyes. (I don’t like walnuts and don’t believe in low-fat.) For, moments later, he pulled from the oven a fresh batch of beautiful, nut-free, fat-full cinnamon swirls.
I did not weigh it, but I would agree with Anne, you could feed a family of four for a week.
Okay, truth be told, I grew up near Sweet Jill’s, a classmate of mine even worked there in high school, and I set foot in there maybe once all the time I lived there. It goes to show the old axiom is true: You don’t know the treasure in your own backyard, until you start researching National Cinnamon Bun Day in Sweden.
The bun/roll/swirl was delicious as its legacy warranted, and I can honestly say, I end this holiday, if not wiser, heavier.
When St. Olaf came to the farm of Sten, where his mother is said to have lived, he resolved to build a church there. A giantess, who at the time lived in the mountain…was not at all satisfied with this plan…and challenged him to a contest. “Before you are finished with your church,” said she, “I shall have built a stone bridge over Stensfirth.” Olaf accepted the challenge, and before she was half finished with the bridge, the glorious peal of the bells was heard from St. Olaf’s Church.
In a rage the troll seized the stones with which she had intended to complete the bridge, and hurled them…over the firth at the church, but as none of them struck it, she became so angry that she cut off one of her legs and let that fly at the steeple… [T]he leg landed in a bog behind the church, where to this day it causes a bad smell.
Despite the stories, Olav was not always the saintliest of saints. So scribed Sigvald the skald:
The youthful king stain red the hair
Of Angeln men, and dyed his spear
At Newport in their hearts’ dark blood;
And where the Danes the thickest stood–
Where the shrill storm round Olaf’s head
Of spear and arrow thickest fled,
There thickest lay the Thing-men dead!
Nine battles now of Olaf bold,
Battle by battle, I have told
Yes, Olaf had a tendency to convert Scandanavia’s pagan remnants, not with scripture and Bibles but with sword, fire, and battle-axe.
He was slain in battle in 1030, his body buried near the field, to be later disinterred and moved to Trondheim…
where it was deposited in the magnificent cathedral which rose upon the ruins of the temple of Thor. The recollection of his cruelties was forgotten, and such was the reverence paid to him as a hero and martyr that he might almost be said to have filled the place of the ancient idols in the affections of the nation.
In death the former king became more powerful than in life. Having uprooted centuries of pagan myth and tradition, Olaf himself replaced the Norse god Thor in some ways. He inherited the god’s red hair and beard, and the weapon of choice was changed from hammer to Olaf’s battle-axe.
In death, Olaf’s powers had no bounds. His shrines were said to heal the sick, make strong the weak, and even to heal crippled and severed limbs–though whether this is related to his encounter with the angry giantess at Stensfirth, and the smell emanating from the bog behind his church, the sagas do not say.
Denmark’s two main national holidays celebrate completely contradictory principles. One celebrates the birthday of the monarch (April 16) while the other celebrates the anniversary of the taking of power away from the monarch, on June 5, 1849.
To understand the importance of the 1849 Constitution, we have to delve into the histories of the Danes and Swedes, which are hopelessly incestuous until 1523. Don’t even try telling the two apart before then. But Sweden’s breakaway in 1523 led to a new relationship between the two. Namely, one of war, a hobby the two nations pursued with abandon for the next century and a half.
Finally along came a Danish king in the mid 17th century, Frederick III, who somehow managed to win over the hearts and minds of the Danish people by leading them to utter defeat at the hands of the Swedish in 1658—and then by staging an unprecedented comeback in Game 7 of the Dano-Swedish War (1658-1660), defending the city of Copenhagen from destruction and forcing Sweden to relinquish territory.
The crowds went wild. The conqueror Frederick III became the Lakers of Denmark, and his popularity grew to such an extent that the First Estate was persuaded to disband the legislative assembly and concede all power to Frederick. This was accomplished by the Lex Regia Perpetua / Kongelov (King’s Law), a document which…
The king’s word was the law of the land for nearly two centuries. It wasn’t until 1849 that King Frederick VII peacefully overturned the principles of the Kongelov, relinquishing absolute power and establishing the constitutional monarchy of Denmark.
The last revision to the Constitution was in 1953, also on June 5.
How to celebrate Constitution Day? Or Grundlovsdag as it’s called…
According to wikipedia.org,
“Some people attend political meetings, though many – especially the elderly – meet at the sites of the political meetings to drink beer and other alcoholic beverages.” (Public Holidays in Denmark)
In 1814 the four-century union between Denmark and Norway abruptly ended when Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden following the Napoleonic Wars. Norway also lost what had once been its own. Iceland and Greenland, settled by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries, would remain in Denmark’s possession.
With the emergence of a national ‘farm culture’ in Norway, and a growing awareness of the French and American Revolutions, a movement for Norwegian sovereignty gained momentum. Crown Prince Christian Frederik assembled a congress of Norwegian leaders in Eidsvoll to draft a Norwegian Constitution, which was signed on May 17, 1814. To this day Norway celebrates May 17, Constitution Day, as its most important national holiday.
The road to independence was not that easy though. The Swedes attacked Norway in July (The last war the Swedes have ever fought) leading to a ceasefire agreement in August. The treaty establish a ‘personal union’ with Sweden, in which Norway recognized the authority of the Swedish King.
Ninety years later the Norwegian parliament declared its independence as a constitutional monarchy, backed by a united populace, and the Swedish parliament voted to accept the dissolution a few months later.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Harald V, the present King of Norway, became the first native-born Norwegian monarch since Queen Margaret’s 17 year-old son King Olaf died in 1387.
At 16 I traveled to Norway as a foreign exchange student. Aside from a week in Canada, I had never left the United States. Before I left, a friend from Spain made fun of me for wanting to go to Norway. He assured me I would be surrounded by cows.
I stayed in a tiny sea-side town (they’re just about all sea-side, or fjord-side, towns) near Molde, between Bergen and Trondheim. The town’s population was smaller than my high school back in the States. I remember my host family’s TV. It had one TV station, and it went off the air each night to be replaced by a static signal. The signal was more intriguing to me than the actual programming. I had never seen dead air:
Traveling from Long Beach, California (alma mater of Snoop Dogg) to Elnesvågen, Norway was a shock. I had always been taught I lived in the greatest country on earth, yet here I was in a near social utopia. A land where crime had, relatively speaking, disappeared and poverty was a non-issue. Norway was years ahead of us even in issues like gender equality. And it didn’t hurt that the Norwegian landscape was pristine and picture perfect. I still believe it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
One week my host siblings took me in a tiny motorboat to an island off the coast, named Bjornsund. There we caught crabs (the edible kind) and had to pump our own water. It was like traveling to another world, another century.
Of all my travels since, perhaps none has affected me like that first journey to Norway. It showed me that there are alternative ways of living, of governing. That the wide divide between rich and poor and the persistence of crime are not absolutes. Yes, the tax rate was high, but Norwegians got a lot in return, health care included.
The question was–I could never be sure–was the U.S. behind Norway, or was Norway behind the U.S.?
I mean, hopefully it was the former. That America was on the path to making equality a reality instead of a mantra. That by emulating countries like Norway we would reduce crime, improve our social services, and increase our standard of living for all citizens.
But more and more I feared it was the other way around. As Norway dealt with new immigration from other parts of Europe and the Middle East, for example, I could see the beginnings of racism where homogeneity had long been the norm. Was Norway ahead of the world, our was it destined to lose its sense of community and follow in the footsteps of other modern countries plagued by urban violence and disparity in the mass media-crazed 21st century?
I returned six years later to Norway, to that same house with the one TV station. It was still too early to tell what was in store for Norway’s social future. But I did notice that my host family in Elnesvågen now had 200 channels.
There was another way Norway affected me. Just as my Spanish friend predicted, the house I lived in was sandwiched between two farms. Being a city boy I couldn’t help but notice the ever-present aroma of cow manure. Though I eventually got used to it, the memories of that summer were woven indelibly into my olfactory lobes.
To this day, when we pass a farm on the highway and smell the fertilizer, others may plug their noses.
Today is Day of Finnishness in you-guessed-it: Finland. It’s also known as Snellman Day, named after the Finns’ national hero Johan Vilhelm Snellman, but referred to as Day of Finnishness (perhaps because ‘Snellman’ sounds like that teacher in high school whose nostrils screamed when he breathed through his nose).
Snellman was in fact a teacher (but no word on his nasal exhalations). He was also a statesman, journalist and philosopher, who crusaded to make Finnish the national language of Finland. While this seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, it was a controversial issue at the time.
Finnish as a written language dates only to the 15th century. According to Wikipedia:
The first known written example of Finnish…was found in a German travel journal dating back to c.1450: Mynna tachton gernast spuho somen gelen Emyna dayda… English: “I willingly want to speak Finnish, [but] I cannot”…*
[*presumably because the author was the only one who understood it.]
In the 16th century, Mikael Agricola had set down the rules of written Finnish in order to translate the New Testament. 300 years later however, outside of religious ceremonies written Finnish was still virtually unused.
Along came Snellman, who encouraged politicians and the upper classes to make Finnish a part of everyday life, a vehicle for the arts and sciences, instead of a vernacular spoken only by commoners and a written form relegated to church services. Snellman felt a unique national language was essential to building a strong, unified nation. His outspoken nationalist agenda—known as the Fennoman movement—was a loaded issue. His newspaper, Saima, was censored by the Russian-dominated Finnish government, and eventually shut down.
After the death of the Russian Czar Nicholas I in 1855, the government eased censorship, and Snellman was appointed a professor at the University of Helsinki. He was appointed to Finland’s Cabinet in 1863 and devoted much of the remainder of his career to fixing the Finnish financial system. Russia granted Finnish a status on par with Swedish in Finland in 1892.
Finnish is virtually an island among European languages. All the other Scandinavian languages—Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic—are closely related, while Finnish’s closest relatives are Hungarian and Estonian.
After over five centuries of Swedish rule and one century as a Russian Grand Duchy, Finland declared its independence on December 6, 1917.
During World War II, Finland successfully defended its independence against the Russian invasion of 1939-1940.
+ + +
A language of Finnish origin is currently taking over the world, but it’s not the one Snellman spoke. It’s called Linux, an open source computer operating system developed by Helsinki native Linus Torvalds. Linux is used in 90% of the world’s top supercomputers.
On April 9, 1940 Nazi Germany overran the virtually defenseless nation of Denmark on its way to invading Norway that same day. Germany’s reason was strategic. Germany was dependent on Norway’s natural resources for arms and materials. Its official justification was more altruistic: to “protect” Denmark from potential Franco-British invasion.
Danish King Christian X was told that, if Denmark didn’t capitulate, the German Luftwaffe would decimate the capital. The King reluctantly agreed.
Denmark’s cooperation with Germany had its advantages. Only a hundred Danish Jews perished at Nazi hands during World War II. When Hitler ordered Denmark’s Jews rounded up and sent to concentration camps, Danes smuggled 8000 to safety in Sweden. The King was once quoted as saying that if Denmark’s Jews were forced to wear yellow stars (for identification), then he and the Danes would all wear yellow stars. (The Nazis never enforced the policy.)
A week after the invasion, the King’s son, Crown-Prince Frederik and his wife gave birth to baby girl. Though the birth brought a ray of hope to one of Denmark’s darkest hours, no one imagined she might be queen, and that one day the country would celebrate her birthday as a holiday. For the Danish throne always passed to a male. Even if the king had no sons, the crown would go to a male relative.
But eight years after the war, when Princess Margrethe was 13, the Constitutional Act of 1953 amended the rule of royal primogeniture, allowing the first-born daughter to inherit the throne if the king had no son. Even then no one could be sure Margrethe would be queen, or that King Frederik IX wouldn’t have a son.
On January 15, 1972, the day after the death of her father, the 31 year-old princess became the Queen of Denmark, the first Queen Regent since 1412.
Queen Margaret I had ruled first on behalf of her underage son Oluf back in the 1370’s. When Oluf died unexpectedly in 1387 at age 17, Margaret became Queen Regent. During her 25 year reign, Margaret unified Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Apparently this made the men-folk look bad, so they didn’t allow another woman to take the helm for 550 years.
Though not quite as powerful as her namesake—the power of the Danish monarch waned significantly in the 19th and 20th centuries—Queen Margrethe II is the undisputed head of the oldest consecutive royal line of monarchs in Europe. Consisting of 50 kings and 2 queens, the Danish royal line dates back to Gorm the Old and the Viking days over 1000 years ago.
Today the country of Finland celebrates Finnish Language Day, also known as Mikael Agricola Day.
Mikael Agricola may not have started Finnish but he is celebrated as a national hero for creating and codifying the written version of what was largely an oral tradition up until the 16th century.
Agricola was appointed Lutheran bishop of Turku in 1554. One of the tenets of the Reformation was the translation and reading of scriptures in native languages.
Agricola translated the New Testament into Finnish in 1548.
Some of his top Finnish language hits include:
ABC-kiria (The ABC Book) The first book in Finnish, published in 1543. It was a primer of the Finnish language. [I’d like to say it taught kids to read Finnish, but as the first Finnish book, it taught everyone to read!]
Se Wsi Testamenti — the aforementioned Finnish translation of the New Testament, Agricola’s greatest achievement.
Three liturgical books (1549). Two include prayers, services, and rituals. The third is an amalgamation of the Four Gospels, detailing Christ’s suffering.
Agricola hoped to translate the Old Testament as well. But his life was cut short. Returning from Moscow where he had negotiated a peace treaty, Agricola became ill and died on April 9, 1557. He was 47.
He’s remembered each year on April 9 as the Father of the Finnish language.
The major languages of the Scandinavian countries—Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic—are all related except for Finnish. Near as we can tell, Finnish isn’t related to anything except perhaps Hungarian and Estonian. Finnish isn’t even an Indo-European language. The Finno-Ugric languages are their own distinct branch, though from what tree is anybody’s guess.
It’s possible that if Agricola hadn’t come along when he did, the language of Finland would have been overrun by the languages of its more powerful neighbors.
Finnish is known for being a ‘genderless’ language, and for lacking articles such as ‘a’ and ‘the’. Also, there is no word for ‘to have.’