Babbel is releasing two courses with a focus on winter traditions: Swedish winter holidays and celebrations and Holidays and celebrations in Russia, where you can discover the Swedish relationship to mys, who ‘Lucia‘ is, how Russians celebrate the new year, and much more. But why do so many of these celebrations and feasts take place in the winter?
Imagine waking up and going to work in pitch darkness. Just before lunchtime the sun is rising, only to set again some time after your lunch break. You go home from work in darkness and wake up again fourteen hours later – still in the dark. It may not sound too appealing, but this is what winter is like for large parts of northern Europe. Celebrations and small rituals are a way to cope with the long dark tea-time of the soul.
Take the Swedes for instance. They light candles andgather at home for some mys – cosiness. This is probably the key word to Swedish culture nowadays. Everything is mys, and all kinds of words can be constructed with out of it:myskväll (cosy evening), höstmys (autumn cosiness), vintermys (winter cosiness), mystofflor (cosy slippers), or the most infamous one: fredagsmys (Friday cosiness). That is when you gather in front of the TV with your whole family and eat tacos. Or maybe kebabpizza – a Swedish fusion of kebab and pizza, with iceberg lettuce and yogurt sauce on top.
Turning everything into mys helps Swedes through the winter. And in mid-December, when the nights are longest according to the Julian calendar, Lucia (St. Lucy) brings light. Every kindergarten, nursing home and church gets a visit from a singing Lucia procession, consisting of Lucia herself, with candles in her hair, her female tärnor companions, and the male stjärngossar (star boys) who wear huge paper cones on their heads.
It is hard to say where the Lucia tradition comes from, but parts of it are medieval or even pre-christian. Dark forces were said to be out haunting people, especially the witch Lussi, who was riding in the sky with her minions and would prey on anybody foolish enough to be outside. Later on this merged with the Catholic celebration of St. Lucy of Syracuse. Today’s Lucia celebrations are a mélange of different traditions, but with one central theme: bringing light in the darkest hour.
In Russia, the most important annual celebration is that of the new year, Novy God (Новый Год). Since according to the Julian calendar New Year’s Eve (31 December) is almost immediately followed by Christmas (7 January), Russians have about ten days of holiday with lots of champagne, caviar, and – if you’re lucky – gifts. They are brought by the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus, дед Мороз (Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost), who visits new year’s parties, schools and kindergartens, accompanied by his granddaughter Снегурочка (Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden).
Russian traditions tend to have religious, pagan or Communist origins, and they are celebrated with gusto, almost like a form of protest against everyday hardships. Daily life in Russia can occasionally be a tough slog, whether you’re fighting the weather, social injustice, or bureaucracy. The worse the problems, the harder and more fiercely people party – after all, no-one knows what will happen tomorrow!
Engaging in some serious mys with mulled wine, or letting the vodka flow until the daylight finally returns – how do you cope with the winter darkness? And do you have any favorite winter traditions from Northern Europe? Let us know in the comments!