Peace, Ice and Reindeer Stories

By Jheri St. James

     Mention of the Swedish people is first recorded by Roman historian Tacitus in the 1st century A.D. In the 9th and 10th centuries A.D., Vikings from Sweden known as Varangians pioneered trade routes through Russia as far as the Black Sea. Throughout the Middle Ages, the history of the Swedes was tied to that of Norway and Denmark. The Danes were driven out of Sweden in 1523. In the 17th century, Gustavus II (Gustavus Adolphus) made Sweden a leading European power, but the rise of Russia in the 18th century checked Swedish ambitions. In 1809, the monarchy became constitutional; a new constitution took effect in 1975.

     Sweden took no part in World War I or World War II. The Social democrats have been the predominant political party through much of Sweden’s 20th century history, architects of the country’s social welfare system and its policy of neutrality. Swedish domestic politics have been free of violence, the sole exception being the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. (Ten years later, a leader of a South African hit squad accused a former Rhodesian soldier of Palme’s murder—Palme had been a tireless critic of South Africa’s apartheid policies.)

     Sweden is a kingdom in northern Europe occupying most of the eastern and southern portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Along with Norway, Sweden forms what looks like one parenthesis around Finland and eastern Russia. It is bounded on the east and south by the Baltic Sea; and on the southwest by the Oresund, Kattegat, and Skagerrak, the narrows linking the Baltic with the North Sea. At its northernmost, it lies within the Arctic Circle and includes part of Lapland. The official language is Swedish, and 87 percent of the population is Lutheran. The capital city is Stockholm. Life expectancy at birth in Sweden is 80 years, one of the highest in the world.

     The CIA Factbook says, “Aided by peace and neutrality for the whole 20th century, Sweden has achieved an enviable standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. It has a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force. Timber, hydropower and iron ore constitute the resource base of an economy heavily oriented toward foreign trade. The government’s commitment to fiscal discipline resulted in a substantial budgetary surplus in 2001, which was cut by more than half in 2002, due to the global economic slowdown, declining revenue, and increased spending. The Swedish central bank (the Riksbank) focuses on price stability with its inflation target of 2%. Growth remained sluggish in 2003, but picked up in 2004. Presumably because of generous sick time benefits, Swedish workers report in sick more often than other Europeans. On 14 September 2003, Swedish voters turned down entry into the euro monetary system, concerned about the impact on its democracy and sovereignty.

     It would appear that Sweden’s commitment to internal stability and peaceful living leaves time for fabulous architecture/art projects. In addition to the snow sculptures shown above, imagine a hotel built from scratch every year--a new design, new suites, a brand new reception. The internationally famous Ice Hotel, situated on the shores of the Torne River, in the old village of Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lapland is just such a hotel. Ten thousand tons of crystal clear ice from the ice manufacturing plant, the Torne River, and 30,000 tons of pure snow generously supplied by Mother Nature are needed to build the Ice Hotel every year. Each winter, builders chop blocks of ice needed for next year’s hotel and keep them stored during the short summer months. Then when the time is right, the hotel is constructed anew. At the end of the season, the remains of the construction are taken to the river Torne to become part of nature again. The hotel sleeps over 100 guests, and every bedroom has its own unique theme. Covering more than 30,000 square feet, the Ice Hotel includes an ice chapel, the hotel itself, an ice art exhibition hall, a cinema and last but not least, the world famous “Absolut Ice Bar.”

     The long cold winter nights lend themselves nicely to another popular art in Sweden, writing. The best-known members of Sweden’s artistic community have been writers, chiefly the influential dramatist and author August Strindberg and the widely translated children’s writer Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking. The Gustavian balladry of Carl Michael Bellman, rarely heard outside Scandinavia, speaks directly to the Swedish soul. And Vilhelm Moberg, a representative of 20th century proletarian literature, won international acclaim with The Immigrants and The Emigrants.

     Sweden’s most famous filmmaker is undoubtedly Ingmar Berman, maker of deep, moody avant-garde films.
Walpurgis Night (30 April) is a pagan festival justly celebrating the end of winter with bonfires and fireworks. May Day (1 May) is observed by marches and labor movement events. The Midsummer celebration at summer solstice is Sweden’s most enthusiastically celebrated festival. Pagan rites such as maypole dancing mingle with public holiday tie-loosening and liberal helpings of schnapps. Another festival, the Lucia Festival on 13 December has become very popular over the last 60 years. As well as commemorating the martyrdom of a pious Sicilian girl, Lucia celebrates the coming of Christmas with processions of robed youngsters, plenty of glogg (a hot alcoholic fruit punch) for the grownups and singing. Christmas trees are decorated with straw animals and stars, cookie baking begins, and Santa Claus makes his final assessments of children’s behavior. Santa obviously favors Swedish kids as he delivers presents in person rather than just tossing them down the chimney. New Year’s Eve in Sweden often features fireworks, and Easter in Sweden incorporates the pagan belief that witches hang out with the devil in hell for the duration. Kids dressed up as witches door-knock houses in the their neighborhood, scamming lollipops in exchange for drawings.

     Thank you to our soil collector in Sweden, Hakan Schaling. There was something about reindeer in his story, but at this writing he is on vacation for another month or so and unavailable to share his story with us. We at Common Ground 191 will await his details with great interest and add them as they arrive. In the meantime in Sweden, we are left with three mysteries: How has Sweden succeeded at peace for a century; whose idea was the Ice Hotel; and who is Hakan Schaling and what is his reindeer story?




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