Advent in Sweden

A Complicated Arrival


Advent Wreath

Scandinavian Advent wreath for the table.
The apples can be put around the wreath on spikes.

Holiday time in the United States can be stressful, no matter what an individual’s beliefs. We brace ourselves not merely for traffic jams and hordes of shoppers but for vituperation over manger scenes and menorahs: whether either should be displayed in schools, whether one should be allowed without the other at city hall, whether a fir tree isn’t sneaking Christianity in by the back door, whether children are deprived of their rights if the music teacher privileges Rudolph over Mary.

Christians point out that the holiday’s whole point, even down to the name, is about Christ. And in a rare moment of agreement, atheists concur – and suggest doing away with it altogether.

Still, accustomed though I am to the annual diatribes over Christmas, I was a little startled to discover the Swedes staging a similar brouhaha over Advent. And by all accounts, it isn’t the first.

I can’t conceive of Americans arguing over Advent, simply because few with whom I’m acquainted even know what it is. Among those who do, even fewer have ever observed it in their home, as I grew up doing. Many have never lit the candles on the Advent wreath each of the four Sundays before Christmas, and some probably never opened the doors of an Advent calendar – not even the kind with chocolate behind the doors, which have largely displaced the ones with simple drawings as society has expanded its waistlines along with its acquisitiveness.

1960s German Advent Calendar

German Advent calendar from the 1960s

Advent as a societal season never developed in a United States that separated church and state to accommodate the madly diverse religious groupings on its shores, many of them leery of the Catholicism attached to the church calendar. It has stayed quietly tucked behind church doors* and in the homes of a few devout families or those with immigrant ties to Scandinavia, Germany, and perhaps England. As such, Sweden’s dilemma over Advent resembles our squabbles over Christmas but points to a particular cultural difference that this egalitarian nation wrestles with: how to accommodate a long, rooted history of unified church-state culture in an increasingly religiously diverse and nationally secular society.

In Christianity’s history, as in contemporary Roman Catholic and most mainstream Protestant churches, the Advent season encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas and any days following the fourth Sunday until Christmas Eve. Instituted in the sixth century, the season bears a dual theological emphasis: the original coming of the Christ child to humankind, in the birth celebrated at Christmas, and the second coming of Christ in the end times – the consummation of God’s reign over earth. Advent itself means “coming” or “arrival” (from the Latin ad + venire, “to come to”). While the religious attitude of preparation for this arrival accords nicely with marketing mayhem over getting ready for the holiday, in origins and essential character, the season is about the arrival of the Son of God and awaiting an end to the human, earthly matrix of desire and striving.

No trip to the return counter at the store is envisioned.

So it stands to reason that Sweden’s National Agency for Education (Skolverket), in its struggle to maintain a neutral environment in the schools to accommodate Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, atheism, and anyone else, feels uncomfortable about Sweden’s deeply rooted Advent traditions decking the avowedly worldly halls. As an official, governmental voice on the matter, however, they seem to have gotten themselves into something of a muddle explaining the guidelines for the season. On the one hand, they want nothing remotely religious about it. On the other, they don’t want to do away with it.

Handmade Advent Calendar

Advent calendar made from felt and Christmas card cutouts.
The pockets hold wrapped figurines for the manger scene.

Hence, Swedes have been treated to a marvelous piece of government-speak that affirms students’ right not to “be subjected to religious influence” while allowing school festival gatherings in churches – as long as the experience is devoid of “religious elements.” Even for many outside Christianity, the idea of divorcing a church from “religious elements” doubtless seems odd.

Alcoholics Anonymous may meet there, but that doesn’t make the building a conference hall.

For “confessional” schools, Skolverket’s logic becomes even muzzier, to go by The Local‘s reporting of the matter:

[Skolverket’s Anna] Ekström and [Claes-Göran] Aggebo observed that the Advent services are part of the compulsory curriculum and thus sought to clarify the situation as Advent approaches and the autumn term nears its end.

“The agency has decided that it is possible to have an end of term service in church and that a pastor can be in attendance. The demand is that there should be no confessional element.”

English Advent Calendar

An English Advent calendar from the 1990s

I have considerable sympathy for the priest struggling to avoid mentioning God in the compulsory religious service. It must be like asking a CFO not to mention the financial figures at the annual stockholders’ meeting. That never turns out well.

The debate played out in the Swedish Dagens Nyheter last week, with five politicians from different parties arguing that such “neutrality” erases multicultural appreciation and suggests religious phobia on Skolverket’s part; a magazine editor arguing that the Swedish Church isn’t concerned with actual faith but simply with maintaining its marketing edge; the secretary of the Swedish Church asserting that “tradition” cannot be used to pretend religious meaning doesn’t exist; and the bishop of Linköping plaintively asking, “Why should I speak of Advent if you cannot be told what Advent is all about?”

But it seems that Skolverket already has entered the realm of marketing-driven ritual, where the origins behind why we do things are unimportant. Meaning, if challenged to emerge, in this equation lies in a combination of habit and profit making.

This formula, the United States is used to. Atheists won’t succeed in banning Christmas because too many secular people have a financial interest in keeping it going, and because people are “in the habit” of doing certain things at a particular time of the year. Marketers have an interest in tapping into people’s images of the season to sell goods and services, finessing their way from visions of glittering tinsel, fireplaces, and snowy landscapes to sympathetic coddling of the foot-weary, deadline-driven spouse or parent trying to “create the perfect Christmas.” Whole industries depend on this process.

What is deeply telling about the Swedish debate is the ahistorical viewpoint of the National Agency for Education. In their curricular mind-set, history either doesn’t matter or is wholly malleable to the whims of the present. I agree with the politicians that those whims suggest a considerable fear of religion – at least, of Christian religion – rendering it something that shouldn’t even be acknowledged or examined critically.

The assumption that exposure to faith practices is “coercion” is one I find as ridiculous as the presupposition that not imposing one religious doctrine on everyone is “suppression” (an argument we hear frequently from fundamentalists in many faith traditions). Further, the attempt to erase the church’s meaning as a faith-based institution smacks of a comfortable avoidance of dealing with religion as it is. It would be interesting to see them try to do the same with a mosque.

Swedish Star

Swedish star, a decoration with Moravian origins

In a world where spirituality clearly does matter to many – from the practice of home traditions such as lighting the menorah or the Advent wreath, to the wearing of a hijab or placement of bindi on the forehead, to violent manifestations of extremist belief systems – to diminish difference through a rubric of neutrality may be a dangerous position. It might be better to take the bull by the horns and acknowledge that Swedish traditional culture has been, and to some degree still is, tied inextricably into both pagan and Christian practices; that it is undergoing a societal change; that different elements will gradually either vie for celebratory attention or capitulate to centuries-old rituals in their new nation; and that none of this is likely to be comfortable for everyone.

It is, however, reality.

Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that adventsljustakar – the popular triangular, seven-branched candlesticks that started appearing in Swedish windows today, which resemble inverted menorahs and have been marketed by IKEA with missionary zeal worldwide – are in any danger of teetering into institutional extinction. Nor are the glögg parties and julbord celebrations likely to taper off, any more than American visits to Santa face imminent disappearance.

Perhaps next season’s debate will be over whether to serve the little tots alcohol at the school festivities.

Among the many complicated aspects of Christianity, drunken revelry isn’t one of them. But it is undeniably Swedish.

*It may be noted that being hidden behind church doors does not mean Advent traditions aren’t contested in that space. One of my favorite Internet discoveries is the debate between Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, and an American Episcopalian over the “right” colors for the candles in the Advent wreath. My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), begins its explanation being inclusive and succumbs to determination of the correct shade of blue. They didn’t have to track theirs down the way I did mine, in a city where “candle” means something with three wicks and glitter and that smells of patchouli.