Through a Candle in the Dark

There was a tradition at my school when I was a child, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Those are dark weeks here in Scandinavia and the mornings were pitch black – the sun didn’t rise until a good while after class had started – and icy cold.

Those mornings as the children went inside, the classroom wasn’t lit. We went to our desks and sat down all in the dark.

Then, as the teacher lit a candle at the teacher’s desk, we all would too. Every child had their own, a simple candlestick we had brought from home and a simple white candle. We were all quiet, not even the “naughty” children would make a noise, all would just sit and listen as the teacher read some text aloud.

I can’t actually remember what it was she read to us, I will admit I wasn’t really listening.

My focus lay on the little living flame before me, at the top of my candle. I watched it so intensely that the rest of the room seemed to disappear. I thought of nothing but that flame, for those ten minutes there was nothing else, only that. It brought an immense serenity, that focus. And not only that, it also brought a sense of knowledge. Not in the way of knowing facts but in the way of simply understanding.

As the moment passed, the teacher stopped reading and the lights came on, it left me wanting more. I could barely wait for the next morning to come when we would light those candles again, I longed for experiencing that feeling yet again. That meaningful emptiness and that focus.

I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I was just a child of maybe seven or eight years old, but of course today I recognize it as meditation. Unguided and spontaneous but massively meaningful.

Porridge, Christmas and Ceremonial Sacrifice?

There is an interesting old Christmas tradition here in Sweden. It has nothing to do with Santa Claus or the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ. It involves… porridge, traditionally. Yeah, porridge.

According to tradition, a family should always remember to leave a bowl of good porridge outside on Christmas eve. Sweet, good porride, preferably with a knob of butter in it. Thanks to a bit of linguistic confusion and mixing of traditions, some today (kids especially, I am guessing) will believe that this bowl of porridge is for Santa Claus. But no!

The word used in Swedish for Santa Claus is “tomte”. But see, already before people were bringing the great big bearded gift giver (Santa) into the picture, a “tomte” was more like a gnome. You know garden gnomes? A little creature looking like an old man, only… small? Yep, that’s it. That is a “tomte” if you cut Santa out of the picture.

These are beings that have been thought to live alongside humans, helping to take care of the home and those living there. Make your house “tomte” upset and you might find your cows getting sick! Keep him happy and he’ll make sure things run smoothly around the farm. He’ll help keep the place clean, orderly, safe. If kept happy.

And there we get to the porridge. On Christmas eve tradition said, and still says, that a bowl of porridge should be left outside for the “tomte”, the (hopefully) friendly house gnome, as a thank you for all his help, and in the wish that he’ll stay happy and helpful.

Yes, it’s still done today. Not by every family – you won’t see people set out porridge outside their apartment doors in the cities for example – but it is still very much a living tradition. Few will call it a “sacrifice”, but of course that is what it is.

So many will think of sacrifice as involving blood and death, they imagine slaughtering animals in honour of pagan gods, they imagine the macabre and scary. Sacrifice doesn’t have to be that. It can just be that bowl of porridge too.



So far this winter we have had unusually little snow, but it is still beautiful.


Being raised a city girl, brought up in an apartment block in a highly modern city, I never did this as a child. Still it was something I was aware of, as long as I can remember I’ve known of the tradition, it was just not something done in my neighbourhood – who expected the apartment block to have any tomtar anyway?

Today, my husband and I live in a classic red-and-white house out on the countryside. The picture above shows the view from our living room window! Any tomtar around?

I am not bound by tradition. My beliefs are my own, I draw inspiration from tradition but in the end, I put together my own practices. And while I see a core of truth in the idea of the tomte, I do not see it as a little old man with grey beard and a hunger for porridge specifically. I see the unseen, the spirits of the land, the beings living and breathing here, by our side but mostly unknown. Benevolent or not so much, friendly or mischievous, it probably varies. They are not gods, nor angels, nor something as abstract as symbols. They are people but not like us. I don’t understand them yet, but there they are.

We didn’t give porridge. My husband absolutely hates porridge and we very rarely have any at home. And we weren’t even at home on Christmas eve, so instead it was done a few days after, when we had returned home. I don’t think they care if it’s the 24th or 25th of 27th anyway.

Blueberry mead. We offered blueberry mead, drank some ourselves, toasted to the spirits of the land and all those who are, have been and will be tied to this land. The moon was big and gave far more light than the little lantern we had brought out, the sky was full of stars and the night was cold. As ceremonies go, it was simple yet beautiful.

Perhaps it’ll be some porridge too next year. With plenty of sugar and cinnamon, and a knob of butter in the center. But for this year, I think the mead did well enough.






Honouring the dead

This blog post is a bit late, it should really have come already at the start of November, but for reasons it has taken far too long to finish. Never mind, what better way to utilize your coffee break at work than to do a final read-through of a blog draft and finally push the “publish” button?

It is about the day us Swedes refer to as Alla Helgons Dag, often confused and combined with Halloween. Or rather, it is about what this day means to me.


Through childhood and the teenage years the tradition in our family was as it is for many Swedish families. On Alla helgons dag us relatives got together for a calm and pleasant meal or fika (typical Swedish concept, look it up!), and once the day had grown dark we wandered together to the cemetery. There we located the graves of relatives who were no longer with us, we lit candles and spent a few minutes contemplating those who had gone before.

It was beautiful and solemn. Sometimes a little spooky, but mostly just peaceful.

That was then, before I had any idea of where my own path lie, before my spiritual needs had surfaced and the point of such traditions seemed to only be about giving relatives a reason to meet up.

And now? Alla helgons is one of my favourite days of the year, in all its simplicity and depth.

It is a day, and night, that anchors us in the flow of time. For a moment we lift our heads out of the blurred passing of days to see how we are links in a far longer chain. We honour those who went before us, become aware of the people who were just as us – living, breathing, real. They are us and we are them, separate but always connected.

In practical terms, what has changed since I was a child? Surprisingly little. Me, my husband and my mother met, had a good meal and looked a bit at old photographs. Then as darkness fell we ventured into the old cemetery in the middle of town, made our way on paths lit by flaming lanterns and candles, joined the hundreds of people who were also out on the same mission, trickling through the burial grounds. We lit candles and placed flowers, talked about the dead, talked to the dead. It was beautiful, as always.

Once we got home me and the husband continued on our own, simple time of relaxation, family time. Before night was over we ventured out into the dark to honour the ancestors, not only those we still remember by name, those whose graves we still find, but also all the others. By word and intent connecting with them across the flow of time.

This is what this holy day means to me. A day to honour those who came before us. A day to connect with those we can no longer touch. A day to anchor us in the greater existence.

Whoever said it was about death?

It’s about existence.