Article by Sue Moorcroft
Last December, I mentioned to my British-Swedish friend author Christina Courtenay that I was wondering where to set my next winter book. She suggested, ‘Make it Sweden and we can go together. We can stay with Mum.’
My editor agreed that Sweden would be a gorgeous Christmas setting – what’s not to love about snow and glögg? – and Christina transformed herself into my creative director, researcher, translator, PA, historian and travel guide. She created an itinerary between Småland, the area of southern Sweden in which her mother lives, and Stockholm. Airline bookings, hire car invoices and event tickets flooded my inbox. She arranged everything except the hotel in Stockholm. That was my only duty – and I booked the wrong one.
Christina’s lovely mum Birgitta generously welcomed me into her home in Småland, making gorgeous Swedish dishes and stocking the fridge with Swedish chocolate. In our ten-day trip we travelled to all the places that my characters do in Christmas Wishes (except for Älgäng, which is fictitious). The snow obligingly fell.
In Stockholm, the open-air museum of Skansen on Djurgården (literally, animal garden) was gorgeous. Every tree and building was made magical by the snow as we saw Swedish native animals such wolf, lynx, elk, reindeer and wolverine. In my ignorance I’d pictured a wolverine as being a small wolf but, no, it’s more like a fierce mini-bear. We also visited the old Swedish schoolrooms and houses, decorated as for Christmases long ago. Although they weren’t strictly on my research list, fresh, wam gingerbread or pepparkakor was being given away there so …
One of the cornerstones of my Stockholm research was visiting colourful Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm, where I knew Hannah Anna Goodbody would have a shop. She wouldn’t be able to afford the top-end retail streets of Västerlånggatan and Österlånggatan but we found just the spot off Stortorget, home of the Christmas market. Stortorget might be my favourite part of Gamla Stan just because of the beautiful rainbow of buildings that surrounds it.
Other highlights of Stockholm were a visit to the Gold Room, full of Viking gold and containing the wishing well where Hannah, Nico, Josie, Maria and Carina make their first Christmas wishes; the ice bar; the smart district of Östermalm, where Albin, Hannah’s troublesome ex/boyfriend lives his smug life; and the Vasa Museum that houses the Vasa, the ornately carved ship that took years to build and minutes to sink in 1628. (Having watched it vanish beneath the waves, the king left in a huff.) In the snow we rode the trams and walked in parks, gazed over bridges at the rushing water and enjoyed sunsets that began before 3pm. I was cold but enchanted.
Back in Småland, Christina had lined up her friends to help me with my research. I interviewed people who’d moved from the UK to Sweden, others about the Swedish education system and an ice hockey player – ice hockey has a role in Christmas Wishes as Nico was once a rising star. I enjoyed a julbord (festive smörgåsbord) at a manor house at the edge of a lake and learned about the food, visited Huskvarna museum (where Nico’s brother works) and an old Swedish house decorated for Christmas and ate fika (afternoon tea). I also learned a little about tomtar, the gnomes reputed to live beneath Swedish houses and who decorate the landscape in Christmas hats.
St Lucia Day
December 13th is St Lucia Day, which celebrates the bringing of light into the darkness of Swedish Winter. We attended a service beautiful in its simplicity. Each year a young woman’s chosen to be Lucia and is attended by handmaidens and star boys, all wearing white. Lucia wears a red sash and a crown of lit candles. The retinue paraded into church singing Santa Lucia so sweetly it brought tears to my eyes. And, wow, does Lucia have to learn a lot of words! She took the lead in every song for half an hour. Entertainingly, Lucia in Eksjö arrived on horseback. This isn’t actually a requirement but it added colour to the evening, watching her clip-clop into the main square while carollers sang around the tree.
A day that remains in my memory was when we trekked through the snow to the cemetery to light candles for Christina’s dearly departed. With the pine trees towering over us and lanterns at each resting place it reminded me of Narnia. The serenity and quiet was a contrast to the bustling streets of Stockholm.
And the evening that stands out is Birgitta taking us to an ice-hockey match! It was awesome. From the instant the local team skated out in a shower of fireworks I was hooked. I’d return to Sweden tomorrow if I could, just to catch another match.
Sue Moorcroft’s new novel, Christmas Wishes is available in EB now and the paperback publishes on 12 November.