What will you do with your cherished Christmas traditions over the coming weeks? If you’re reading this in the South Pacific then your festive dinner will probably look much the same as ever – with all the usual trimmings – but you might be missing some key family members since your government has sealed your country off from the rest of the world, meaning there’ll be no aunt visiting from Athens or granny from Hong Kong. If you’re in Germany you’ve been living with the angst caused by a steady stream of communications telling you what Weihnachten will not be like this year and, at the time of reading this, you’ll be waiting for yet more measures to be announced to wipe away any remaining cheer. If you’re in Sweden then you’re quite possibly going about your business as usual and planning a julbord (Christmas buffet) like any other year, with all the friends, family, glögg and trappings you’ve been accustomed to for the past 30 or so years.
While I’ve been chronicling the Swiss way of dealing with the pandemic in this column since the start (a generally pragmatic blend of balancing hygiene measures and social restrictions while keeping the economy open, with some recent wobbles), I hadn’t been able to make my way up to Stockholm to experience the Swedish way – until Thursday that is. What a shock!
As Switzerland has moved to shutter restaurants from 19.00 (because the virus doesn’t infect people over breakfast or lunch, we must assume) and close down Sunday trading (even the virus needs a day of rest), I don’t think I was fully prepared for how relaxed life in Sweden remains. Despite domestic political pressure for stricter measures and external criticism from the neighbours to follow a harder line, the Swedish government’s approach of advising how people should behave, combined with peer pressure, has had limited effect. A quick scan around the arrivals terminal revealed that there’s been no uptake on masks, the plexi-glass business is not doing the roaring trade it’s enjoying elsewhere around the world and hugs and kisses were very much in evidence. So far, so super normal. In Stockholm, the streets were certainly quieter than usual (the Swedes have been following the work-from-home advice with great enthusiasm I’m told) but the restaurants were buzzing with friends and colleagues ordering another bottle (or two) and knocking back assorted varieties of schnapps. Some shops had half-hearted distance measures and some hygiene amenities but overall it felt pretty much like Christmas 2019 or 2007.
For the past eight years we’ve hosted a Christmas cocktail and dinner party at a favourite hotel in Stockholm and were conflicted, albeit briefly, if it should go ahead this year. About a month ago I did a quick Saturday afternoon ring-around to our regular guests to gauge the mood and after three calls it was clear that there would be no break with tradition. “We have to do our party, no changes,” said a friend. “We need to laugh and celebrate more than ever.” Shortly after I spoke to the hotel and asked how they would cope and if it was going to be weird with various government recommendations but the view was, “Let’s do it.”
Yes, they would adapt some of the seating arrangements and they’d need to abide by the early last call on alcohol sales but aside from those tweaks we were promised that it would feel like the regular seasonal fixture it has become for our guests and the hotel’s staff. Fast forward and it’s now the morning after, and I’m happy to report that they were right. The festivities ended a little earlier than usual at the hotel but thanks to some foresight by our friends there was already a social-continuity contingency plan in play. At 22.30 sharp taxis pulled up in front of the hotel and we were whisked to a sprawling apartment high above Östermalm. En route a friend explained that the new early shutdown meant that apartments and houses had become nightclubs and he remarked that at least once a week the dancing and merriment wouldn’t wrap up till 5.00 in the morning at his own abode. Judging by the scene in the apartment across the street he was right, as another party was in full flow. “This is what the new night-time economy looks like in Sweden,” remarked another guest.
As the evening carried on conversations and catch-ups revealed another interesting fact about life in Sweden – almost everyone in attendance had had the virus, some as far back as March. And were they happy with how things were going? How their neighbours regarded them? Was the Swedish way the better way? “It’s not perfect but what’s the alternative?” asked our hostess. “Is Germany or France better? Have the Irish figured it out? We have to do our own thing.”