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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?

Have you ever wondered what's behind the Swedish fondness for the wooden butter knife?

Why do Swedes care so much about butter knives?
What is it about the 'smörkniv' that so captures the Swedish imagination? Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Almost every Swedish households will have several of these in their cutlery drawer, and if you go to a souvenir shop you’re bound to see plenty of them, perhaps with an elk or Viking decoration carved into the handle.

Dairy in general, including butter, plays a big part in the Swedish diet – although it only became really accessible to the majority after the Second World War – so the knife is often used to spread butter or Bregott (an oil-based spread) on crisp bread (knäckebröd) or open sandwiches (smörgåsar).

The Swedish butter knife (smörkniv) doesn’t have a blade but is rounded for ease of spreading. So what is it that makes them such a beloved symbol of Swedish culture?

When I asked about the butter knife on Twitter, it was clear a lot of people have strong opinions. Some said that the use of wood rather than metal made it distinctly Swedish, and that it did the job better than other materials.

People from nearby countries, namely Finland, Norway and Estonia, jumped in to say they also have wooden butter knives – and that one reason they’re so close to people’s hearts is that it’s a typical early woodwork or handicraft project in schools. 

Others agreed with me that the Swedes can’t claim the butter knife as unique.

But maybe it’s not the shape or material of the knife that makes it so Swedish, but rather the way it’s used. The Local columnist Richard Orange argued that the Swedishness of the butter knife is the way one knife is used by everyone at the table (and that people who keep it on their plate are committing a huge faux pas). In that way, it shows the value placed on collectivism in Sweden.

Either way, it’s not the only dairy utensil that there’s a Nordic complex over.

Swedes can be equally protective of their cheese cutters (osthyvel), a tool for getting thin, even slices of cheese, and woe betide the person who uses them incorrectly, leaving a “ski slope” (skidbacke) in the cheese. Watch the video below to see what I’m talking about:

Member comments

  1. Let’s hear what you think! Is there something special about the Swedish smörkniv, or maybe another seemingly mundane item that sums up Sweden to you?

  2. Aren’t many things found in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, probably including wooden butter knives, of Swedish origin, delivered or left behind by harbor raiders and inland invaders, I.e. “Vikings”?

  3. This article was great! Butter knives can be found in all cultures, but I think the Scandinavians have made the butter knife an essential kitchen utensil. So much so that they can not think of using anything else with which to spread their butter. As an immigrant to Sweden, I was fascinated with this and so I started to make butter knives, but with my own design and style. I make mine in porcelain and decorate them with various fun designs under different names for each range because butter knives do not have to be boring 🙂

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedag jul, literally "the thirteenth day of Christmas" always falls on January 6th, which this year is a Friday. It's a public holiday in Sweden meaning many people have a day off. But why is it celebrated it at all?

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedagen, or trettondagen, or Epiphany as it is sometimes referred to in English, is the thirteenth day after Christmas Eve, the day when Swedes celebrate Christmas. Unlike most Swedish holidays such as Midsummer’s Eve (midsommarafton), Easter (påskafton) and Christmas Eve (julafton), the trettondag holiday is celebrated on the actual day, rather than the night before on trettondagsafton.

As a Christian holiday, it marks the day the three wise men met baby Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and therefore the day God’s son arrived on earth. In Denmark and Norway, the day is still referred to as helligtrekongersdag, or “day of the three holy kings”.

Unlike the Twelfth Night or the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is considered to be the last official day of Christmas in many Christian countries, the official final day of Christmas in Sweden falls on the twentieth day after Christmas, January 13th or tjugondag Knut. So, you can keep your decorations up for a while yet.

In Småland, trettondagen is sometimes referred to as farängladagen or änglafardagen(literally: “angel travel day”), as it was previously believed that the dead returned home the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, returning to their graves on January 6th.

How is it celebrated in Sweden?

In modern Sweden, most people don’t do anything in particular to celebrate trettondagen, other than perhaps taking down their Christmas decorations (although as mentioned above, many people do this on January 13th instead). It’s a day off for many, and state-run alcohol chain Systembolaget is closed.

In the Swedish Church, trettondagen is a day for raising funds for various charitable campaigns elsewhere in the world, such as this year’s campaign to end child marriage, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence.

The Swedish Church will often hold services on trettondagen or trettondagsafton. If you’re interested, you can find out what services churches in your parish will be holding here. Just type in your address, then look for trettonhelg to see what’s on.

How did Swedes celebrate in the past?

Traditionally in Sweden, the day was marked by boys and young men walking from town to town telling the story of the three wise men. These young men were known as stjärngossar (literally: star boys), a precursor to the stjärngossar you still see at Saint Lucia celebrations in modern Sweden.

This stjärngossetåg (star boy procession) would include the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who represented Europe, Africa and Asia, wearing pointy hats and white shirts, alongside King Herod, who Mary and Joseph were fleeing from (and the reason Jesus was born in a stable), Herod’s servants and a julbock (Christmas goat).

These storytellers would occasionally be given presents or money, and taking part in a stjärngossetåg was often a way for poor boys and men to earn some money, or even be given something alcoholic to drink.

The julbock‘s role was to collect these gifts or money, and it could even have a funnel hanging from its jaw which would lead to a container to collect any snaps gifted to the procession.

This stjärngossetåg still exists in some parts of Sweden, such as on the islands in the Stockholm archipelago.

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