All over Scandinavia, December and January are filled with celebrations of good food, good drink, and good company. Just as certain cookies are part of Swedish Christmas traditions, so are traditional holiday drinks such as Christmas beers, aquavit, and glögg. We can rest assured that there will be plenty of opportunities to offer a hearty “Skål!” to our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family.
Some claim that the word skål has a root in the skulls of the vanquished, from which Viking warriors would drink to celebrate their victory. But this is a grisly tale, and most likely just a story. Most agree that skål, which is the word for bowl in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, harkens back to a time when wooden bowls, sometimes elaborately decorated, would be filled with beer and passed from person to person at community gatherings like weddings or festival days. From that tradition of passing the bowl, the term skål is now also a toast – “Cheers!”
The history of imbibing on special (and not so special) occasions predates the proliferation of Christianity in Scandinavia. The Norse god Odin was credited with teaching humans how to brew beer, and drinking beer could take the form of worship and offering to the deities. The Norse sagas mention drinking beer, especially in celebration of battle victories, and sometimes in the form of drinking challenges. When harvests were small, however, beer brewing was restricted in order to reserve enough grain for food preparation.
Around the 1500s, the strong stuff made its way into society when brännvin (brændevin in Danish / brennevin in Norwegian), a term for vodka or distilled liquor, became known through Scandinavia. It was primarily distributed as medicine, but we can see that a wider use had become common by 1551 when King Christian III of Denmark-Norway attempted to ban serving brännvin on holidays to prevent people from attending church while drunk. By the 1600s, brännvin was widely available through home-based distilling, though the results often tasted awful, which led to adding herbs and other plants to improve the flavor. These selective infusions became what we now know as aquavit, which is regularly served with herring at any decent smörgåsbord.
King Gustav I Vasa of Sweden was fond of a German drink called Glühwein, which was a sweet mixture of wine, sugar, honey, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves. It was later named glödgad vin in 1609, which meant “glowing-hot wine.” The word glögg is a shortened form that first appeared in print in 1870. Swedes consume glögg from the beginning of Advent through the New Year, as the beverage is almost exclusively reserved for the Christmas season. Swedish glögg is a souped-up version of the German drink consisting mainly of red wine, brandy, and port infused with spices, and then raisins and blanched almonds are added to the cup.
Glögg is preferably served in a special little mug with a handle. While it’s not so typical to “Skål!” while holding an adorable cup of glögg, it can and does happen and everyone enjoys the ritual:
Raise your glass.
Say “Skål!” with gusto.
Look your companions in the eye.
Take a drink.
Look your companions in the eye again.
Set down your glass.
This exciting travelling exhibition focuses on the heritage of beer and aquavit through stories, traditions, and recipes. Over fifty historic and contemporary artifacts related to Scandinavian drinking traditions from the Museum of Danish America, American Swedish Institute, Swedish American Museum, the Nordic Heritage Museum, the ASHM and the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum are included in the exhibit. It may be the first collaborative project to involve such a broad spectrum of Scandinavian-American museums; it is as if we all gathered around the table—Skål!
Exhibition no longer on display.