By Pernilla Gäverth 4:59 pm PST

Most countries celebrate Lent with pancakes, others with doughnuts, but in Sweden it’s all about the semla bun.

The “semla” –  a small, wheat flour bun, flavored with cardamom and filled with almond paste and whipped cream – has become something of an icon in Sweden. The traditions of semla are rooted in “fettisdag” (Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday) when the buns were eaten during a final celebratory feast before the Christian fasting period. At first, a semla was simply a bun, eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvägg).

A little bit of history

Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (from the French “Mardi Gras”) is held the day before Ash Wednesday. It signals the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent (a time of penance and renewal before Easter) in the liturgical calendar of many Christian traditions. Shrove Tuesday is the last day of “Shrovetide”, a three-day period leading up to Lent.

Lent is a 40-day season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday. It is a period of preparation to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter. According to Saint Ambrose Church in Tucson, AZ, “During Lent we seek the Lord in prayer by reading the Holy Scriptures; we serve by giving alms; and we practice self-control through fasting. We are called not only to abstain from luxuries during Lent, but to a true inner conversion of heart as we seek to follow Christ’s will more faithfully.” Lent occurs exactly 47 days before Easter and is a moving holiday determined by the lunar calendar.

Semla ready to taste. (Photo. Middleland)

Therefore, Shrove Tuesday is both a day of spiritual preparation and celebration. As a day of spiritual preparation, it is seen as a time to cleanse the soul of sinful appetites through confession and submission to God.

As a feast day, it is the last opportunity to gorge before the solemn season of Lent begins. Lent is characterized by a forty-day fast (or abstinence) from certain foods and practices. Therefore, Shrove Tuesday is the last day to feast on foods (meat and fish, fatty foods, sugar, eggs and dairy products) that are traditionally forbidden during Lent.

Today, semlor (the plural of semla) usually appear in bakery windows as near after Christmas as is deemed decent – and sometimes even before. This is followed by a collective, nationwide moan about how it gets earlier every year. Shortly thereafter people begin to eat them as if the world were ending. But, increasingly, not just any semla will do. Every year, at around the same time that the bakeries fill with semlor, the Swedish newspapers start to be filled with semla taste tests. Panels of ‘experts’ dissect and inspect tables full of semlor to find the best in town.}

Semla is part of Swedish culture. (Photo: Middleland)

The Swedish “Fika” – the sacred coffee break

To the uninitiated, such reverence and hysteria over a cream bun might seem at odds with all things normal. But the annual semla hysteria is just a part of a bigger picture – a social phenomenon that is uniquely Swedish: fika.

Fika has no translation. It means to take a break with colleagues or friends, over coffee and (usually) something sweet to eat. But it means so much more than that. It is ritual, it is tradition. It is something, if invited, you should never say no to…