Candles and carols in Södermalm

December 5, 2012

I was walking around Södermalm, Stockholm’s self-appointed boho district, when I glanced down a slim sidestreet and saw the grassy temptation of a park.  The light was hurriedly fading and I had an evening business meeting.  There wasn’t time; there definitely wasn’t time.  But, despite this, I headed for the dim greenery, the executive decision having been made by over-ruling emotions indifferent to the tawdry claims of common sense.

By the time I reached my target, two facts had been established.  First, the park was, relatively for a chilly Swedish twilight, pretty packed.  And second, it wasn’t a park; instead it was a small-ish square, or rather a small-ish church square.  The church in question, a burly Gothic beauty, went brooding up into the ever-darkening sky over to my left.  Yet most people were heading right, down a path which eventually dead-ended at a shallow, walled pit.

The path was pretty, lined with tealights, stones and heathery, leafy plants.  But the pit was really pretty, tealights all around its perimeter forming a gentle ring of fire, an atmospheric yellow-gold guard against the murk.  Better still, upon reaching the circle I found out that these votives were softly scented; wisps of camomile, vanilla and lavender reached and pleased my nose.  Lumière is good, but lumière with lavender is wonderful.

The whole scene was deeply moving and peaceful, a fact helped by my fellow onlookers’ silence.  I asked a pair of neighbouring women if they spoke any English; they nodded yes, of course.  (I soon learned that pretty much every Swede speaks word-perfect English.)

“What are these candles for?” I asked, quietly.

“For the dead,” the nearer lady explained – “today is All Saints’ Day in Sweden.”  She then added, just as I was thinking the same thing: “Not like the American Halloween.”

Better, I thought, as the quiet resumed.  A few drops of rain fell.  A man bent down and added another candle to the party.  A tear rolled shyly down his partner’s cheek, as she frowned.

“Our parents are not buried here, did not die here,” said the second lady suddenly, the words coming out in a rush.  “But they’re in the north, far away, so we come here.  It’s still something.”  She seemed sad as she said it, stopping as abruptly as she’d started, and looking up slightly desperately, as if seeking divine reassurance for this geographical cheat.  I liked her, liked her straightforwardness, and tried to think of something good to say in return.

“I’m sure they really appreciate it,” I offered, my voice cracking a bit.  I had surprised myself by believing the assertion, me the agnostic promising grace from those in an afterlife.

Both ladies smiled, seemed pleased.  The rain increased, still silent but clearly here for the long haul.

“I’ll leave you to be alone,” I said, aware that they probably craved solitude, kind as they were, and turning to leave.

“Did you see inside the church?” called the first woman over my shoulder.  “It has great sound.”  I promised to check it out, and went to do so immediately, shuffling quickly across the grass, my collar up close to my neck.

Within the vast, warm building, visitors congregated at the back where one entered.  As I went in, around two dozen were scattered over the pews, with a few others loitering in the cloisters, taking photographs by the aisles, texting from the transepts.  Some had the transient feel of passers-by, while others sat easily like regular attendees.  But everyone’s attention was on the 20-strong orchestra up by the apse whom, at their conductor’s urgent encouragement, were singing and playing successive Swedish hymns.

The notes hung heavy and poignant in the air: an angelic sound in an angelic place.  I took a seat and closed my eyes, letting the music flood over me without distraction.  I had no clue what the words meant, but it didn’t matter; I spoke the language of the overall sounds, as all humans do.  It seemed a high summit of male and female voices, with vital issues at stake.  The men began patient and consistent, within themselves, while the ladies sang more emotionally, determinedly, boosted by the energy of righteousness.  In reaction to this, the men’s chants took on firmer, graver tones; still the women pleaded, strong and passionate, refusing to budge.  Some doubt entered the male notes.  In the end, in a brassy crescendo, a harmony was reached, a well-deserved harmony you felt, and a dénouement swiftly arrived, with now only the embers of this former fire remaining.  A contentment filled the church.

I opened my eyes, unsure of how long I’d been there, yet very sure that I needed to leave.  My heavenly detour had left me hellishly late for that meeting.

(Richard Mellor)