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Snaps decorum

It is no secret that we Scandinavians are fond of our flavored “vodka”: snaps, akvavit (from ‘aqua vitae’, water of life), brännvin (‘burn-wine’, distilling is typically referred to as burning), or whatever you call it. With my Swedish background, I use the term snaps to speak of the herbal liquor that litteraly goes with all festive meals.

As snaps holds such an important position in Scandinavian festivitis, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of etiquette surronding it as well. And with anything involving plenty of etiquette, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of misconseptions about how things should be done. This post will get to the bottom of what is right and why by offering the truth™.

A side note on etiquette: always remember that the main point of etiquette is to facilitate social interaction. The instant it stops doing so all bets are off the table. This means that if you find yourself in a situation where people are barbarically butchering any notion of true etiquette™, “do as the Romans”.

The basics

Snaps is typically served ice cold (because of the alcoholic content, it is possible to get it below zero degrees Celsius, which gives it a pleasant viscosity) in small slender glasses (typically holding 3–6 cl). Drinking snaps is a communal activity, and as such, some measure of coordination is needed lest someone gets left behind. Although a toast among friends might be sufficient, Swedes tend to prefer a song. Whether the actual drinking happens at a specific place in the song, or at the end, it is always prudent to raise you glass towards the people sitting around you to acknowledge that you are about to share this ancient tradition. It is equally prudent to again raise your glass once you have tasted the water of life, as to say: I too survived!

A common misunderstanding is that you have to empty the glass every time. This is likely due to the confusing naming of the snapses, as the first one is referred to as Helan (‘the Whole’). This is not a description of how much you drink, but how much is left in the glass before you drink. The snaps after Helan is called Halvan (‘the Half’), which reflects the fact that you would typically get one glass, which you were supposed to drink in two goes. What was half a glass back then (one jungfru, approximately 8.5 cl) is pretty close to what a full glass is today (arond 3–6 cl), so the amount of snaps that “the Whole” corresponds to works out to be about one glass, but that is not the reason for the name.

To make a snaps last longer, and to be able to socialize throughout multiple snapsvisor (‘snaps songs’, singular: snapsvisa) without getting shit faced, it is common to “bite the snaps off” three times, meaning that you dring about a third for each song.

The order of snaps

The communal nature of deinking snaps also means that it falls on everyone to keep track of how manny has been had already. Much like the aboriginals of Australia sing the features of the land into communal memory and thus existence, Swedes sing to communaly remember the snaps count. We do this by naming the different drinks depending on where in the order they occur. The names are:

  1. Helan (‘the Whole’)
  2. Halvan (‘the Half’)
  3. Ternsen (‘the Third’)
  4. Kvarten (‘the Fourth’, sometimes spelt Quarten)
  5. Kvinten (‘the Fifth’, sometimes spelt Quinten)
  6. Sexten (‘the Sixth’)
  7. Septen (‘the Seventh’)

At this point people start to diagree, which may not come as a surprise, seeing as people are about to have their eighth serving… but most peole would agree that the following fit somewhere down the line, and in the given order:

Any respectable book of snapsvisor will have a list of the names assumed in that particular collection.

The singing

The songs are generally traditional tunes with lyrics glorifying drinking. It is also common to allude to the current festivity, or to which drink in the order is about to be had. The one that all Swedes know by heart is called Hellan går (‘The Whole goes’):

Helan går, sjung hoppfaderallanallanlej
Helan går, sjung hoppfaderallanlej
Och den som inte Helan tar
Hen heller inte Halvan får
Helan går
… sjung hopp faderallan lej!

The drink is ingested between the ellipses. An English translation goes something like this:

The Whole goes, sing hop-pha-der-allan-allan-ley
The Whole goes, sing hop-pha-der-allan-ley
And the ones who doesn’t take the Whole
(S)He neither gets to take the Half
The Whole goes
… sing hop pha-der-allan ley!

A more singable version could be:

The Whole goes down, sing hop-pha-der-allan-allan-ley
The Whole goes down, sing hop-pha-der-allan-ley
Now, if you were to miss the Whole
You will not get to take the Half
The Whole goes down
… sing hop pha-der-allan ley!

A popular and well-known example of a song with a festive theme is Hej tomtegubbar (tomtegubbar is a tricky word to translate, as tomte is a combined gnome and Santa Clause, and gubbar means ‘old men’… I’ll go with ‘Hello Santamen’):

Hej tomtegubbar slå i glasen och låt oss lustiga vara
Hej tomtegubbar slå i glasen och låt oss lustiga vara
En liten tid, vi leva här med mycket möda och stort besvär
Hej tomtegubbar slå i glasen och låt oss lustiga vara!

Which translates into:

Hello Santamen, pour into the glasses and let us be funny
Hello Santamen, pour into the glasses and let us be funny
A short time, we live here with many toils and great discomfort
Hello Santamen, pour into the glasses and let us be funny

This has a very typical alcohol romantic message in a Christmassy setting. The idea is that the toild and tears of every-day life can be drunk away as long as you keep pouring into the glasses. I personally view it as a very black kind of humor, which I am very fond of.

The end

So, now you know a little more about Scandinavian culture, and if you get the chance, try to enjoy the snaps and the singing. Most people will sing more willingly than well, so if you don’t speak the language, just try to hum a long and follow suit when people start drinking.

My favorite flavors (in alphabetical order) are: Bäska Droppar (‘bitter drops’), Skåne Akvavit (‘Scania akvavit’) and Ösgöta Sädes Brännvin (‘east Gothia grain burn-wine’). Scania is the southern-most province of Sweden (the truck brand is named after the province). East Gothia is also a province of Sweden.

2013–12–22 | Sweden, snaps
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