Same procedure as last year…Today is trettonde dag jul, and with it our second Swedish Christmas comes to a close. If last year I was struck by how very different Christmas traditions seemed in Sweden compared to the U.S., this year what seems even more striking is how very much the same it all seems as last year.
Swedes seem particularly hide-bound when it comes to the winter holiday season. As evidence, I present a tale of two television shows: Kalle Anka och kompisar, and Dinner for One. Kalle Anka, or Donald Duck as you know him, is an oddly popular comic book character in Sweden, a fact which is perhaps related to the staggering and inexplicably enduring popularity of the Kalle Anka Christmas special here. The show in question is the 1958 Walt Disney Christmas special, and it has been shown on Swedish television on Christmas Eve at 3 PM every year since 1959—exactly the same cartoons, only a couple of them Christmas related in any way (and one of those complete with the awkward racism so typical of Disney cartoons from the 30s), with a live narrator every year translating for the kiddies (the cartoons are in English, with Swedish subtitles). OK, so they show the same thing every year, what's the big deal, right? Consider this: in a bad year, Kalle Anka pulls in maybe a little over 3 million viewers in Sweden—it may not sound like much, but its one third of the population of the country, and some years its closer to half. That's right, half the population of the country watches this one show. Live, mind you, they watch it live—I've yet to meet a Swede who would contemplate taping Kalle Anka.
The result is that all of Christmas Eve is scheduled around this TV show. The shops close at 2 so that everyone can get home in time to watch it. The annual concert with the royal family from the palace chapel ends abruptly before Kalle Anka time, presumably so that someone can wheel out a big screen TV for Victoria, Carl Phillip and Madeleine to watch the duck.
Dinner for One is Kalle Anka's New Year's Eve counterpart; not only did it provide the title of this post, its also something of a synecdoche of the Swedish holiday season. Unless you've lived in Northern Europe (a German speaking country, Scandinavia, or the Baltic states, specifically), you've probably never heard of this 11 minute comedy sketch. Despite the fact that it is performed in English by English actors, it has never been shown on TV in either the US or the UK. It was recorded in 1963 for German television, and was rebroadcast a few times as filler because it was an odd length. Over the years it garnered quite a following, spreading outside of Germany. Swedish Television didn't originally want to touch it (because the butler gets quite drunk), but gave in in 1969. Since 1972 it's been a New Year's tradition, which SVT titles Grevinnan och Betjänten. I don't know how many people watch it each year, but absolutely every Swede knows the punchline:
Butler: Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Countess: Same procedure as every year, James.
Is it, as one of Jennifer's co-workers claimed, the funniest sketch in the English language? Doubtful, but there's no denying that it is amusing. I won't even attempt to describe it—after all, it's the digital age, you should take 11 minutes and watch it for yourself.