Spring is in the air after a long, challenging winter. Maybe that’s why I’ve embraced spring decorating with unusual fervor this year. I’ve been inspired by fastelavnsris and påskeris—the festively decorated branches seen in Scandinavia around Easter time.
Like a lot of holiday traditions, the origin of these decorated branches goes way back. “Fastelavn” is the Scandinavian word for Carnival, the celebration that precedes Lent, and “Påske” means Easter. “Ris” is a bundle of fresh branches—typically birch. But these twigs didn’t always represent a celebration: In the old days, some parents struck their children with branches on Good Friday as a reminder of Jesus’ suffering. The custom later evolved from a pious act into a more lighthearted fertility ritual: people “flogged” each other with budding branches in the hope that a little of the powerful life force might rub off.
I’ve been keeping an eye on Aallotar, a new duo formed by Finnish-American fiddler Sara Pajunen and Finnish accordionist Teija Niku. The two are currently touring the western United States in support of their debut album, “In Transit,” released today.
A century ago, Pajunen and Niku’s ancestors lived within miles of each other in western Finland. Aallotar is founded on the common musical heritage the two share, but it also celebrates how geography and time have shaped their cultural differences. I recently caught up with Sara and got the scoop on this newest musical collaboration and the album.
L–R: Sara Pajunen and Teija Niku
How did you originally connect with accordionist Teija Niku?
Sara Pajunen: Teija and I met when Kaivama and her group, Polka Chicks, played Finnfest 2011 in San Diego. The two groups then toured together in the summer of 2013.
Let’s face it: Some days you need all the help you can get. And on those days it doesn’t hurt to have Mjölnir at your ready, just in case. The hammer belonging to the Norse god Thor, Mjölnir is supposed to be capable of leveling mountains. And that’s good enough for you and me when it’s time to appeal that parking ticket, clean out the fridge, or ask the boss for a raise.
I was Christmas shopping for my husband when this stylized Thor’s hammer caught my eye on Etsy, and I was immediately drawn to the fun variation on the theme. Artist Irene Davis has struck just the right balance between rough-hewn simplicity and playfulness—a little “Viking bling,” as my husband so aptly put it.
Davis’ designs are available in pewter, bronze and sterling silver.
Photo: Doug Bratland
My article about a recent stay on Svalbard appears in this month’s issue of Viking magazine. I feel so fortunate that I could visit this Arctic archipelago, which lies halfway between Norway and the North Pole. And writing this feature was a great opportunity to relive the whole otherworldly experience.
In addition to tips for would-be travelers, I was able to throw in some curious facts about Svalbard. For example, did you know that cats aren’t allowed as pets on Svalbard? (They’re a threat to the bird population.) And did you know that no one is buried there? (The permafrost doesn’t allow for the decomposition of bodies.) No babies are born either. (There are better medical facilities on the mainland, should complications arise.)
Baby, it’s cold outside. Which is why I knit my daughter this supremely warm and soft scarf. It was fun, fast, and you can make it, too!
I used Misti Chunky Baby Alpaca yarn, and the basic pattern (Ribs and Ruffles scarf) is available on their website. Skip the ruffle instructions (steps 1–3) and work the Eve’s Rib pattern (steps 4–6) throughout. Since my daughter wanted a wider scarf, I cast on 31 stitches. (Note that the instructions say 15. You can make the scarf any width, but you’ll want to increase in multiples of four, since the pattern repeats every four stitches.) My daughter also wanted an infinity scarf, so I knit to a length of 60″ (152 cm) before joining the ends using a three-needle bind-off.
I’ll admit that my modifications to this pattern pushed it into three-skein territory. To keep the cost in check, you could scale back the width a bit. But when it’s -20° F on a cold winter morning, those extra ounces are kjempe koselig and worth every penny.
I’ve been a fan of handmade soap for years. I love the long-lasting, rough-hewn bars and the wonderful fragrances. But a nice bar of handcrafted soap can be pricey. When I got hooked on the stuff, I quickly decided the way to make this an affordable luxury was to make it myself.
Soapmaking has likely been going on for about 5000 years, and the basic chemical reaction is the same: An acid (the fats) and base (the lye) combine to form soap, which is technically a salt. Our ancestors probably made soap from the ashes and animal fats left over from their cooking fires. Today, the process is equal parts art and science, with an array of techniques, ingredients, fragrances, colors, and molds to choose from.
The cover story of the January travel issue of Viking magazine features my “Island Escapes” article — the last piece I wrote in my role as editor of the magazine.
The article recaps a fantastic trip I made to Northern Norway’s Lofoten and Vesterålen archipelagos with the magazine’s art director and Oslo-based photographer Nancy Bundt. I will forever remember this as the “pinch-me tour” due to the amazing scenery and wonderful people we encountered. Warm sunshine, sandy beaches, and turquoise water in the Arctic? Who knew?
After a long day of work on a sub-zero evening, I was delighted to come home and find a package from a relative in Finland. I was even more excited to open it and find a Marimekko Pieni Unikko Smartbag and napkins. I’ve carried another “smartbag” in my purse for the past couple of years, and it’s the only reusable bag I’ve ever managed to use. After a couple of years of hard use, it’s ready to be retired and replaced by my new Marimekko version, which is just a little bit roomier, sturdier, and more stylish.
If you have a case of smartbag envy, you can find this one—and others—on the Marimekko website.
Last weekend I accomplished something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: I made a Sami-style bracelet. I’ve been eyeing them in Scandinavian gift shops and on Etsy, and looking for an opportunity to learn how to make them. My intentions paid off: I traveled with St. Olaf College’s Folk School Interim class on a field trip to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where—among other fun things—the group took a bracelet workshop from Norma Refsal.
Refsal is a master metalsmith and a great teacher—I was amazed how well every student’s bracelet turned out! I came home with supplies for 3 more kits so I could make them for my husband and kids, all of whom (unlike me) can claim some Sami heritage.
Want to make one yourself? If you live in the Midwest, you can sign up for Refsal’s class offered by Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum this April. Or check out the bracelet classes offered this spring at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, cheats for episode Minnesota.
Photo: Doug Bratland