Very many years ago, on this exact date, I was sitting in our large dining room with my mother. It was only us. My father was out in the Amazon somewhere for business purposes and our house in Lima felt very large without him. My sister was still a baby, asleep upstairs. The maid had been given the evening off, so here we were, my mother and I, having a party all on our own.
The table was covered in one of my mother’s precious linen tablecloths—always a major issue in Lima as the cold and damp winters tended to leave everything in the linen cupboard covered in a green fuzz. The china was our best, the crystal glasses sparkled in the light of the candles. My mother was wearing one of her long dresses. I remember thinking she looked very beautiful, her hair in a chignon, her shoulders bare. I was wearing my best dress and white knee socks with black patent leather shoes. We took this partying at home seriously in my family.
We’d had crab omelette for dinner. My mother loved Kamchatka crab and she made this absolutely lovely sauce with crab and dill which she then filled a fluffy omelette with. I still think this particular omelette is the best ever, even if I’ve never been able to replicate my mother’s crab sauce.
“We’re celebrating the advent of spring,” my mother explained. “And such things require the best food.”
After the omelette, we had ice cream. Well, I had ice cream—coconut ice cream. To this day, I cannot eat a scoop of coconut ice cream without being transported back to that evening in Lima.
April 30th in Lima has little to do with spring. But for my mother, who always suffered from homesickness while away from Sweden, April 30th was as important as Christmas. Almost. She told me of bonfires and songs, of how she and every other university student in Sweden would spend the entire day welcoming spring. Swedish university students still do that, starting the day with champagne breakfast and ending it with more champagne. Pretty Swedish young women will wear thin spring dresses “because it’s finally spring”. Young Swedish men will skip the jacket “because winter is over”.
The Swedish weather rarely cooperates with all this outspoken yearning for spring. More often than not, April 30th is cold. Icy cold. Those bonfires we light to usher in the six months of long days and (hopefully) balmy days are necessary to keep our fingers from freezing. Most of us shiver in our spring coats and wish we’d worn our winter stuff instead, but nope, not on April 30th, not on the day we welcome spring.
The tradition to celebrate spring on this date is old. Very old, even. It harkens back to ancient celebrations of Beltane, when the grass was long enough for the cattle to be let out to pasture. Our forebears had more to be grateful for than we do – watching the Beltane bonfires meant they’d survived yet another winter. I bet they did their share of carousing as well on this evening which, this far north, has dusk lingering until well after eight, the skies acquiring a violet hue that one rarely sees other than in April and early May. A night of magic, of hope and returning life.
All of this, my mother shared with me that long-gone April 30th. And then we sang. We sang about May, about walking through meadows. We sang about larks and blossoming green valleys. We sang about winter winds that died and were replaced by summer breezes. We sang of youth and brave heroic men, of Swedish steel and Karl XII (and no, let us not go there, but hey, we go a bit bombastic on occasions such as this). My favourite song, however, was the one with the catchy refrain in Latin: Oh jerum, jerum, jerum, quae mutatio rerum.
I loved this song because during the last verse we had to stand on our chairs and sing. I had no idea what I was singing, but I knew the words by heart and sang until we were done when my mother sort of oozed back down to sit and began to cry instead. Homesickness is a bummer…
The song as such is still one of my favourites. It’s originally a German song but us Swedes appropriated it back in the early 19th century and since then it is a must song at most formal events in the world of academia. And yes, we still stand on our chairs while singing the last verse, after which we toast each other, empty our glasses, clamber off our chairs and leave the dining room for the dance hall.
Some things are inherited from one generation to the other. Just like my mother, I always serve cured salmon on Good Friday. Just like my mother, I consider April 30th to be a very important date. Just like her, I want bonfires and songs. Just like her, I’ve made sure my children can join in as we sing, watching their delight at being allowed to stand on their chairs with a little smile. In difference to her, since I’ve become an adult I’ve always been home for April 30th.
Tonight we will light the bonfire hubby has prepared so carefully. We will pop open champagne and toast the returning light. And at some point we will lift our glasses and sing:
Oh, jerum, jerum, jerum
Quae mutatio rerum
I will think of my mother. And of sun and spring. And maybe of coconut ice cream.