If you happened to watch The Tonight Show in the middle of August, you may have seen Swedish actress Alicia Vikander and Jimmy Fallon donning conical crayfish-themed hats, singing a song, and taking shots of aquavit. "We're in crayfish season," Vikander explained, referring to a period in the calendar when people in Sweden get together to eat crayfish. The gatherings vary from just a few individuals to uncountable thousands, and the hats and the songs and the booze are important aspects of a kräftskiva, or crayfish party.
Could this be yet another depraved, esoteric ritual in Swedish culture? Is it a tribute to the incestuous Norse god Njord, deity of all things nautical? No, the party is strictly crayfish-themed and features no other references to the sea, with exception of shrimp—but neither shrimp nor crayfish are representations of Njord. The start of the crayfish season corresponds (sort of) with the transition from the Cancer zodiac (called "the crayfish" in Swedish), but that is simply a coincidence with a historical explanation. A crayfish party is not a mystical occasion; it's just a big fucking slaughter. The Swedes' fondness for crayfish has more likely originated from a sense of familiarity, as they also dwell in a wet, cold, dark place.
The popular tradition of eating crayfish began in the mid-1800s, but crayfish had been around in aristocratic circles since the 16th century. In the beginning of the 1900s, Swedes were binging so heavily on crayfish that restrictions were introduced to avoid overfishing, limiting the season to August and a few months beyond. The ban was lifted in 1994, but crayfishing is still heavily regulated —unless you have access to private crayfish waters—so most people do the only reasonable thing: buy frozen, underdeveloped crayfish imported from China.
A shellfish connoisseur might get her crayfish alive from a one-eyed fisherman by the docks. They have preferably been starved for 24 hours in order to cleanse themselves (i.e., defecate), which makes for a more respectable party. No one likes their food to be full of shit. The crayfish are put head first into a pot of boiling broth of water, beer, salt, sugar, and a bunch of crown dill. This will ensure a swift and possibly painless death. After a few minutes, the raging broth is cooled down and stored in the fridge, where the crayfish are left to soak overnight.
There are several ways to eat crayfish. The enthusiast will go to great lengths to extract all fluids and excavate every orifice of the crustacean. The lazy person settles for breaking off and crushing the claws, sucking out the brains, and peeling the tail. The rest is thrown away. Whatever the preference, eating crayfish is a messy ordeal that requires a lot of sucking and slurping. Side dishes vary, but common items include white bread or crispbread, butter, aged cheese, shrimp, aioli, and Västerbottenost cheese pie. Artichokes are a popular vegetarian alternative because it's fiddly finger food, just like crayfish.
While the food certainly was missing on The Tonight Show, that was essentially a good thing. The debauchery that would have ensued—had Alicia Vikander and Jimmy Fallon each been presented with a bib, a tray of crayfish, and more liquor—would not have been suitable for broadcast television. This is largely due to the low food-to-alcohol ratio. Crayfish are not meaty creatures. Having to completely destroy a nasty exoskeleton just to get a few, tiny pieces of meat—getting sticky and smelling like a dirty penis up to the elbows in the process—evokes frustration in hungry people, and they will take action to suppress the emotional disturbance. Singing and drinking is the method of choice.
In accordance with tradition, you do a shot after every schnapps song. Thus, as soon as some bastard starts singing, you better get something in your glass and join in. After a few songs, people usually lose interest and just drink out of habit. A dozen crayfish tails, some brains, and a few slices of bread won't help much to retain decency against the degenerating properties of aquavit. Sooner or later, every crayfish party turns into a macabre spectacle of boozed-up beasts in silly hats, brutalizing an inferior species.
If you are new to crayfish parties and get an invitation to one, try to make sure that it is not hosted at your place. If it is, see to it that it's held outside, or your home will inevitably smell like a medieval brothel for several weeks. If you are just a guest, try to indulge, for there are few other occasions when savagery is as widely acceptable.