This article originally appeared on VICE US
“If you only take a sip, sip, sip of this little shot, shot, shot, you will have a lot left, but not that much fun,” go the lyrics of Helen Ericsson’s favorite snapsvisa, or drinking song. And she’s heard a lot of them: for the past 15 years, Ericsson has organized the national and world snapsvisa championships, a competition dedicated to finding the year’s best, for Stockholm’s Spiritmuseum, a museum dedicated to Sweden’s relationship with liquor.
Drinking songs are common all over the world, but the snapsvisa is a wholly Nordic invention. With lyrics written to the tune of well-known melodies, a snaps song is an often comical nod to drinking and traditional Swedish foods, and to celebration and its aftermath. “A good snaps song,” says Ericsson, “can’t be too lengthy and has a good twist at the end.” The songs are typically sung at holidays like Christmas, when toasting with generous shots of schnapps and aquavit accompanies the serving of traditional foods like surströmming (fermented herring).
Snaps songs first began to appear in the mid-19th century, born from the raucous singing of drunk university students. One of those original snapsvisor, “Helan går,” remains the country’s most well-known. It’s so well-known, in fact, that it has become a kind of default Swedish national anthem. The song, says Ericcson, “is the one thing the entire population has in common.”
It was long after Helan går and its lyrical brethren first appeared, however, that snaps songs went from a being a bourgeois, academic diversion to a more popular drinking pastime— ironically, at a time when the Swedish government was putting a cork in alcohol sales. In 1917, the Swedish government adopted the Bratt System, a type of alcohol rationing intended to control drinking-related abuse and violence. While it restricted how much liquor people could buy (1.82 liters per month by 1948), the Bratt System also made social and binge drinking more joyous and wanton; a counterpoint to the sobriety and steadiness the new law enshrined. Snaps songs thrived as a sort of saucy escape from society's expectations and as a reminder to treasure every last drop.
Alcohol rationing came to an end in 1955, but the Swedish government’s tight control of alcohol sales did not. The Systembolaget, a government-run chain of liquor stores established along with the Bratt System, remained the only place to buy liquor, and any beer sold at other retail stores could not contain more than 3.5% alcohol by volume. Selling craft spirits was illegal until 1995, when Sweden’s admission to the European Union required changes in its alcohol policies.
Even so, today, as comprehensive liquor laws continue to make Sweden one of the most highly restricted and expensive places in Europe to drink alcohol, snaps songs still provide a much-needed release valve. They remain just as popular at celebrations today (if not more so) as they were in the past and there’s no sign they’ll be disappearing anytime soon. Even younger generations are increasingly singing and creating snaps songs, says Ericsson, especially at Midsummer and warm-weather crayfish parties where it’s common for teens to play host from a young age.
While the snapsvisa used to be an entirely oral tradition, today, when partygoers run out of snaps songs to sing, they can turn to their smartphones. The Spiritmuseum has 12,000 snaps songs collected in their archives (not all of which are online), including sets they’ve put together for specific holidays and celebrations like Christmas and crayfish season. Each year additional songs are added through the national and world snapsvisa championships.
Most of the snaps songs in the archives are relatively family-friendly, says Ericsson, and many have contemporary political themes, but at private parties, they tend to lean more towards the risque. Which is not to say that some of the songs at the championships aren’t a little bawdy: the subtext of a snapsvisa about a sword swallower who has come out of retirement (written by Caj Gustavsson, this year’s 78-year-old winner of both the national and world competitions) is not exactly veiled. Gustavsson beat over 230 competitors in the nationals, performing his snapsvisa at an intimate 130-person venue that sold out in minutes. He then went on to win again at the worlds where he and his four closest Swedish rivals faced the year’s top five Finnish competitors.
Although snaps songs can be sung any time spirits are on the table, usually, says Ericsson, they aren’t, and that’s part of why she suspects the tradition has stuck around. “We tend to drink snaps at Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, and with our crayfish at the end of summer. We don’t sing every week, so maybe that makes it extra fun and special to sing together.” At these festivities the traditionally Swedish way of drinking—a group of friends and family doing shots of spirits—has not been replaced by a more continental European attitude towards alcohol in which sipping wine or beer is the norm. Snapsvisor are sung as an opening ceremony to the downing of each toast.
While no new snapsvisor are likely to be added to the Spiritmuseum’s archives until the next championships roll around (the nationals will be held on October 5, 2019 and the worlds on November 16, 2019), there are plenty of songs to keep revelers up to their eyeballs in schnapps and aquavit this Christmas. After all, as the lyrics of “Helan går” wisely point out, “he who doesn’t drink first shall never, ever quench his thirst.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.