CHRISTMAS – do you want to build a snowman?
Ok, so what about the festive season; how do Swedes celebrate Christmas?
WITH. STYLE. If there is one thing you can guarantee it’s that the Swedes know how to celebrate the festive season. As we said before, for hundreds of years, the Swedes have been coming up with ways to bring light, flare, and festivity to their long dark winters. In Northern Europe, Christmas was originally celebrated by Northern Germanic peoples under the old Norse religion of Yuletid (jultid), a 12-day festival marking the end of the year and the end of the harvest. During the Christian reformation between 800-1200, Yuletide underwent some changes and became Christmastide. But, to this day, as the days become shorter and colder, the Swedes bring on their A-game with a month-long celebration of feasting, warmth, and mys (coziness), combining pagan and Christian traditions.
So… Advent. Tell me more about the Swedish way of doing it?
In Sweden, winter is heralded by the bringing forth of light! Across cities and towns, lights and stars will begin to appear in windows, bringing the most wonderful festive feeling in the run-up to Advent. Advent starts 4 Sundays before Christmas, hence the 4 candles. WARNING: ANGLICISED STEREOTYPE COMING UP. For Jill, Advent was about a calendar, a cardboard door, one opened each day to reveal an image, or better, chocolate! Traditionally in Sweden, however, Advent is represented by 4 candles, one lit every Sunday in the 4 weeks running up to Christmas Eve (any UK readers remember the Blue Peter Advent candles?). In centuries past, the Advent wreath or crown was a Christian symbol representing the 4 Sundays of Advent. Often a fifth candle was placed in the centre of the crown to represent Christ’s birth. This final candle was lit on Christmas Day. Nowadays, the Advent candles still represent the same four Sundays leading up to Christmas but they come in many different styles.
Why do Swedes hang star-shaped lights in their windows?
The tradition of hanging a star in the window of your home is actually Moravian (from Czech Republic). Originally, it was made out of wood, chipboard, or straw, and it represented the star that guided the three kings to Bethlehem.
This tradition began to appear in Sweden in the 1920-30s, adopted from immigrants who had settled in Sweden. Another mysigt (cozy) antidote to the short and darkened days of Swedish winter. Now known as julstjärnor, they go hand in hand with Advent and the lead up to Christmas.
Another popular window decoration is the adventsljusstake (Advent candle stick). Often in the shape of an arch or pyramid and complete with 5-7 lights, they can typically be seen in many windows throughout the festive period.
Ordinarily, most Swedes don’t start hanging lights or julbelysning until the first of Advent. But as November is often so miserable, there is increasing revolt amongst the younger generation of Swedes to start as soon as humanly possible. It is wonderful to see entire blocks of apartments glowing in the chilly winter nights.
Pepparkakor and glögg… come again?
Vi komma, vi komma från Pepparkakeland
och vägen vi vandrat tillsammans hand i hand.
Så bruna, så bruna vi äro alla tre,
korinter till ögon och hattarna på sne’.
Jill defies any parents of under 5s in Sweden, regardless of where they are from originally, to not have this song kicking around in their head from November to January. The song Tre Pepparkaksgubbar (Three Gingerbread Men) is a fond tribute to the Swedes’ love of pepparkakor (gingerbread). Paired with the festive drink glögg, a much sweeter and spicier version of Gluhwein or mulled wine, you’ve got the makings of a glöggfest. The Swedish glöggfest is, quite frankly, a smaller version of an office party but at home. It often starts off well intentioned but can quickly descend into downright tomfoolery. Beware the laced glögg… like a dirty pint at a teenager’s house party, you never know what might have been thrown in there in the end.
When it comes to a parent’s Christmas fantasy in Sweden, there is nothing quite like that of gingerbread baking with kids. You’ve seen it on Instagram and Pinterest, and it looks easy enough. What could go wrong? Well, if your kids are anything like Jill and Kat’s, the gingerbread dough will rapidly disappear and someone will have a sore tummy.
TOP TIP: it might be easier to use pre-made gingerbread dough or pepparkaksdeg. You can find this in any supermarket during the festive season and it cuts out the really messy bit of weighing and mixing the ingredients. Of course, you might like that bit. But it’s usually the decorating of the pepparkaksgubbe and the pepparkakshus that is the most exciting bit for the kids. Sugar paste and candy buttons, eh? Kat would also suggest that you find the person in your family with the highest pain threshold to do the sticking together. The boiling point of sugar in water is particularly high. Best that the kids keep well back at this stage.
What is julmust?
The Swedish Christmas drink julmust (almost fermented fruit drink) was first developed in 1910 as an alcohol-free alternative to beer. The syrup that is used to produce the soft drink is still produced by the original manufacturer, Roberts AB, and is sold to soft drinks producers all over Sweden.
Julmust is the only product that outsells Coca-Cola at Christmas time in Sweden. So much so that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have both made attempts at recreating the soft drink, fruitlessly (see what we did there). 45 million litres of julmust are consumed each December, which is around 50% of the total soft drink volume for that month and 75% of the total yearly must sales, according to figures from Aftonbladet.se.
The drink pops up again at Easter time but with a different label on the bottle: påskmust. But Kat is convinced this is the same drink and would even be willing to hold a Pepsi Challenge-style battle of the musts to see if the Swedes she knows really can tell the difference between the two. (Answer: no, because they are absolutely the same thing, aren’t they?)
So, why are they selling white nighties in all the shops during December?
Ah ha! Next on every Swedish parent’s to do list in December (apart from everything else, of course) is the Luciatåg (Lucia parade), which is a bit like the annual nativity or winter holiday school play.
But who was Sankta Lucia?
St Lucy was a Christian martyr who was burned, tortured, and finally beheaded by Paschuis, Governor of Syracuse during the Diocletianic Persecution (304 AD) for giving away her dowry to the poor and not marrying some guy. St Lucy is venerated by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches, making her one of the most celebrated saints in the world. Her feast day falls on 13th December, the original winter solstice, and it became a festival of light in the Catholic calendar. It’s a pretty gruesome tale for a festival that is so highly revered amongst agnostics and believers alike.
In Sweden, Sankta Lucia is still celebrated on 13th December but with a little more light and brightness, if you know what we mean. It’s very much a family festival with music, singing and food. Many will attend St Lucia concerts or church services. The Luciatåg (Lucia parade) is the central event. One person is chosen to dress as Sankta Lucia, traditionally in a white gown (the white nightie), with a red sash (symbolising martyrdom), and a crown of 5 candles. Behind Lucia comes a parade of stjärngosse (star boys/people) and Lucia’s maids or misters.
A set of very specific songs are sung and it pretty much stays the same every year. These concerts take place in churches, preschools, schools, universities, and community groups all over Sweden. And many Swedes have them at home, too. Although Luciadag (St Lucia Day) isn’t a national holiday in Sweden, many make the extra effort to get up early, light candles, and welcome in the day with singing, a mini feast, and dressing up. In the end, Luciadag is another thing to look forward to in those dark, wintery days.
If you’re lucky enough to be the parent of an under 5 (scoff), you’ll be treated to the preschool Luciatåg. We guess you could say it was like Sweden’s version of the nativity play: equal parts excruciating and heart-warming. Fortunately, there isn’t the nail-biting casting process involved. Following in the steps of Sweden’s very ‘egalitarian’ outlook, kids can choose to dress up as whatever they want. Jill’s personal favourite from one year was the tomte nisse/dinosaur/Darth Vader combo. However, the big favourites are Lucia herself, Tomte (Santa equivalent), gingerbread men, star boys, Christmas elves, and bakers (who make the gingerbread men and lussekatter). However, with the ever-encroaching Americanisation of Scandinavia, you can get any type of Christmas fancy dress costume you like nowadays.
Jill is quite pleased, nay proud, to admit that the only time of the year the iron comes out is to give Stella’s Lucia nightie a quick once over… #notashamed.
What are luciabullar?
It is so interesting that Sweden produces speciality foods or drinks for particular times of the year. More so than any country either of us has lived in (Kat was even warned by Danish friends about the crazy things that Swedes eat at Christmas). Like their seasonal activities, seasonal food and drink also play important roles in the changing of the seasons for Swedes.
Throughout Advent and Lucia, saffron features heavily in baking. The luciabulle, named in honour of St Lucia’s festival, is a semi-sweet baked bread made with saffron. The saffron gives the buns a bright yellow appearance and a strangely sweet/savoury flavour. Traditionally, the buns, also known as lussekatter, were quite plain. Nowadays, the concept has been incorporated into flavoured drinks, desserts, and waffles, to name but a few. It’s almost become a running joke to see what sort of luciabulle invention will appear next.
I’m really confused, do the Swedes celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?
Christmas or jul is more than a one-day celebration here. Like many other countries, there are different days and they are celebrated in different ways. In Sweden, the celebration of Christmas lasts 2 days: 24th December and 25th December.
Christmas Eve (24th December)
Christmas Eve in Sweden is called julafton. Yes, Julafton, despite the fact that it is actually before Christmas. It’s another one of those things you just go with. The point is that the majority of the Christmas festivities take place on Christmas Eve in Sweden. And Christmas Eve in Sweden is a national holiday (although, for some, only in the afternoon and evening).
Of course, as multicultural families, there is absolutely nothing to say that you can’t do it your own way. Just don’t be surprised if you find the streets of your local town, the shops, and (most importantly) Systembolaget are closed on Christmas Eve.
Ok, so in reality, we could go into a deep, ethnographic explanation of why Christmas Eve is the day when you celebrate in Sweden. But the truth is that this happens in many countries across Europe and there are too many reasons or hypotheses as to why that is. Suffice to say, Christmas Eve is the big day in Sweden.
How do Swedes celebrate Christmas in Sweden with extended family?
The whole concept of Christmas is based around family time, with kids at the centre of the celebration. Granted, it’s mostly the present-giving that the kids are focused on, but the familjmys (family coziness) is all about quality time spent together as a family. Whether or not that raises the hairs on the back of your neck, there is an expectation that you visit some extended family over the Christmas period. Often this happens on Boxing Day or mellandagarna (the days between Christmas and New Year).
Christmas Eve food
Many traditions and activities have evolved over the years. And, with so many multicultural and geographic influences, it’s hard to say for sure what is “genuine” julbord food. But a typical Swedish julbord (Christmas table) would look something like this:
Sill (pickled herring)
Boiled eggs topped with fish egg roe
Knäckebröd (hard bread)
Gravad lax (cured salmon)
Lutfisk (lye fish, literally dried fish reconstituted with lye wood)
Christmas porridge (rice and cream based porridge, often with cinnamon, brown sugar, raisins, and almonds).
Salted, boiled ham
Prinskorv (small sausages)
Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s temptation – a potato, cream and spratt dish)
Throughout the day, and typically with meals, snaps is served and songs are sung to accompany the drinking. Like all good Swedish celebrations, you can’t let a chance go by to sing Hej Tomtegubbar or Helan går.
Does Santa visit during Christmas Eve night then?
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about at Christmas, we’ve actually got to get the legendary Santa Claus /Jul Tomte/ Father Christmas to physically show up during the day on Christmas Eve. It’s not enough to leave a mince pie out overnight. Santa has to actually show up. So, sometime in between the salted ham, a second round of Tipp-Tapp and his fourth tipple of snaps, Farfar gets up and announces he has to go out to collect the newspaper. Whilst he’s away, the doorbell goes and there’s Tomte at the door, with red rosy cheeks and a sack full of presents. The kids are screaming, the adults are scrambling for their cameras, and the presents are all dished out. But where is Farfar? Minutes after Tomte leaves to visit his next house, Farfar appears with the newspaper in hand. “Oh Farfar, you missed Jultomte, again….”
Another version of that story involves you bribing your next door neighbour with a bottle of whiskey and a promise to return the favour next year. Note: This is a great way to meet your neighbours.
I’ve heard that everyone watches Donald Duck on Christmas Eve in Sweden; why?
Because it’s an institution! For kids (and their grown-ups) Donald Duck, or Kalle Anke, is the second most important part of Christmas (after the presents). It has been the most watched tv show in Sweden almost every year, apart from the years that Sweden has hosted Eurovision or the Swedish football team reached the semi-finals of the European Cup. It’s even said that rates of crime drop to an annual low between 3pm and 4pm on Christmas Eve.
The original show, Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (‘Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas’) was first aired on Christmas Eve 1972. Since then, it has been shown every year, in very much the same format. The Swedish public are immensely protective of the show, saving it more than once from cancellation. The show features a series of short cartoons, with highlights from longer Disney movies, including:
Ferdinand the Bull
Pluto’s Christmas tree
Lady and the Tramp
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
And everyone loves it. Well, all except one Ebenezer Scrooge: Kat. Come 3pm on Christmas Eve, you can guarantee she will be doing anything but sitting in front of the tv. Not only is Donald Duck her most despised cartoon character (and yes, she says, you can despise a cartoon duck), but she also rails against the fact that the show is the same. Every. Single. Year. It’s not tradition, she claims, but sheer tedium.
Christmas Day (25th December)
Other than a gentle walk round your local park or nature area, nothing much happens on Christmas Day. It is a national holiday and most places are closed, although you may be able to access the grounds of some stately homes and botanical gardens. Lounging and relaxing around the home, nibbling on leftovers, visiting friends and family, playing with new toys, and indulging in Christmas candy are the list toppers on Christmas Day in Sweden.
And that’s pretty much Christmas in Sweden. Of course, as with everything, this too evolves and changes as time goes on. In a culture of constellation families, blended families, and multicultural families, everyone does it differently. If you come from a country with a specific tradition or practice at Christmas, of course you should incorporate it into your multi-cultural celebrations and share it with others, too.
If you come from a culture that celebrates Christmas on 25th December, you can of course try to blend your traditions with those of Sweden. In Kat’s family, the last thing they do on the night of 24th December is hang up their stockings, pour a little drink for Santa (strangely, Kat always seems to know what his favourite drink is), and put out a plate of carrots for the reindeer. And when they wake in the morning, Santa has visited, drunk his tipple, fed his reindeer, and left a few small gifts for each of the boys. E was amazed one year to discover that Santa shops at H&M, while O has taken to theatrical winks to his parents whenever Santa is mentioned in front of his younger brother.
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