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Boston Blatte

Raised in Boston, remade in Sweden

Stockholm Christmas: Jul is lit

There’s a great irony involved with Swedish Christmas and Christianity. Swedes use the pagan word –JUL or Yule in English– and yet despite there being very little religion in the daily lives of Swedes, nearly everything about Christmas is more Christian than my Boston Christmases.

Christmas in Stockholm officially started this weekend. The season always kicks off in line with the First Sunday of the  Advent. So many homes had jumped the gun on Saturday with all their lights up and lit.

Lights are nearly always “white” (no multi color bulbs and definitely no blinking lights ) in Sweden and candle “trees” in windows or advent stars are pretty much all you’ll see.  This window is about as stereotypical as you can get.

Swedish windows

I have joked for years that one of these Christmases I might just go Griswold on the house. It probably won’t happen, but boy would it be fun to have a spread of the tackiest light displays ever seen this side of Stockholm.

Griswold Christmas

It won’t happen this year. I think we have one star and one functioning candle tree. Must get those up soon.

Only 25 shopping days left to Julafton, Swedish Christmas.

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20 responses to “Stockholm Christmas: Jul is lit”

  1. Gustav says:

    Dear Blatte, my provocative friend:

    The traditions that you have mentioned all predate Christianity. Christianity incorporated them because they were so deeply ingrained in our culture. They have, of course, been shaped by the Christian forms, but are, at a primal level, expressions of our native culture.

    At this time of the year, we have always burned candles and fires to celebrate the turning of the wheel of the year, the hjul, and the returning of the sun after the darkness. Our new year is birthed on the Winter Solstice, Módraniht.

    As you know, Jultomten, is distinctively different from the continental Father Christmas, because instead of drawing from the Christian tradition of St. Nicholas, the character of Jultomten is largely based on the Wild Hunt of Julnir, our Odhinn.

    Even Lucia’s crown is a representation of the wheel of the year. The girl becomes a manifestation of Sunna, whose light sustains us, even as the wolves of Darkness and Winter pursue her ( http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/The_Wolves_Pursuing_Sol_and_Mani.jpg ).

    In more temperate climes, the concept of the year as a wheel has less meaning, but here we need to remind ourselves that despite the descent into darkness and cold that we experience at this time of year, the light always comes back to us.

    So we will continue calling our most sacred holiday Jul.

    Happy Jul to all,

    Gustav

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  2. Jaelynn says:

    Christmas in Sweden is unique as Sweden’s Christmas traditions are very different from other parts of the world. A popular Christmas tradition in Sweden is to serve Risgryngrot, special rice porridge with one almond in it. The person finding it gets to make a wish, or is believed to get married the coming year (this varies between families). And, the Swedish Christmas tree is not brought into the home until one or two days before Christmas. It is decorated with gaily wrapped candies, glass bulbs, and often straw trinkets, with electric lights or candles. Indeed, every race has its own Christmas culture. Nonetheless, different race or not Christmas is one holiday opportunity wherein families get together and celebrate the season of giving.

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  3. Boston Blatte says:

    @Gustav, Yes dear Gus, [H]Jul predates Christianity and it contributes to the irony. A good friend has come to dread Christmas yet loves Valborg and bonfires and I have suggested a pagan bonfire on the solstice (or just around that time)
    @Jaelynn. Thank you for adding a few holiday observances.
    BB

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  4. linda christian says:

    FASCINATING Gustav ! I consider myself much better informed now so thank you for sharing.
    As for the Griswold display – I will personally hunt it down and blow it up if you go through with it Blatte. Try to control your north american kitsch instincts which run high at this time of the year I know :-)

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  5. Monica says:

    Ha,ha….very interesting article. I can relate to the Griswold decorations as my neighbors here in the States have done just that over this past weekend. Happy Holidays to everyone may you be safe and sound. :o )

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  6. Boston Blatte says:

    @Linda. I don’t think you’d have to look hard to find that kind of display ;) Everyone is safe this year at least. We have one star shining. It’s one of those copper traditional ones
    @Monica Thanks for you wishes. Best of holidays to you and yours.
    BB

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  7. Cheney says:

    I would agree the traditions that have grown to follow the birth of the Jewish messiah are very pagan. Excess consumption, wasteful spending, frustration, rage. All credits to the pagan community, absolutely. In this age where we think “natives” were so gifted and intelligent, how is the senseless bonfires and sacrifices a contribution of anything positive to the fragile little earth that we now worship? If you want attention for verbal strikes at Jews/Christians you have it. How very pagan I must say. Lets give the Jewish/Christian community a rest. If you really want a challenge, try passing your snide remarks about islam on to a Muhammadist. Funny how the spines all turn yellow at that thought.

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  8. Boston Blatte says:

    @ Cheney. Thanks for your input, but the pagan traditions precede the Judo-Christian faiths and not vice versa. Pagan traditions are often the exact opposite of what you have described, they are about the cycles of nature, the expeditious usage of natural resources, the limiting of destruction and waste and peace and harmony with the larger surroundings.

    Bonfires are merely symbolic of the end of a cycle and a rebirth of the new, e.g. raking the leaves or collecting the fallen branches. Bonfire comes from the word “bone fire” since most (if not all) of the woodland creatures with horns shed them during the winter. So the fires of the ancient day burned the antlers lying around in the woods.

    As for verbal strikes upon Christianity, I think you’re a bit too sensitive. Swedes are very pragmatic about their cultural mix of modern Lutheranism and long standing Swedish/Viking traditions formed over the past 10 000+ years. It’s a nice mix even if it sometimes seems contradictory.

    This is not about attacking people’s personal religious choices even if it’s easy to criticize the dogmatic and inflexible practice of some.

    God Jul! (And that’s not god but good…god in Swedish is gud)
    BB

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  9. Gustav says:

    Cheney-

    As far as I can tell, the Muslim and Hebrews have not imposed their holiday traditions on Swedes, whereas the Christians have.

    Christianity was imposed by force and coercion on most Swedes. As late as the 1600s & 1700s, the church was burning people who continued to practise the old ways. Talk about wasting firewood!

    Fortunately for Sweden, Christianity has never managed to wipe out our indigenous practices, like celebrating Yule, Midsummer, and so forth. This connection with our native culture is probably one of the reasons that we are as successful, healthy and happy as we are. As the influence of Christianity fades from Sweden, we find ourselves maintaining the traditions that pre-date Christianity, because they are the ones that make the most sense for us culturally and geographically.

    Our Yule is about observing the turn of the season, sharing what we have with our kin and folk, and being grateful for the days starting to get longer again. The soul-numbing consumerism of your country has never really caught on here, and is not a component of our Yule.

    On a pro-Christian note, your tradition has produced many pieces of beautiful music for your Christmas holiday, which I enjoy immensely.

    I hope that you have a happy and peaceful Christmas in your undisclosed location.

    Gustav

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  10. Debi says:

    Gustav,

    Have you not been out much recently? Consumerism is alive and kicking in Sweden, just visit any high street and you can’t fail to notice it. Many of my local shops started clearing space for the huge arrays of Christmas paraphernalia several weeks ago. Between now and Christmas it will be difficult to buy anything without getting caught behind a huge queue of people buying and waiting for their Christmas purchases to be wrapped.

    Swedes may well ’share what [they] have with [their] kit and kin’ the same as people in lots of other countries do, but many Swedes will also be buying a whole heap more to go with what they’ve already got.

    Debi

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  11. Gustav says:

    Not all consumption is a sign of consumerism. The two things are not synonymous. If one goes to the store and buys what one needs, clearly one is not in the grip of the consumerist thinking.

    Sweden, particularly urban Sweden, is quite clearly infected by some degree of consumerism. The comparison that I employed with our friend Mr. Cheney is a relative one, to be sure.

    Here are a couple differences, though. In the US, over the last few years, the personal savings rate has fluctuated between a negative rate and three percent of personal income. In Sweden, we save around eight percent of our personal income. Americans produce the most trash per capita of any nation on Earth, according to the OECD. Swedes rank 25th in the world, producing less than half as much trash per person than Americans.

    On an anecdotal level, as much as we love to shop and buy new things, if you walk into a Swedish home, you will most likely see many decorations, piece of furniture, and other items that have been in that family for a very long time. This has not been my experience in America, for the most part. We tend to be more traditional in many ways, and Americans are oriented more towards the shiny and new.

    I don’t want you to think that I hold America in contempt. Nothing could be further from the truth. I make a significant portion of my income in America, and choose to spend a great deal of time there. No country produces more patents and innovation than America, and I suspect that there is a strong correlation between this tendency and the tendency to over-consume. I do find the barrage of advertisement to be excessive, however, and try to stay away from your great temples of consumption, particularly around the holidays.

    Best wishes for the holidays,

    Gustav

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  12. Anulf says:

    Boston and Gustav,

    I enjoyed this article and the responses very much. Most enlightening.

    One thing I must say for North America’s rabid consumerism during this season is that it helped me turn my back on Christmas and learn the real roots of Yule. We have a family Solstice feast every year and try and have a bonfire although it is usually too windy here(60 foot flames, all horizontal (thought I was going to burn down the horse barn!).

    One day it would be great to make a pilgrimage to Gamla Uppsala which I consider to be the Jerusalem of Northern Heathenism.

    Anulf

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  13. Karen says:

    I like Christmas. I like everything from the smell of the Christmas tree to the symbolism of the holiday, in the Christian and even historically pagan sense. I even enjoy giving my family and friends gifts, many of which I make myself. I certainly don’t have room in my apartment (or my bank account) for the ‘rabid consumerism’ discussed above, but picking out a thoughtful gift for someone you care about surely shouldn’t be looked at as evil. A little more love in the world never hurt anyone.

    Karen

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  14. Boston Blatte says:

    @Anulf. I have been thinking of throwing a solstice bonfire for the fun of it and to give a friend an alternative to jul (she has depressing associations to Christmas for a number of reasons.) Gamla Uppsala is wonderful, but I would recommend Ales Stenar in Skåne (southern Sweden between Ystad and Simrishamn) as a more rewarding destination.
    @Karen. I agree with liking the modern mix of Christmas whatever you want to make of it and that it’s about remembering the people around you more than what you’re giving/getting.
    BB

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  15. Alias says:

    The Swedish Christmas decorations (the traditional at least) are so much more beautiful than the tacky, over-the-top American ones. Don’t you agree?

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  16. Alias says:

    But anyway, the irony is lost on me? A historically both pagan and Christian country celebrates a pagan and more recently Christian holiday. Where’s the irony? Holidays are usually traditional and got started way back, so of course, they won’t always reflect the beliefs and the views of today.

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  17. Michael says:

    “but boy would it be fun to have a spread of the tackiest light displays ever seen this side of Stockholm.” So why don’t you do it then, us swedes need people who makes – how should I express this – waves in the swimmingpool. Don’t follow our traditions, make your own. Would be refreshing.

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  18. Boston Blatte says:

    @Alias. Christmas decoration and tacky kind of go hand-in-hand for me. Styled trees remind me of department store displays and I like colored lights (although I have always hated blinking lights). But I don’t mind the simpler variety here either. The Swedish husband develops a rash with the tacky variety and has made me promise that any lights for the tree must be clear only. I can live with that.
    The irony seems to be that Christmas has a stronger Christian link with the kick off being the Advent (and everyone lighting Advent candles and opening Advent calendars –though the real window opening in Gamla Stan is über cool) and so many people going to church on the 1st Advent or getting up early –I’m talking 6am ish–for julåtta –the mass on Christmas morning. They also have the Epiphany off as a national holiday. I guess it’s ironic that most Swedish holidays are nearly all Christian linked while American holidays not, with the exception of Christmas of course.
    BB

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  19. Boston Blatte says:

    @Michael. I seriously would do it for the giggle of it if

    a. the lights/displays were not as expensive
    b. my Swedish husband wouldn’t change the locks and cut the electricity while I was outside putting up the displays

    I do rock the boat occasionally. We’ve been celebrating Halloween with our Swedish friends since long before Swedes had heard of the American theme variety. This year we rallied our street http://www.thelocal.se/blogs/bostonblatte/2009/10/31/stockholm-halloween-better-than-in-boston/ for trick-or-treating and it’s got the neighbors thinking of a street party in the spring, and we’ve shaken up the neighbors by inviting them spontaneously to cook-outs with as little as 45-minute notice (or to join us for coffee with no notice.)

    We have a 15m fir tree in the front yard, and if I had a cherry picker I would put lights (ok, clear lights) around it as our outdoor xmas tree.
    BB

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  20. Anulf says:

    @Anulf. I have been thinking of throwing a solstice bonfire for the fun of it

    Boston,

    Just a few words of advice. I don’t know about where you are located but here there is no guarantee that there will be snow for the solstice.

    1- make sure you have the proper fire permits if required.

    2- make sure your fire will be far enough away from other flamable things.

    3- If no snow soake the ground around the fire area.

    4- have a fire station with a hydrent or buckets of water, shovels and rakes.

    5- start with a moderate fire and if things are going well you can build it up.

    Our first fire was so big, family still on their way could see it 10kms away. They thought the house was on fire! I had done step 4 so managed to prevent my little bon fire from setting the country side alight.

    6- you can do a search on the web for yule/solstice blessings. Having Thor protecting your feast is always a good thing.

    7- make sure that before everyone is gone home or passed out that your fire is out as well.

    Mostly have a safe holiday and have FUN!!

    Anulf

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