On the 20th day of Christmas my true love…plundered the Christmas tree. It’s tradition to take down the family Christmas tree on “Tjugonde Knut” –the day of Knut 13th of January.
Christmas celebrations in Sweden extend from the First of Advent through to a week past Twelfth Night. They combine Christian, modern and age-old pagan traditions. The characters that make up the scene stretch from an angelic vision of radiant light to tiny elves and rams made out of straw. The debate rages of true origins of all things Yule-tied.
But the question examined is, what is traditional Christmas –or Julafton – for your average, modern day Swede?
While traditions vary home to home, there are some staples that all Swedes connect on. The first and most significant element of Swedish Christmas is the day on which it is celebrated. Julafton is celebrated Christmas Eve. If you ask a Swede what date is Christmas most will tell you it’s the 24th even though the Swedish name literally translates to Christmas Eve.
Surprisingly, Julafton is a working day for some—definitely shopkeepers. Last minute shoppers scurry about grabbing all the final packages for loved ones. But everything stops by 3pm. That’s when Kalle Anka is broadcast on Sweden’s channel 1. Kalle Anka is Swedish for Donald Duck, but refers to the hour-long montage of classic Disney which brings all Swedish families together in front of the TV. Other channels put up a noble fight with competing shows, but die-hard tradionalists can watch no other.
The order of events may vary home-to-home, but in addition to watching beloved scenes that every Sweden can and will allude to all year long, the family digs into its Christmas smorgasbord, or julbord. The dishes that make up the staple of a julbord remain constant.
There is a variety of marinated herring and salmon dishes, a Christmas ham, tiny sausages, meatballs, spareribs, boiled potatoes and janssons frestelese –Jansson’s temptation –a fishy version of potatoes gratin. Some families insist on other traditional dishes to be present even if not consumed, namely brown beans and rice porridge. And certainly no julafton would be complete without the aquavit.
Bellies stuffed and TV turned off, it’s time for presents. Jultomten, or Swedish Father Christmas, is found where small children are found. The jolly soul makes an appearance inopportunely exactly while Daddy has taken a trip to the newsstand to buy the newspaper.
He arrives laddened with presents, stops in for a quick hello and continues on to other deserving children. Presents are never ripped open in a race to uncover all gifts first, but painstakingly one at a time. How children do not explode in anticipation is another holiday mystery.
Once all witty rhymes read and presents unwrapped the festive family may choose to dance around the Christmas tree. Puzzelingly, a classic Christmas song, små groderna –or little frogs—is equally classical at midsommar. ‘Tis no matter when in festive spirits. It is undoubtedly hilarious to watch —“lustiga att se.”
Små groderna, små groderna
Är lustiga att se
Christmas winds up for many after all the presents have been opened. However, it’s not uncommon for children of an older age to make merry into the wee hours. Some argue it is to be sure not to miss julotta – or the early morning mass. It may be the only day in the calendar year a Swede “worships.” This early hour tradition greets bleary eyed attendees with a wash of candles and pews draped with pine boughs —warmth and beauty to brighten the darkness of the mid winter.
Once home snuggled in beds the family can awake to Christmas Day requiring nothing of anyone but time to enjoy all the new presents. There are people who need to greet other extended family who were not present the day before. Christmas Day is also a day for many to eat lutfisk or lye fish. Some rave it’s a delicacy, others couldn’t be bribed to join in.
Swedish Christmas extends through Boxing Day. But in modern Sweden many of the larger stores in cosmopolitan centers already open to welcome bargain hunters and disgruntled gift-getters. However you celebrate, may your Christmas be joyous.
Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Stockholm.