• Sweden's news in English

How to survive the Christmas buffet without looking like an idiot

Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius · 3 Dec 2009, 12:21

Published: 03 Dec 2009 12:21 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

So you’re going to your company’s julbord? Maybe you’re celebrating with your Swedish in-laws or your sambo’s best friends on Christmas Eve? You might even have already tried this once or twice before but still aren’t sure if you’re doing it right. Or maybe you just remember a time when you were as nervous as some of the newcomers and have some stories to share?

Whatever the case, this handy how-not-to-be-an-idiot primer presumes you just want to get through your Swedish Christmas smorgasbord without being the amusing story everyone talks about during the first fika (coffee break) back at work.

Getting ready

While smörgåsbord has become a full-fledged English word (leaving behind the diacritics –those dots and rings over letters), the seasonal julbord, aka the Christmas smorgasbord, remains quintessentially Swedish. In other words, it’s not just your average run of the mill buffet, but a tradition with its pedantic dos and don’ts and a few “Oh my goodness, he didn’ts.”

Swedes merrily recount stories of the uncertain foreigner struggling at the smörgåsbord making the amusing faux pas of mixing hot and cold or putting on the wrong sauce. But the Swedes I have heard tell the tale of the smörgåsbord-challenged have at least sympathized that it can’t be easy to figure the system out. They’ll still smirk, but they’ll do it with warmth in their hearts (though that could be the aquavit talking.)

Seriously, we don’t want to make you too self-conscious and nervous. It’s not really that difficult if you follow some straightforward general guidelines. And it is really only about the order in which you serve yourself the food from the buffet table. Rest assured, if you draw a blank at the critical moment, you really only have to ask a Swede.

Grab a plate or three

The traditional julbord is essentially a Christmas-inspired variation on the traditional smorgasbord. That means it’s made up of hot and cold dishes, bread of both the soft and crisp varieties, and -- if you are fortunate (or misfortunate…the day after will tell) -- a selection of spiced and unspiced shots of strong liquor, snaps, will accompany the meal.

Every smorgasbord is expected to make use of a minimum of two plates since cold dishes are always eaten first followed by the hot stuff. Christmas excess, in all its splendor, also tends to demand a third trip to the buffet table. But no one is stopping you from fourth or fifth servings.

Roll up your sleeves

All of the herring, pickled or otherwise cured, are among the cold dish selection and are the first to fill your dish. If you have never had them before, or they make you feel queasy, I suggest a skimpy cross section. That way you don’t have too much left on your plate when you scrunch up your nose, gag a moment from the unfamiliar texture and unexpected sweetness of many of the herring dishes.

The good news is that the marinated salmon dishes also are available during this course. And if you wimp out and skip the herring altogether, you can fill your first plate with boiled potatoes and/or hard-boiled eggs. Don’t turn down a taste of smoked eel, it’s a bit oily but tasty. And of course you have a variety of creamy salads, dips and sauces.

Loosen tie

During the next round you are expected to pile up the cold cuts of meat, including the focal piece: the Christmas ham. You'll also be treated to smoked leg of lamb, sausages, fois gras and something menacing-sounding called head cheese or brawn (sylta), which is most certain more animal than cheese, though in nearly two decades I still haven’t quite figured it out. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Once again, breads, cheeses, potatoes and pickles are all for the retaking this round if you are so inclined.

Unbuckle belt

Round three brings warmth. There are meatballs, small weenie sausages (prinskorv), spare ribs and Jansson’s temptation (Janssons frestelse), a warm, creamy potato casserole with onions and Swedish anchovies. For real julbord aficionados, baked beans and rice porridge must also appear on the serving table.

Wash it down

Few self-respecting Swedes would dream of drinking anything but beer and snaps with their julbord. But Swedes are polite enough to let you drink wine if you choose and it’s not a bit enough deviation from the tradition to merit day-after-gossip. I can still get away with red wine and snaps, though my Swedish husband will blame it on my Americanism—whatever that means.

You can quickly redeem yourself by holding up a snaps glass and heartily belting out the one snapsvisa (snaps song) they’re certain to sing during dinner, Hej, tomtegubbar:

Hej tomtegubbar, slå i glasen

Och låt oss lustiga vara!

Hej tomtegubbar, slå i glasen

Och låt oss lustiga vara!

En liten tid

Vi leva här

Story continues below…

Med mycket möda

Och stort besvär!

Hej tomtegubbar, slå i glasen

Och låt oss lustiga vara!

A Swede loosely translated this as ”Life is tough and short so let’s get drunk.” Google translate might offer you something more accurate.

Let loose

There is one final cautionary word of wisdom offered by Bengt, a Swedish friend of mine, “[There’s] no sex with colleagues under the julbord, at least not until after everyone's finished eating.”

I think you’re ready. God Jul.

Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius (news@thelocal.se)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

00:28 December 4, 2009 by martell
Damn... I am getting really hungry now...
00:50 December 4, 2009 by Awx
Me too. :(
01:25 December 4, 2009 by Nemesis
In Sweden, wait until the tenth person has got there food. You will have seen the pitfalls by then.

Use the process with the least pitfalls.

Take of your shoes, boots, coats and bags at the door.
21:27 December 4, 2009 by chosig
"Veal Jam" is a more correct translation of "kalvsylta". Head-cheese is a really different course (I promise).

(boil meat, mix it, put back some of the stock, in the fridge overnight, eat = veal jam)
19:19 December 7, 2009 by Beynch
In my experience most foreigners have great difficulty with the herring, although I have come to love herring in all its forms. As for the dots and rings above the letters, I saw in New York, a place where they had it reversed, so that the ring came on top of the "o" and the dots came on the "a".(also a valid letter in Swedish). In addition they had stray, erroneous, dots on top of the last "o". After I went in and pointed out the linguistic faux-pas, they had it corrected the next day. PS: I do have difficulty with kalvsylta.
12:04 December 8, 2009 by Dr. Dillner
Sex before would help stimulate appetite for the herring!
08:00 December 10, 2009 by lingonberrie
I can handle: lutfisk, prinskorv, flashkorv, Julskinka , kottbuller, Jamssons frostelse, vortlimpa, Julost,Julgrot (risgrynsgrot) and pepperkokor but forget the hard spirits and the eel; Julmust suits me, and that and all of the rest in modest portions.

We were always taught not to stuff ourselves, and that had more to do with politeness than the threat of an unpleasant sensation of overeating. What is the point of exposing oneself to the latter?

I could never understand why gluttony needed to be a part of Jul in any case.
05:21 December 11, 2009 by Gustav- Fælbönnran
Well, this pretty well captures the mood and norms of these events.

The best ones end with a game of naked björnen sover, however.

Björnen sover, björnen sover, i sitt lugna bo.

Han är inte farlig, bara man är varlig.

Men man kan dock, men man kan dock, honom aldrig tro.
03:09 December 12, 2009 by dizzymoe33
Some of the food sounds good some not so good. By the way what is naked bjornen sover? Happy Holidays to everyone.
19:17 December 13, 2009 by Beynch
@dizzymoe33. Happy Holidays????? How about "Merry Christmas"?
Today's headlines
Hundreds protest Swedish asylum laws
Around 1,000 people protested in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Persson/ TT

Hundreds of people on Saturday demonstrated in Stockholm and in many other parts of the country to protest Sweden’s tough new laws on asylum-seekers.

Dylan removes Nobel-mention from website
The American musician has more or less responded to the news with silence. Photo: Per Wahlberg

American singer-song writer Bob Dylan has removed any mention of him being named one of this year’s Nobel Prize laureates on his official website.

Refugee crisis
Asylum requests in Sweden down by 70 percent
Sweden's migration minister Morgan Johansson. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Sweden received 70 percent fewer requests for asylum in the period between January and September 2016 than it did during the same time last year, the country’s justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson has revealed.

The unique story of Stockholm's floating libraries
The Stockholm archipelago book boat. Photo: Roger Hill.

Writer Roger Hill details his journeys on the boats that carry books over Stockholm's waterways and to its most remote places.

Refugee crisis
Second Stockholm asylum centre fire in a week
The new incident follows a similar fire in Fagersjö last week (pictured). Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Police suspect arson in the blaze, as well as a similar incident which occurred last Sunday.

More misery for Ericsson as losses pile up
Ericsson interim CEO Jan Frykhammar presenting its third quarter results. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

The bad news just keeps coming from the Swedish telecoms giant.

Facebook 'sorry' for removing Swedish cancer video
A computer displaying Facebook's landing page. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

The social media giant had censored a video explaining how women should check for suspicious lumps in their breasts.

Watch this amazing footage of Sweden’s landscapes
A still from the aerial footage of Sweden. Photo: Nate Summer-Cook

The spectacular drone footage captures both Sweden's south and the opposite extreme, thousands of kilometres north.

Sweden could be allowed to keep border controls: EU
Police ID checks at Hyllie station in southern Sweden. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT

Sweden could be allowed to keep ID controls on its border with Denmark beyond the current end date of November, following discussions among EU leaders in Brussels last night.

Why women in Sweden will work for free by November
File photo of a woman working in a Swedish office. Photo: Anders Willund/TT

A new study into the gender pay gap suggests Sweden still has some work to do.

Sponsored Article
This is Malmö: Football capital of Sweden
Fury at plans that 'threaten the IB's survival' in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Here's where it could snow in central Sweden this weekend
Analysis & Opinion
Are we just going to let half the country die?
Blog updates

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »


8 July

Editor’s blog, July 8th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, It has, as always, been a bizarre, serious and hilarious week in Sweden. You…" READ »

Sponsored Article
7 reasons you should join Sweden's 'a-kassa'
Angry elk chases Swede up a lamp post
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
The Local Voices
'Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens'
People-watching: October 20th
The Local Voices
A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Swede punches clown that scared his grandmother
Sponsored Article
Swedish for programmers: 'It changed my life'
Fans throw flares and enter pitch in Swedish football riot
Could Swedish blood test solve 'Making a Murderer'?
Sponsored Article
Top 7 tips to help you learn Swedish
Property of the week: Linnéstaden, Gothenburg
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swedish school to build gender neutral changing room
People-watching: October 14th-16th
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
Man in Sweden assaulted by clowns with broken bottle
Sponsored Article
‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’
Nobel Prize 2016: Literature
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Watch the man who discovered Bob Dylan react to his Nobel Prize win
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Record numbers emigrating from Sweden
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
People-watching: October 12th
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
The Local Voices
'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How far right are the Sweden Democrats?
Property of the week: Triangeln, Malmö
Sweden unveils Europe's first elk hut
People-watching: October 7th-9th
The Local Voices
Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
Missing rune stone turns up in Sweden
Nobel Prize 2016: Chemistry
jobs available