How to survive the Christmas buffet without looking like an idiot

Does the herring lead us into Jansson's temptation or is it the other way around? Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius has the lowdown on how to prevent your office julbord from ending in yuletide tears.

How to survive the Christmas buffet without looking like an idiot

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

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.

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Sweden’s best Christmas markets for 2021

After many Christmas markets were cancelled last season, you may be wondering where you will be able to get this year's dose of Christmas cheer. Here are our suggestions for some of Sweden's best Christmas markets.

snow on stockholm's gamla stan christmas market
Stockholm Old Town's Christmas market may be one of Europe's oldest. Photo: Ola Ericson/


1. Malmö Mitt Möllan

The trendy and multicultural area of Möllevången in Sweden’s third biggest city has become the spot for a special Christmas market for those looking for a modern and hipster-ish atmosphere. The Mitt Möllan traders’ association organises a market that promises art, culture, food and fashion. Busy that weekend? Malmö’s traditional annual Christmas market in Gustav Adolfs square, focusing on local products, is being held in three sessions, from December 9th-12th, 16th-19th and 20-23rd. 

When: December 2nd-5th

Tickets: Free

2. Kalmar Castle, Kalmar

This spectacular 800-year-old castle has established itself as one of the largest Christmas markets in Sweden. For four days, the whole building will be opened to the public and visitors get the chance to wander around in the historic decorated halls. Listen to Christmas and winter music, and walk around the castle and visit some of the about 120 craftsmen from all over Sweden who set up their stands and sell handmade items. 

When: November 25th-28th

Tickets: 90 kronor (free for under-12s)

Kalmar Castle in Småland provides a scenic location for one of Sweden’s largest Christmas markets. Photo: Emmy Jonsson/Scandinav Bildbyrå/

Katrinetorps Landeri, also known as Gourmetgården, is Malmö’s Christmas market for foodies. This market, situated in the house and gardens of Katrinetorp, built in the 1800s, will have a focus on Christmassy food such as glögg (mulled wine), as well as a horse and cart, antiques, a Lucia parade and dancing around the Christmas tree. They will also be offering their own handmade products in their deli.

When: December 3-5th

Tickets: 80 kronor for adults, free for children under 15

4. Jul på Bosjökloster, Höör

Christmas at Bosjökloster monastery is also back for 2021! As in previous years, this market will feature Christmas concerts in the church, as well as locally produced gifts and food for perfect Christmas gifts. Visitors will also be able to eat a traditional Swedish julbord, meet Santa, ride a horse and cart and “look for presents in the maze”. This market is taking place on the first weekend of advent, meaning you can start getting into the Christmas spirit as early as November!

When: November 26th-28th

Tickets: 100 kronor for adults, dropping to 50 kronor after 2pm on Sunday and free after 3pm on Sunday. Free for children under 16. Over-65s pay 80 kronor on Friday


5. Liseberg theme park, Gothenburg

Sweden’s biggest amusement park, Gothenburg attraction Liseberg, lights up every year with millions of Christmas candles. A traditional Christmas Market and an old-fashioned Christmas market in different areas of the park offer everything from carol singing to pony carousel rides. Ice shows, Santa’s grotto, an ice skating rink and the park’s rabbits are sure to keep your little ones entertained. More information here.

When: Thursdays-Sundays between November 19th and December 30th. Check website for more details.

Tickets: Entrance from 95 kronor (free for children up to 110 centimetres) to 245 kronor for unlimited rides. The price varies depending on which day you visit as well as whether you want to go on the rides or not.


Gothenburg’s Liseberg theme park is host to a Christmas market complete with festive lights. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/Scanpix/TT

6. Skansen, Stockholm

Take the ferry over to Stockholm’s Djurgården island from Slussen and stroll over to Skansen, Europe’s biggest outdoor museum, which has organized its own Christmas market since 1903. It’s a great place to snap up some presents in the form of traditional Swedish arts and crafts, as well as having a feel of how Christmas was celebrated in the past.

When: Fridays-Sundays between November 26th and December 19th.

Tickets: 70 kronor for children aged 4-15, 160 kronor for adults and 140 kronor for concessions.

7. Old Town, Stockholm

Around 40 stands set up shop right in the middle of Stockholm’s Old Town ahead of the festive season, selling Swedish Christmas sweets, smoked reindeer, elk meat, a range of Swedish handicrafts and decorative arts, and much more. The setting alone is enough to get anyone into a romantic Christmas mood. This market might actually be one of the oldest in Europe, since the first Christmas market in the square was held as early as 1523 (although it started in its current format in 1837).

When: November 20th-December 23rd

Tickets: Free

8. Wadköping Christmas Market, Örebro

The Wadköping outdoor museum, which is an echo of what Örebro looked like centuries ago, organises a Christmas market full of the usual traditions: Christmas decorations, sausages, cheeses and arts and crafts. 2021’s Christmas market will also feature outdoor Christmas songs and pony riding.

When: November 21st and 28th, December 5th and 12th

Tickets: Free


9. Gammelstads Kyrkstad, Luleå

Brave the cold (and it will be cold) for a Christmas market in the far north of Sweden. The Gammelstad Church Town is the country’s largest and best preserved church town, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is over 400 years old, and comprises of 405 cottages, six stables and a privy, sprawling around a large medieval stone church. The Christmas market takes place at the Hägnan open air museum, where around 80 exhibitors sell products from home-baked goods to arts and crafts. Visitors this year will be able to make their own candles, meet Santa and go on a candle-lit walking tour through the museum.

When: December 4th-5th

Tickets: 30 kronor

10. Jokkmokk Christmas Market, Jokkmokk

Jokkmokk is located in the north of Sweden, in the Arctic Circle. It is an important place for the Sami people, the only indigenous population in Scandinavia. It is famous for its winter market in February, which first took place in 1605. At their recently-established Christmas market, held in celebration of the winter solstice, visitors will find traditional Sami handicrafts – called duodji – and learn more about their history and culture.

When: December 11th-12th

Tickets: Free

Traditional Sami handicrafts – called guksi or kåsa – wooden drinking cups available at the Jokkmokk Christmas and winter markets. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix/TT

11. Christmas Market at Nordanå, Skellefteå

Are you in Skellefteå this December? Pay a visit to the Christmas market at Nordanå, which started in 1975. It is particularly known for its arts and crafts, and in past years visitors have been able to buy handmade ceramics, knitted baby clothes, and tin thread jewellery.

When: December 5th

Tickets: Free

12. Christmas Market at Västerbotten Museum, Umeå

This Umeå museum dedicated to the region of Västerbotten organises its annual Christmas market again. It promises a candy shop, horse-drawn carriage rides, a bakehouse and more than 80 artisans selling locally produced food and quality wares. Hungry visitors can also learn about what Christmas dinner from this region may have looked like in the 1870s.

When: December 4th-5th

Tickets: Free