A more cynical commentator might say that the perfect Christmas is one spent alone with a good book on a tropical beach away from all presents, tinsel or immediate family. Assuming that is not an option, here are five suggestions to make a fairytale Christmas in Sweden.
1. Shopping for presents
It wouldn’t be Christmas without getting seriously into debt (Think Dickens: A Christmas Carol followed by Hard Times) and buying your Christmas presents in Sweden, this is easily achieved.
Go to town and shop in style in Stockholm or Gothenburg by heading for NK, Sweden’s best known department store, famed for their Christmas window displays. The devil may wear Prada, so why shouldn’t your nearest and dearest?
Otherwise look for a rustic Julmarknad (Christmas market) where you can buy everything from homemade socks, candles and other handicraft to traditional Peruvian knitwear. You might even get to shake hands with Santa who usually makes an appearance at local markets.
Julbord (literally ‘Christmas Table’) is a sumptuous feast laid out buffet style where you are expected to fill your plate, return for seconds and then keep returning until you are too bloated to go back. It’s a seasonal blow out where traditionally all the best foods are consumed with gluttonous abandon.
The standard fare is meatballs, Jansson’s frestelse (Jansson’s temptation – potatoes, onion, anchovies and cream), Julskinka (Christmas Ham) and lutfisk. These are accompanied by a wealth of other dishes including gravalax, smoked fish, pickled herring, cheese, patés, and other rich delicacies. The julbord is often a good chance to try such things as hjort (hart) paté or smoked reindeer, both of which are delicious.
Julbords take place at home with friends and family and also at restaurants across the country. If you do decide to eat your Julbord out, choose a Wärdshus, the equivalent of a country inn, for a real taste of the Sweden of old. More often than not, you will find locally produced food (närodlad mat) and regional specialities. Where I live in Östergötland, two of the best julbords are at Wärdshuset Berggrens Källare or Kisa Wärdshus.
3. Snow or ‘Go North my son, go North!’
Since Bing Crosby crooned the idea of a White Christmas into the popular psyche most of the world has borne a sense of disappointment on Christmas morning when opening the curtains to reveal a dull, wet, grey day. At least that’s the case in most cities in the northern hemisphere. The wonderful thing about Sweden is that there’s a strong chance it will snow. Needless to say, the further north you travel, the greater the chance of seeing the white stuff.
If your wallet allows it, there’s the world famous Ice Hotel way up in Lapland. But you don’t have to go crazy and travel all the way up to the Polar Circle, instead head for one of the Ski resorts such as Åre and take in some winter sports between Christmas festivities.
A Christmas CD on repeat can be enough to tip some people over the edge. However, music that could be considered tacky or cheesy in another country may be seen as the height of sophistication in Sweden. Remember that this is the land that that sees Eurovision as a significant cultural event.
If you are really looking for a tune that has it all, you’ll find it hard to beat Dansbandskampens runners up, Scotts, who have released a Swedish version of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ called ‘Den Julen’ although ‘Andrew Ridgeley’s Revenge’ might have been a better title.
If dansband music all seems too much, you could always ‘Go Live’ and sing a selection of Julvisor (Christmas songs). Don’t worry if you’re tone deaf, the ubiquitous glass of snaps with each song will blot out any memory of cacophonous singing. Waking up the next day with a headache, you are never sure whether to blame the singing or the alcohol.
5. Santa Claus
Yes, he is real and he lives in the north of Sweden! You can write to him via the postal terminal at Tomteboda, Stockholm, where according to Sweden Post, he reads every letter and will reply in Swedish or English
Or if you can hitch a ride on a reindeer you can meet him in person at Santaworld in Dalarna, where, everyday, the great man takes time out from his busy toy-making schedule to eat pancakes with his fans. The park is open throughout the year, but is closed on Christmas Eve, for obvious reasons.
Ben Kersley is a writer and performer based in Linköping. He is also Sweden’s only Svengelska stand up comedian. Read his blog ‘110% Lagom’ on The Local.