Like most European countries, Swedish Christmas celebrations feature such mainstream symbols as Father Christmas, decorated fir trees and brightly coloured presents. However, in among all the usual suspects, Swedish Yule celebrations also throw up some surprises.
The Christmas holiday period begins on the first Sunday of Advent when the first Advent candle is lit, although most of the feasting and celebrations take place after St. Lucia Day.
Held on December 13th every year, St. Lucia Day features a procession headed by a girl wearing a crown of candles, symbolizing the flames which refused to burn Saint Lucia when condemned to the stake.
From December 13th, the festive season is in full swing, and although every family celebrates the Christmas period differently, here are some of the country’s most quintessentially Swedish traditions.
The internationally renowned Swedish tradition of the Smörgåsbord makes a special appearance at Christmas as the julbord (‘Christmas Table’). Literally translating as ‘sandwich table’, the smörgåsbord is a buffet style meal consisting of various dishes which may be eaten any time of the year.
The contents of the julbord vary from family to family, but generally will feature some, if not all, of the following: julskinka (Christmas ham), prinskorv (small sausages flavoured with spices and mustard), jellied pigs’ feet, cooked red cabbage, meatballs, gravad lax (dill marinated salmon), Jansson’s Temptation (a potato, cream and anchovy dish not unlike French gratin), lutfisk (dried and salted cod which is then cooked in water), and dopp i grytan (literally meaning ‘dip in the pot’ – guests and family dip bread in the juices left after cooking the julskinka).
Risgrynsgröt, a sweet rice porridge made with cream, sugar and cinnamon, is also a julbord favourite. Traditionally a whole almond is placed in the porridge and whoever finds the nut in their serving will be married the next year.
Arguably one of the best reasons to visit one of the many Christmas markets that spring up throughout the country, glögg is a yuletide staple and is often seen sold at outdoor kiosks.
Made from red wine and spices, including cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, glögg is drunk throughout Christmas time. Although also served in a non-alcoholic form, for an extra kick, vodka, aquavit or brandy may be added.
Served with raisins and almonds, glögg is typically drunk with pepparkakor (gingerbread biscuits) or lussekatter (a sweet saffron and raisin bun).
Although now either confused with, or replaced by, the more mainstream image of Santa Claus, Tomte is actually a gnome, a figure harking back to Norse paganism.
Tomte has been described in many different guises; indeed some believe he has the ability to shape-shift at will. However, he is usually depicted as a bearded old man with a tall, pointy red hat.
Living under the floorboards of the house or barn, Tomte is fabled to protect the family and livestock. Since the late nineteenth century, Tomte has come to be associated with Christmas, appearing with the Christmas goat (julbock) who gives out presents to children.
The julbock is most probably descended from the Norse mythology of Thor, God of thunder, whose chariot was pulled by goats.
The Disney character of Donald Duck, known in Sweden as ‘Kalle Anke’, has been making an appearance on Swedish television on the afternoon of Christmas Eve for decades.
Quite frankly, no one seems to really know why Donald is so ardently shown year upon year, but the show has become such an institution that taking it off the air would probably result in civil unrest.
Another Christmas television favourite is ‘Sagan om Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton’ by Per Åhlin, from the short story by Tage Danielsson. Made in 1975, the animated movie follows a Robin Hood style theme where wealthy Stockholmers are robbed and the bounty given to the poor.
Devised by Harry and Robert Robberts in 1910 as an alcohol free alternative to beer, Julmust is a drink that you seem to either love or hate.
The syrup forming the base of the drink is still exclusive to the Robberts family, but the recipe contains hops, sugar, malt extract and spices. Usually impossible to get hold of during the rest of the year, this Christmas drink is very popular, even outselling Coca Cola during the festive period.
So once the julbord has been devoured, washed down with liberal quantities of julmust and glögg, the family has dozed to the comic quacks of Donald, Tomte has visited and the Julbock delivered the gifts, there is not much left to do.
Many Swedes attend an early morning church service on the 25th called julottan, or just wait things out until Knut’s Day on January 13th.
Knut’s Day is named after King Knut (Canute IV of Denmark), who ruled during the early 11th century. He was sainted for his virtue and generosity and legend has it that Knut ordered for the Christmas holiday to continue for 20 days until the 13th.
On Knut’s Day, the Christmas trees of Swedish households are thrown out amid celebrations and all the edible decorations are consumed.
Once Christmas has been packed away for another year, it’s just a couple short months until Easter and the delights of semlor buns, pickled herring, witches and of course, yet another smörgåsbord.