The Lowdown: Christmas in Sweden

Jellied pigs’ feet, Donald Duck and a goat-riding gnome may not be your typical global Christmas symbols, but for Swedes they’re all part of the fun, writes Jennifer Heape.

The Lowdown: Christmas in Sweden

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.

Donald Duck

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.

Knut’s Day

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.

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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