‘It often feels like Christmas in Sweden is only about presents’

Rampant holiday consumerism is hard to avoid, writes US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt, as she struggles to reconcile competing Swedish and American Christmas traditions in finding gifts for her children.

'It often feels like Christmas in Sweden is only about presents'

Our family has entirely too much stuff.

This fact comes to my attention a few times a year, usually prompting yet another trip to Ikea, looking for storage, “for now, until we can figure out what to get rid of.”

My current assessment of our overflowing household was prompted by the fact that Christmas is coming.

And there will be presents, lots of presents.

Presents that, strictly speaking, we don’t need.

Each of these presents will take up more space. Space that we don’t have, which will inevitably result in another trip to Ikea.

Around Christmas time, I feel pulled in two directions.

On one hand, as my children, whom we’ll call ‘Erik’ and ‘Gabrielle’, carefully write their Christmas lists, I get caught up in their excitement and want (I’ll admit it) to give them what they want.

On the other hand, our kids really don’t need any more Ninjago toys. Or dinosaurs. Or, my personal favorite, “an owl with a leaf in a tree.”

Our kids don’t need anything. Or, rather, anything they need won’t come wrapped under the Christmas tree.

I want our family to be part of something more meaningful around Christmas; however, I struggle with finding a balance now that we’re in Sweden.

It doesn’t seem like people spend more than a day or two with their extended families during the holidays around here.

I don’t know of anywhere our family can go together to donate presents or canned food to local families in need. We’re not particularly religious, so we don’t spend time at church.

We used to go to the San Francisco Zoo to meet Santa’s reindeer, but the only reindeer I’ve seen around Stockholm come in sausage form. In other words, moving to Sweden has meant that we’ve lost a lot of the traditions that make Christmas more than presents.

And it’s hard to get the kids’ little minds off of presents when the subject of Christmas comes up.

Especially when Erik writes his Christmas list at school. In a country where getting a large pile of Christmas gifts seems to be a birthright. In a country where we’re all supposed to be doing things the same way.

Take, for example, December 1st at Erik’s school. We hadn’t even made it through the door to Erik’s class before the Advent calendar talk started.

“I got a robber in my Lego calendar. What did you get?”

“The football card calendars were sold out, so I got the Star Wars one.”

Another girl says with a funny smile, “My parents tried to find an Advent calendar for me last night, but they were all sold out. Even the TV one.”

All sold out?

“They cost so much money,” a mom quietly laments to me.

“One for each kid plus the TV calendar.”

“’Well, kids,’” I quip, “’no more presents this year.’”

We both laugh.

Because we both know this would never happen. And we both know that, despite complaints, we’ll buy Advent calendars next year as well.

After all, it’s tradition.

I’ll admit this: we have four advent calendars at our house. For two kids.

Two years ago in the US, the kids didn’t even know what an Advent calendar was.

Not that this problem of Christmas consumption is uniquely Swedish. Not that Christmas isn’t all about buying in the US—it is.

We even have a special day dedicated to buying that makes headlines around the world, almost a national holiday for Christmas shopping: Black Friday.

Despite this, back in the US it just felt like there was less cultural pressure around Christmas buying, especially since a chunk of our kids’ friends didn’t even celebrate it.

Of course, it takes only one news program on rural Afghanistan or a day at my old job in a New York City public school to render all these quandaries ridiculous and absurd. What a disgustingly privileged problem to have too much stuff.

But how do I instill that kind of awareness into my kids without sucking the joy out of Christmas?

My brother Robert has made more progress in this area than I have, I’ll admit.

Robert, a relentless opponent of wasteful consumerism, read and lived by a study that found that, for maximum pleasure and enjoyment each gift, a person should receive no more than… three gifts.

Just pause to imagine explaining this one to the grandparents.

He also refused to buy a trucked-in tree or Christmas decorations. However, even he broke down after a few years of pleas from his two kids.

My mom came and filled up the kids’ stockings with fun, completely unnecessary toys, and he got a tree. The tree was small and potted, and I don’t think it survived the intended transplant.

Still, both kids and adults seemed happy with the compromise.

So even Robert, a person who sticks to his principles, living in a community relatively free from the usual pressures of conformity and consumerism—he lives in Berkeley, California, an alternate universe where the only thing looked down upon is being a part of mainstream culture—even he has relaxed some of his standards and let consumerism into his front door.

Now, just imagine my brother moving into our storybook neighborhood here in Sweden, where every house, every single one, has Advent lights or stars glowing in the windows.

Imagine the confusion when his kids explained to their classmates that they celebrate Christmas but won’t have a Christmas tree.

Because we don’t live in Berkeley. We live in Stockholm, where, last year, Erik’s friend and her three-year-old brother each got, among their many gifts (more than three each, I assure you), their own iPads.

Now, we’re not contemplating twin iPad purchases, but the standards are out there. Kids talk about these things.

Our family can make its own choices. And we do.

It’s just that I get a little tired of always being the one that does things differently. The only family in the entire lower elementary school that doesn’t attend the “fritids” after-school programmes.

The only family that dresses up as, say, Yoda or a crocodile instead of a skeleton or a witch for Halloween.

It would be nice to blend in, at least some of the time.

But I do have hope for reconciling Swedish and US Christmas traditions. I know we have more in common than just presents.

A nation that watches Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton every year must include other everyday parents that feel pulled by Christmas like I do.

So can we keep the flood of Christmas stuff at bay this year?

Can we find a niche that’s right for us, a comfortable blend of our family’s two identities?

Robert and his family are flying in from California to celebrate with us. I’m sure he will have some tips for me.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

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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