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CHRISTMAS

The ultimate guide to Swedish Christmas traditions

Did you know Swedes all celebrate Christmas on December 24th? Here's how the festive day unfolds.

The ultimate guide to Swedish Christmas traditions
Merry Christmas from The Local! Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

“Nu är det jul igen”, they all sing (“now it’s Christmas again”). You’ve been through both Advent and Lucia and finally, it’s Christmas Eve. So what exactly happens in Sweden?

Julbord

The renowned Swedish tradition of the smörgåsbord transforms at Christmas time into the Julbord – literally Christmas table. The julbord is essentially a buffet of bizarre and beautiful seasonal Swedish delicacies.

These include the basics like Swedish meatballs, but often also jellied pigs’ feet, Vienna sausages (known as prinskorv, prince sausages in Swedish), gravad lax – raw salmon cured in dill and lemon, and a traditional dish called Jansson’s Temptation – a creamy potato casserole with anchovies. Pâtés of liver and seafood are also popular.

If you’re doing it properly, help yourself to cold dishes first, and then return for the warm food. You’re supposed to eat everything in the right order, so stay near a Swedish friend who will see you right.

A favourite traditional dessert following the julbord is rice porridge with cinnamon, sugar, and milk. Any sort of dessert using figs, such as fig parfait or ice cream or simply frozen or gratinated figs, is also popular. 

The julbord is, of course, accompanied by snaps and aquavit – but not wine. While a small cup of glögg might be had before the buffet begins, wine with Christmas food is a rookie foreigner mistake.

READ ALSO: An idiot’s guide to a Swedish julbord


A Swedish Christmas julbord. Photo: Robin Haldert/TT

Glögg

If you’re puzzling over how to pronounce this one, you’re not alone. But this is essentially a delicious spiced drink which simply tastes like Christmas. One could say that “glögg” is the sound you make as you gulp down another glass.

In all practicality, however, glögg is not something one chugs. The traditional warm mulled wine is served in miniature cups and is sipped slowly. Most Swedes add blanched peeled almonds and raisins to their cups. 

Bottles of glögg can be purchased in low and no-alcohol varieties at any food market during winter, though for the more full-bodied versions you’ll have to head to liquor monopoly Systembolaget. The drink can also be prepared at home. Glögg is made from red wine and spices such as cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon.

READ ALSO: How to make your own Swedish glögg


Swedish mulled wine, or glögg. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

Tomte

During the last couple of decades the Swedish Tomte has gone through a bit of an identity crisis. These days, he’s the same jolly round man known as Santa Claus in the USA, but originally the Tomte was a gnome – a short, wrinkly-faced mischievous man with roots in Norse paganism.

The Tomte was said to live beneath the floorboards of houses or barns, and protected livestock. He is associated with another Swedish Christmas symbol, a goat (julbock). These days perhaps the most famous incarnation is the Gävle Goat, a giant straw goat which is frequently the victim of arson as Christmas approaches.

Several traditional Swedish Christmas songs mention the tomte – including one little ditty the Swedes love to sing as a drinking song before a julbord, “Hej Tomtegubbar”. 

Roughly translated the key phrase is “Hey, jolly gnomes, fill your glasses and let’s be merry together. We only live on this earth for a short while with a lot of toil and trouble.” That’s a Merry Swedish Christmas for you. If you’re going to be in Sweden over Christmas, learn this song. It’s simply easier that way.

READ ALSO: Introducing the Swedish Christmas Tomte


My goodness, Santa is real! Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The Tree

Swedes have a penchant for dancing in circles around tall objects. During Midsummer they orbit around the Maypole; at Christmas, the Christmas tree. But the idea is the same. Eat, drink, be merry, and sing songs about funny little frogs as you dance around something tall and green.

The Christmas tree itself is decorated, much like in many other parts of the world – but isn’t as glittery as in some countries. While many Swedes do use glass ball ornaments as well nowadays, most still use primarily traditional ornaments made of straw, in the shapes of stars, angels, pinecones, and goats. Gingerbread cookies and paper hearts also make appearances.


Swedish Christmas trees. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Donald Duck

You thought your Swedish mates were going to put on It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas like the Americans do? Think again. It’s time for Donald Duck.

Disney’s dorky and mildly devilish duck, known as Kalle Anka in Swedish, rules Christmas TV. Christmas celebrations are organised around the figure, we kid you not. Swedes adore the duck. The Disney Christmas special, From All of us to All of You, known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (“Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas”), is shown at 3pm every year on Christmas Eve. Every year. Don’t even think about recording it to watch later.

While Donald gets all the credit, the show in fact features a whole range of classic Disney characters, from Snow White to Mickey Mouse, as well as the eponymous duck. The show was first aired in 1959, and it’s been a tradition ever since. Each time the show, or even one portion of it has been threatened by broadcasters, the public response has been strong enough to restore it. In other words: It’s an oldie, it’s a goodie, and you can’t touch it.

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.

The Christmas Calendar

A Christmas TV tradition dating back to 1960. The Christmas Calendar, known until 1971 as the Advent Calendar, is a yearly TV series airing one episode each day in December, culminating on Christmas Eve. The show is always aired on Swedish Television (SVT).


Actors from one of this year’s editions. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Julmust

Devised by Harry and Robert Roberts in 1910 as an alcohol free alternative to beer, Julmust, which is somewhat like a super sweet, spicey root beer, makes up more than 75 percent of drink sales in December, by far outselling Coca Cola, which is usually the most popular drink.

The syrup used in the drink is still made exclusively by the Roberts family in Örebro, though the syrup is then sold to various manufacturers who make the final product their own way. The recipe contains hops, sugar, malt aroma and spices.

The same drink is sold at Easter under a different name, påskmust, but is otherwise unavailable the rest of the year.


Swedes take their julmust seriously. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

God Jul from The Local to all our readers!

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Member comments

  1. Also, I just found out about “Bingolotto” on Uppesittarkväll, this year. Maybe The Local can write about that for next year. At least for some folks, I guess it’s a pretty big deal/something they do *every* year :).

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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