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16 traditions you need to follow to fake being a Swede at Christmas

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16 traditions you need to follow to fake being a Swede at Christmas
Lucia celebrations in Sweden. Photo: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se
06:59 CET+01:00
The Swedes have no shortage of quirky traditions. Here are 16 to follow to help you fit in around Christmas.

1. Celebrate Christmas on the 24th

The Swedes love Christmas so much that they just can't wait to celebrate: they have to start a day early. So when many other countries in the Christmas-celebrating world wake up on December 25th, the Swedes are among those already playing with their new presents and nursing their food hangovers. They're far from alone in this habit, though – many other countries, including Germany and France, also mark the big day on Christmas Eve.

2. Eat a julbord with your colleagues

Not only will you be forced to sit through hours of pickled herring, beet salad, fish in lye, and bread dipped in ham stock on Christmas Eve – it is expected that most people in Sweden will go to at least one additional julbord in the run-up to Christmas. Restaurants serve up full Christmas meals from late November, and most offices organize some kind of lunch for their staff, even if it's just a cold meatball and a dry lussekatt.

3. Make saffron buns

And speaking of lussekatter. These saffron buns, a staple at Lucia celebrations, may taste oddly savoury to many foreigners when you try them the first time (a bit like an Indian curry, one reader told us), but are actually quite nice once you get used to them. Be super Swedish and make them yourself. Here's a recipe.

READ ALSO: Six things not to say to Swedes on Lucia day


Lussekatter, one of the best things about Christmas in Sweden. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

4. Attend a Lucia procession…

Get up early in the morning on December 13th and go to your school, workplace, local church or what have you, and watch a person dressed up as a dead Italian saint sing Christmas songs. Don't worry if it's cold and still pitch black outside – there will be glögg (mulled wine) and lussekatter.

5. … or watch it on TV

Prefer to stay in bed? Turn on your device-of-choice to watch whatever Lucia procession public television network SVT has decided to broadcast this year. And make your Swedish partner bring you glögg and lussekatter – frankly they should just be happy you're putting up with the things on this list at all.

6. Buy an Advent Calendar…

These are popular in many other countries as well, but perhaps especially so in Sweden. Every family has at least one Advent Calendar (adventskalender) counting down the days from the first of December to Christmas Eve. Usually with bits of cheap and bland chocolate on the inside, because if you can't eat disgusting food at Christmas, when can you?

7. … or watch it on TV

Most Swedish Christmas traditions boil down to two things: television or food. The Christmas Calendar (Julkalendern), which dates back to the 1960s, is an annual TV series airing one episode a day in December and culminating on Christmas Eve. It is targeted at children, but many adult Swedes still watch it – if only to be able to tell you that it is not as good as it was when they were young.

8. Stop drinking Coca-Cola

If you want to insult your Swedish inlaws this Christmas, bring a bottle of coke to the julbord.

The Swedes shun this sparkly American beverage in December, with julmust instead making up the majority of drink sales. The drink was devised by Harry and Robert Robberts in 1910 as an alcohol-free alternative to beer and tastes somewhat like a super sweet, spicy root beer. The same drink is sold at Easter under a different name, påskmust, but is otherwise unavailable the rest of the year.


Swedes enjoying their julmust. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

9. Have rice pudding for breakfast every day

Can't wait for rice pudding (risgrynsgröt, or the slightly more luxurious variant, ris à la Malta) on Christmas Eve? You can buy the rice porridge ready-made wrapped in something that looks like a big plastic sausage in Swedish supermarkets – if you wouldn't rather make it from scratch yourself.

10. Have an opinion on Donald Duck

This Disney Christmas special has been shown at 3pm every year on Christmas Eve since 1959 and Swedish Christmas celebrations are literally organized around the irate duck, known as Kalle Anka in Swedish. Innocent arguments such as "in my family we've always opened the gifts before Kalle – but in my family we've always opened them after Kalle" have been behind many a Swedish divorce.

11. Watch Ingmar Bergman

Bergman's 1982 masterpiece 'Fanny and Alexander' is an epic family tale set in the early 20th century, which kicks off with a scrumptiously extravagant Christmas julbord that have made Swedes feel inadequate ever since. It is around five hours long, but as a movie expert once told The Local, it is perhaps the only Bergman movie that all Swedes actually like without pretending. 

12. Bust a rhyme

A tradition that is increasingly dying out, but still observed by the traditionalists, is the Christmas gift poem. The gift-giver writes a couple of rhyming couplets on their presents, hinting at what's hidden inside, which is then read out before opening it. This could be something like "I know you wanted Minecraft building blocks, instead here's a pair of - - - - -." We didn't say it was Shakespeare.

13. Light an adventsljusstake

The four Advent candles are lit one by one each Sunday in the run-up to Christmas to symbolize the passage of the four weeks of Advent. Swedes also use the word to describe the triangular electric candle holder (usually seven candles) found in practically all windows in December. A tradition getting increasingly popular around the globe thanks to a certain Swedish furniture company. It gets very dark here in winter, so making use of all available sources of light is not a bad idea.


A Swedish Christmas candle holder. Photo: TT

14. Go to (or avoid) mellandagsrean

In the UK it's known as the Boxing Day sales, the day when all stores drop their prices to their usual levels after having raised them just a few days earlier in the hope nobody would notice. In Sweden the big sale is named after the days between Christmas and New Year's Eve, known as, because Swedes love their literal compound words, 'the in-between days' (mellandagarna).

15. Celebrate Christmas much longer than anyone else

Most English-speaking countries mark the end of Christmastide on Twelfth Night. But Swedes can't bear for all the fun to end, so they keep going until Twentieth Day Knut (Tjugondag Knut) on January 13th, 20 days after Christmas. The day is named after Danish prince Canute Lavard, who modern Swedes would not be able to pick out of a lineup.

16. Then plunder the Christmas tree

On Knut's Day, a feast is traditionally held called julgransplundring ('Christmas tree plundering'), stripping the tree of its ornaments and throwing it out of the window onto the street. That clearly constitutes littering, so the tradition is increasingly being replaced by an adult member of the family driving to the recycling station and spending the weeks up until Easter picking the needle-like leaves out of the seats of their car. 

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