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CHRISTMAS

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

The Swedes have no shortage of quirky traditions. Here are 16 to follow to help you fit in around Christmas.

16 traditions you need to follow to fake being a Swede at Christmas
A family watching Donald Duck on Christmas Eve. As you do. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

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 some 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 organise 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 for 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 sparkling 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 organised 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 has 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 symbolise the passage of the four weeks of Advent. Swedes also use the word to describe the triangular electric candlestick (usually seven candles) found in practically all windows in December. This is 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 candlestick. 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 finding pine needles in the seats of their car for the rest of the year. 

For members

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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