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Five key julbord points: A beginner’s guide to the Swedish Christmas meal

Fretting over the prospect of a huge, unfamiliar Swedish julbord Christmas meal? Here's a simple guide to help you navigate it.

a picture of typical julbord meals
Confused? Let us help... Photo: Robin Haldert/TT

1. The order of affairs

The sheer variation of food on offer at a Swedish Christmas meal can be daunting for newcomers, but there’s a clear order to follow that should make things simpler.

You might kick off with some glögg (similar to mulled wine) to warm up, then comes the first wave of food. That’s usually the fish dishes, focusing on pickled herring (sill) and cured salmon (gravad lax) accompanied with potatoes and crispbread (knäckebröd).

Next up is cold cured meats (including the fabled Christmas ham), more bread, and probably some pâté. Then it’s the heaviest wave, the warm dishes, which will likely involve meatballs, sausage (prinskorv), a potato and cream casserole (Janssons frestelse), and sometimes bread dipped in pork broth (dopp i grytan).

After that, it’s dessert and/or cheese with crackers, finished off with some coffee and perhaps a few sweets and rice pudding (ris à la Malta).

If that sounds like a lot, then the trick here is not to fill yourself up early on – as tasty as the sill may be. That means going easy on the knäckebröd to begin with, by the way. There’s nothing worse than trying to force down Janssons frestelse in order to look polite when in truth you’re already full.

Meatballs, prinskorv sausage, and Janssons frestelse. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

2. If you’re the chef, shoot for quality, not quantity

It sounds like a contradiction considering Sweden’s traditional Christmas meal is based on a variety of smaller dishes, but try to exercise some common sense and avoid being over ambitious if you’re in charge of making the food.

Instead of trying to make as many of the almost countless number of potential dishes as possible, pick a selection and focus on getting them right. A smaller number of tasty, well-prepared dishes will go down better than a huge volume of badly cooked food, and it’ll be less stressful too. 

A handy list of recipes for Swedish julbord staples can be found on John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website here. Simply pick your favourites from each category, and get cooking!

You won’t be able to pull this off, so don’t try! Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

3. Solving the veggie dilemma

A traditional julbord can be unkind on vegetarians, so if you’re either hosting a veggie and feel like being accommodating, or want to try making a more veggie-friendly julbord yourself, there are a few simple tricks that can make it easier.

Replacing sill is a tricky one, but pickling beetroot or apples is a decent alternative, and luckily we have a recipe for just that.

If you are in Sweden, some supermarkets stock ready-made vegetarian herring alternatives – look for mushroom (svill), or tofu-based alternatives (often named after the flavour of herring they are trying to replicate – such as skärgårdstofu or senapstofu).

READ ALSO: The history of Sweden’s julbord

Similarly, most Swedish supermarkets carry a decent range of vegetarian sausages and meatballs.

If you want to have a go at a vegetarian alternative to julskinka or Christmas ham, try glazing a celeriac – see here for Rachel Khoo’s recipe (in English).

4. The all-important drinks

Sweden does Christmas drinks well, and there’s a wide range of options if you want to bring a bottle to a friend’s.  A simple start is to pack some glögg, but given everyone has probably been drinking that stuff for a month already, it may be worth branching out.

Dark beers like porters work well, and many Swedish brewers even brew their own special Christmas beer (julöl) which tends to be of the darker variety. If you don’t drink, there’s more and more non-alcoholic Christmas beer appearing every year, and some of them are surprisingly good, so keep your eyes peeled in the supermarket’s beer section.

Alternatively there’s svagdricka, a low alcohol malt drink that’s dark, sweet, and still made by a few breweries. A high-alcohol alternative is mumma, a sort of old-fashioned Swedish Christmas cocktail containing four different types of alcohol that can be bought at Systembolaget or made according to the simple recipe noted here.

Then there’s of course snaps and aquavit, which are consumed at Christmas just like pretty much every other Swedish party. Oh, and there’s also julmust, Sweden’s Christmassy cola, but you’re not a child and don’t drink fizzy drinks with meals, right?

Swedish Christmas beer. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

5. The regional variations

Helpfully if you’re keen on surprises, or worryingly if you’re not, Swedish julbords rarely look exactly alike thanks to the strong regional variation involved in Christmas foods in the country, so prepare for a bit of the unexpected.

If you’re in Bohuslän you may be presented with “egg cheese” for example, which we detailed here, while in the south, a form of sweet fried cabbage called brunkål as well as smoked eels (luad ål) are popular. In the north, oven baked cheese dessert fatost is a specialty.

If you’re lucky enough to be on Gotland at Christmas meanwhile, you may be treated to saffron pancakes, though not in the familiar crepe style. The island’s traditional Christmas dish is made by combining dessert rice, almond paste, eggs, flour, saffron and sliced almonds then baking in the oven before serving in squares. Tasty.

Saffron pancakes, Gotland style. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Article originally published in December 2016 and updated in December 2021.

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For members


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/

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.