How I fled Isis and celebrated Christmas with a Swedish circus

How’s this for a quirky first Christmas in Sweden: Qutaiba Ad-Dagher tells The Local Voices how he escaped from Mosul and soon found himself baking saffron buns and learning tricks from circus artists.

How I fled Isis and celebrated Christmas with a Swedish circus

The night before bloodthirsty Isis fighters entered Mosul in 2014, 28-year-old Qutaiba Ad-Dagher managed to get out. 

After months-long stays in Baghdad and Turkey, he wound up in Sweden for what he thought was a temporary stay before moving on to Finland. But that was before he met Tilde Björfors, a circus director who was volunteering at his asylum centre. 

She convinced him that he would be better off staying in Sweden, and eventually offered him a room in her apartment. Here he describes the surreal and uplifting experience of a Muslim Iraqi’s first Christmas in Sweden.

My first time celebrating Christmas in Sweden, or anywhere

I had no clue what Sweden’s Christmas would be like, with its Lucia, glögg and saffron buns.

Iraqi Christians celebrate Christmas, but their festivities didn’t seem similar to what I witnessed here. 

2015 was the year when I became a refugee, and it was also the year I celebrated Christmas for the first time.  

Playing the part of Saint Stephen – and singing in Swedish for Lucia

We celebrated Lucia, both refugees and volunteers, in the makeshift asylum camp where I lived. That camp is a place of great memories.  

Prior to the Lucia celebrations, the volunteers suggested I sing. 

I played Saint Stephen’s role and thought I was going to sing in English. But they told me: “No! No! you are going to sing in Swedish!” 

I read about Saint Stephen and later played his role, as they had asked, in Swedish. 

This was one of many firsts that year. It was the first time I had read or uttered Swedish. I still didn’t know what I was saying, or how I sounded! 

The preparations were simple: we created crowns out of egg cartons. Even the wreath of candles was too basic for the girl to balance it on her head. The wreath slipped and all the candles fell over the bearer at the last moment of the ceremony. It looked very funny. 

Everyone pitched in to help with the preparations; we baked gingerbread biscuits and saffron buns, and we set up the Christmas tree together. 

With all its spontaneity and surprise, that Lucia was nice. 

I felt really happy I was doing something new, and was happy seeing all people around me delighted as well. 

‘The Christmas food seemed really peculiar to me’

The circus management, where Tilde works, at Cirkus cirkör, heard about the makeshift camp and us refugees, and decided to offer us a three-part Christmas gift.

First they gave us ten thousand kronor in cash for us to spend on whatever we might need at the camp; then there was were circus festivities made up of different games; and a dinner party.

The circus performers trained us to do different games and stunts. We learned how to make a human-pyramid, and other amusing tricks.   

The dinner party was the quirkiest of Sweden’s Christmas traditions. There was a big dinner table crammed with exotic food. Many dishes included seafood and pork. I ate mostly fish and inadvertently chose a dish that turned out to be sweet. That was very odd to imagine or even to taste. The Swedish volunteers told us that that the sweetened fish recipe is served only at Christmas. So I understood it’s part of the tradition!

The Christmas food seemed really peculiar to me. We are used to seeing big roast turkeys on American dinner tables in movies, but not pork or sweetened fish as in Sweden’s case. 

After dinner we decided to dance together, refugees and volunteers. No-one knew how to dance.  It was very awkward but funny. 

No Eid al-Adha, but Christmas made up for the loss 

Christmas is a religious event at heart. However, thinking about it as a festivity, it can be affected by culture and traditions. That’s why there can’t be Christmas in Sweden without celebrating Lucia first for example. While in Iraq nobody knows about Lucia.   

Fleeing Iraq and later moving to Sweden had deprived me of celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha (Sacrifice Feast), because I simply had no-one to share the moment with. For me that was emotionally devastating. However, Lucia and Christmas came a month after to give me an unexpected heart-warming boost. 

Despite its quirkiness, Christmas in Sweden was exceptional. It was heart-warming. Being with those great people, volunteers and refugees, was indeed a consolation to my soul. A consolation for the loss of my city to Isis. I found solace in the diaspora. 

I have no problem as a Muslim to celebrate Christmas with Christian friends – not at all. Nothing in Islam says that I can’t celebrate Christmas. I am a Muslim; I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t eat pork and I do celebrate Christmas with my Christian friends! Why not?

Even if I weren’t a Muslim, I don't think I would have drunk alcohol anyway.


A few weeks ago we invited you, our readers, to participate in an experiment to help us pick a Christmas story. You told us you wanted something about quirky holiday traditions, and your input led us to Qutaiba Ad-Dagher. We hope you enjoyed his story. Thank you for reading The Local Voices. 



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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