For members


Advent Calendar 2022: How Sweden adopted a German Christmas tradition

You've definitely seen them on windowsills this winter, but what is the history behind Sweden's advent candlesticks? We find out in today's Advent calendar.

Advent Calendar 2022: How Sweden adopted a German Christmas tradition
From four simple candles to a 3-metre behemoth, adventsljusstakar light up Sweden at Christmas. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

Swedes may not have invented the concept of the Advent light, but they have spent more than a century adapting and reinventing it, making the Swedish version, known as adventsljusstakar (Advent candelabra), a distinctively Swedish Christmas tradition.

The earliest Advent light tradition, which consisted of lighting candles placed within a wreath of evergreen branches to count down the days until the feast of Christmas, originated in Lutheran Germany, possibly as early as the 1500s. 

In 1839, the first modern German Advent wreath consisted of 20 small red candles, which were lit on weekdays, and four large white candles lit each Sunday of Advent. Though this was eventually simplified to just the four white candles, the tradition first came to Sweden as an adaptation of the more elaborate format.

After spending a year studying nursing in Germany, Marie Cederschiöld returned to Sweden in 1851 to take her place as the first director of Stockholm’s Diakonissanstalten (Christian Welfare Institute; now called Ersta Diakoni) in Stockholm. Along with a tremendous compassion for others, she brought with her the Advent and Christmas traditions she had experienced in Germany.

By the 1870s, children at the organization’s church were lighting the candles of Sweden’s earliest distinctive Advent light. Inspired by but departing from the German tradition, 28 candles were set in an evergreen tree. On the first Advent Sunday, seven of the candles were lit, followed by seven more each successive Sunday until all the candles were lit.

Four Advent candles, one lit every Sunday of Advent. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Over time, the candles were placed in a candelabra instead of a tree, and the number of candles was eventually reduced from 28 to four. The simple four-candle adventsljusstake remained the standard for Advent in Sweden until 1934, when a Swede named Oskar Andersson invented the first electric adventsljusstake.

Instead of modelling his light on the four-candle version, Andersson instead adapted the original Swedish tradition and created a candelabra with seven lights. Although most electric adventsljusstakar still feature seven lights, some feature the traditional four, while others have a seemingly random number like five or nine.

Taking things quite a few steps further, in 1997, Swedish designers Marie Lundgren-Carlgren and Kina Strandberg launched the upscale Elflugan with 19 lights. In the first year alone, more than 10,000 were sold, quickly embedding this thoroughly modern interpretation of the Advent candelabra into the celebration of Christmas in Sweden.

Today, Elflugan is notable as one of the most expensive adventsljusstake on the market, as well as one of the largest. In Jönköping County, two fully-functioning ‘Elflugan XL’ lights, measuring almost 2.9 metres tall and weighing 150 kilos, are permanently located in public places where they count down to Christmas year-round.

Elflugan designers Marie Lundgren-Carlgren and Kina Strandberg. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

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For members


Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedag jul, literally "the thirteenth day of Christmas" always falls on January 6th, which this year is a Friday. It's a public holiday in Sweden meaning many people have a day off. But why is it celebrated it at all?

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedagen, or trettondagen, or Epiphany as it is sometimes referred to in English, is the thirteenth day after Christmas Eve, the day when Swedes celebrate Christmas. Unlike most Swedish holidays such as Midsummer’s Eve (midsommarafton), Easter (påskafton) and Christmas Eve (julafton), the trettondag holiday is celebrated on the actual day, rather than the night before on trettondagsafton.

As a Christian holiday, it marks the day the three wise men met baby Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and therefore the day God’s son arrived on earth. In Denmark and Norway, the day is still referred to as helligtrekongersdag, or “day of the three holy kings”.

Unlike the Twelfth Night or the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is considered to be the last official day of Christmas in many Christian countries, the official final day of Christmas in Sweden falls on the twentieth day after Christmas, January 13th or tjugondag Knut. So, you can keep your decorations up for a while yet.

In Småland, trettondagen is sometimes referred to as farängladagen or änglafardagen(literally: “angel travel day”), as it was previously believed that the dead returned home the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, returning to their graves on January 6th.

How is it celebrated in Sweden?

In modern Sweden, most people don’t do anything in particular to celebrate trettondagen, other than perhaps taking down their Christmas decorations (although as mentioned above, many people do this on January 13th instead). It’s a day off for many, and state-run alcohol chain Systembolaget is closed.

In the Swedish Church, trettondagen is a day for raising funds for various charitable campaigns elsewhere in the world, such as this year’s campaign to end child marriage, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence.

The Swedish Church will often hold services on trettondagen or trettondagsafton. If you’re interested, you can find out what services churches in your parish will be holding here. Just type in your address, then look for trettonhelg to see what’s on.

How did Swedes celebrate in the past?

Traditionally in Sweden, the day was marked by boys and young men walking from town to town telling the story of the three wise men. These young men were known as stjärngossar (literally: star boys), a precursor to the stjärngossar you still see at Saint Lucia celebrations in modern Sweden.

This stjärngossetåg (star boy procession) would include the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who represented Europe, Africa and Asia, wearing pointy hats and white shirts, alongside King Herod, who Mary and Joseph were fleeing from (and the reason Jesus was born in a stable), Herod’s servants and a julbock (Christmas goat).

These storytellers would occasionally be given presents or money, and taking part in a stjärngossetåg was often a way for poor boys and men to earn some money, or even be given something alcoholic to drink.

The julbock‘s role was to collect these gifts or money, and it could even have a funnel hanging from its jaw which would lead to a container to collect any snaps gifted to the procession.

This stjärngossetåg still exists in some parts of Sweden, such as on the islands in the Stockholm archipelago.