Christmas – the ultimate challenge.
So much expectation, precedent, conditioning, potential delight or disappointment. And creating a Christmas everyone will love – or which passes muster – in a different country is even more exacting.
Capturing that mercurial Christmas spirit. Creating a tantalizing atmosphere of anticipation. Finding presents to hit the spot. Preparing a feast which will taste as good as Christmases past, or running the gauntlet with something new, complemented with beguiling drinks to suit all palettes. Finding gorgeous events to rekindle the Christmas story and stir up excitement. Quite a conundrum!
One of the most charming things about a Swedish Christmas is that it doesn't begin too early.
No pounding of Christmas songs in supermarket aisles from early November, but a concentrated campaign in December, set off, as so many things in Sweden, by nature… hopefully. Whereas the previous year had seen almost unprecedented snow, the year we stayed in Sweden to recreate our own Swedish Christmas, the weather went on strike.
So I found myself a week before, battling through freezing rain to the Coop to stock up for the big event.
Having savoured the charm of Lucia, an epic julbord, the gargantuan Christmas tree on Skeppsbron, the delights of Stortorget's Christmas market – in the exceptional rain too – the time had come for practicalities.
I decided the julskinka (Christmas ham) should be the focal point of our feast and hadn't anticipated that being too much of a challenge, if I covered it with enough treacle and beguiling spices.
A nagging thought that herrings should also be a key feature, but curing these was beyond an unsuspecting Brit and investing in someone else's epicurean skills would be permissible.
Pudding would allow me to go freestyle, liberated from the strictures of Christmas pudding and the Christmas cake would give a pronounced nod to Scandinavia, with dancing gingerbread Moomin figures fixed to its sides, if the icing held.
Any chances of perfect gingerbread houses to decorate the scene had gone by the board after tense Christmas holiday mornings grappling with disobedient caramelizing sugar, which turned into concrete rather than gluing the walls together.
This series of offerings, complemented with requisite amounts of glögg for adults and julmust for children, should do the trick. Both should ensure enough alcoholic sedation and sugar stimulus to get us through the day.
Preparations moved ahead, the Christmas cake ensuring hours of wholesome fun cutting out the Moomin figures and icing to bring them to life.
The julskinka remained in the fridge until its first outing on December 23rd for boiling and subsequent roasting on 24th.
An insistent picture loomed in my head of the man at the butcher's counter, his face quizzical when I had asked for the ham not to be salted and resigned as I picked up this hulk of meat, perhaps knowing something I didn't but wishing me luck anyway. Misgivings which fell into that chasm separating the Swede who knows how things should be done and the foreigner working with shreds of native knowledge lost in translation.
The boiling part went well anyway, the meat acquiescing to my endeavours. And the sensationally lovely scene of Djursholm's immaculately painted chapel lit by a multitude of candles for the Christmas Eve carol service sent me into a reverie. The ham could do its thing – I was here to enjoy a gathering encapsulating the unaffected traditionalism which made Sweden so seductive at Christmas. A sequence of lilting carols and my best efforts to pronounce the words without too much embarrassment ensued.
After a bracing walk home, the final confrontation with the ham. Father Christmas had been, candle flames flickered, faces became suffused with a ruddy glow, tummies rumbled. Then, a truly ghastly moment, Christmas supper being a one-way street where you've backed one horse and not prepared for it bolting at the final fence.
What emerged from the oven was a strangely stripy, part grey, part suspiciously pink semblance of a ham, entirely unappealing, not gleaming with lustrous treacle, filthy, a total disaster.
For the first time – at Christmas anyway – I suffered the peculiarly English ordeal of my family audience eating with pained politeness, suspicious speed and much hiding of ham/pork hybrid under cutlery.
I had been felled by some vagary in the salting process, my aspirations of achieving Swedishness brought down to earth.
Sweden had played its part in a fabulous embrace of light, gingerbread, beguiling decoration and understated cosiness. I had much to learn, but would rather the ham humiliation than a dogged insistence on English turkey in northern climes. Failing didn't really matter, but how glad I was to savour a symphony of expertly prepared herrings, reindeer and enticing ham with our Swedish neighbours when it was all over!
Alison Allfrey is an avid linguist and traveller from the UK. So when she and her snow-loving husband were posted to Sweden in 2012 with their sons Tom and Ben, the stage was set for adventure. Her first book, SO SWEDEN – Living Differently, is now available in paperback and Kindle form on Amazon.