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CHRISTMAS

How I tried to recreate a Swedish Christmas and was brought down to earth

When British writer Alison Allfrey tried to recreate her first Swedish Christmas it proved to be much more of a challenge than she expected.

How I tried to recreate a Swedish Christmas and was brought down to earth
Alison Allfrey writes about the time she tried to cook a Swedish Christmas meal. Photo: Private

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.

EDITOR'S PICK:


The Christmas ham is the main staple of the Swedish Christmas meal. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

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.

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What the Christmas ham normally looks like in Sweden. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

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. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place. 

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