For members


#AdventCalendar: Why does Santa ride a pig in Sweden?

Each day of December up until Christmas Eve, The Local is sharing the story behind a surprising Swedish fact as part of our own Advent calendar.

#AdventCalendar: Why does Santa ride a pig in Sweden?
Swedish Santa or the jultomte is often seen with a pig in Christmas cards and decorations. But why? Image: Public domain

Pigs are central to Swedish Christmas, appearing on the julbord (Christmas buffet) in many forms: ham, pork, sausages, pickled pigs' feet, and marzipan or chocolate pigs.

The farm animal might not have festive connotations in most countries, but Swedish Christmas still has rural roots, since it is only since the 1950s that more people in Sweden have lived in urban areas than the countryside. It was a source of pride for families to fatten up their best pig and be able to serve it for the Christmas meal.

And not only that, but it's a part of Nordic folklore dating back before Christianity. In the Old Norse religion, it was believed that in Valhalla, warriors ate the same pig at a feast each night before it came back to life the next day – only to be slaughtered and eaten once more. 

So people in Scandinavia would sacrifice pigs to the gods, and eat their meat during the winter season. While the sacrifices disappeared after Sweden adopted Christianity, pigs remained a fixture of the festive feast. 

And because of that, pigs are not only on the menu but also a common motif in home decorating. You'll find pig-shaped pepparkakor (gingerbread), candle-holders, and ornaments for the tree.

You might also see ornaments where Father Christmas appears to be riding a pig – somewhat startling for people from countries where he's more commonly seen aboard a sleigh pulled by reindeer.






A post shared by Mette of Denmark (@metteofdenmark) on Dec 31, 2018 at 11:28pm PST

But the Swedish jultomte isn't quite the same thing as Santa.

A tomte is a gnome-like creature, and according to Nordic folklore, each farm or property has its own resident tomte who protects the land. The tomte can be quite bad-tempered, so is best appeased with offerings such as porridge. 

Perhaps because of the traditional tomte's appearance, resembling an old man with a long grey beard, over the years he became slightly confused with Father Christmas, and replaced the Christmas goat (julbock) as the bringer of gifts in Swedish festive folklore.


Because the tomte's origins are in agricultural traditions, he was seen as a protector of the farmyard animals, and in artwork the tomte is often shown with a pig. It should also be noted that tomte was much smaller than a regular human, so we assume no pigs were harmed in the making of these scenes.

So there you have it: that's not actually Santa riding the pig, but jultomte, and these kitsch-looking ornaments reveal more about Swedish history than you'd guess at first glance.

Thanks to reader Cathy from Uppsala, who asked us to explain this tradition for our Advent Calendar.

Each day until Christmas Eve, The Local is looking at the story behind one surprising fact about Sweden, as agreed by our readers. Find the rest of our Advent Calendar HERE and sign up below to get an email notification when there's a new article.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.