Today’s word of the day is julhög, which is made up of the word jul (Christmas) and hög (heap, pile, or mound).
You’re unlikely to see a julhög at Christmastime these days, unless in a museum – they are a small piece of Swedish Christmas history which was already going out of fashion in the mid-1800s, and disappeared almost completely during the 1900s.
So what is a julhög, and what is the history behind it?
A julhög is a conical or pyramid-shaped heap of freshly-baked bread, usually topped with a treat – such as a lussekatt, a piece of fruit, or a piece of cheese. For much of Swedish history, Christmas was one of the rare times of year where people ate freshly-baked bread, rather than the day-to-day dry crispbread which had a long shelf-life and was therefore easier to store.
Julhögar on display in Burlöv museum. Photo: Bara härads hembygdsförening/Flickr
The bread in a julhög often progresses from large, wide fibre-rich crispbread or rye bread at the bottom, to smaller, more refined wheat breads nearer the top of the pyramid, often featuring some form of sötebröd or sweet bread flavoured with spices, syrup or vört (wort), a sweet liquid extracted from grains used to brew beer. Families used to brew their own Christmas beer, so wort was a readily available by-product for use in baking bread.
Wort bread, or vörtbröd in Swedish, is still popular at Swedish Christmas buffets, and is often flavoured with raisins – or even chocolate – for extra sweetness.
According to julhög tradition, everyone around the table would be served their own julhög – which was sometimes meant to last for the entirety of the Christmas holiday. Those working in the household as servants were often given their own julhög as a Christmas present, which may have been decorated with Swedish pepparkakor or spiced Christmas biscuits, if the family could afford the expensive ingredients.
Sometimes, bread from the julhög was saved until the spring, where it could be dipped in coffee and eaten on the first day of plowing the fields for the new season, given to the horses, or sprinkled in the fields to promote a good harvest for the next year.
Julhögar brukade innehålla båda knäckebröd och sötebröd, såsom lussebullar eller vörtbröd.
Christmas heaps used to contain both crispread and sweetened breads, like Lucia buns or wort bread.
Alla i familjen fick varsin julhög, som skulle räcka hela helgen.
Everyone in the family got their own Christmas heap, which had to last the whole holiday.
Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.