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CHRISTMAS

Advent Calendar 2022: How to decorate your Christmas tree like a Swede

In the next installment of our 2022 Advent Calendar, we go through the traditional decorations for a Swedish Christmas tree.

Advent Calendar 2022: How to decorate your Christmas tree like a Swede
A Swedish Christmas tree with flags and straw decorations. Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

The tree

First off, the basics. Swedes, like in many countries where Christmas is celebrated, will often bring a real Christmas tree into their home in the run-up to the holiday, although plastic reusable trees have become more popular in recent years.

If you live in a town or city and want a real tree, look for Christmas tree sellers on town squares and streets. If you’re willing to travel or you live in a more rural location, try visiting a Christmas tree farm to fell your own tree. The advantage of felling your own tree means you can see exactly how the tree will look when it’s standing, which you can’t always do with pre-felled trees which are often bought wrapped in plastic netting.

Note that Sweden’s right to roam, which provides you with free access to much of Sweden’s nature, does not extend to felling your own tree – so you can’t just travel to your nearest woods and fell the first tree you see without the landowner’s permission. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. 

If you’re looking for a plastic tree, have a look at homeware stores such as Ikea or Clas Ohlson. There are usually a range of different kinds of trees on offer depending on your budget, including trees of different sizes, and even some with built-in fairy lights.

A Swedish Christmas tree at Skansen with lit candles in 1997. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Lights

That brings us on to the next topic – lights. You’re most likely to see white LED fairy lights on a Swedish Christmas tree nowadays, although elderly Swedes or those with a more traditional taste in decoration may hang lit candles on their Christmas tree.

These long, white candles are usually attached to the tree with metal candle holders, known as julljushållare. Beware though if you do choose to go down this route – Christmas trees can dry out after a few weeks indoors and it’s probably a good idea to limit the amount of other decorations on the tree so there’s no risk of anything catching fire.

Additionally, make sure that the candles are only lit while people are paying attention to the tree, and consider a different light source if you have young children or pets in the house.

If you like the idea of lit candles on your tree but dislike the fire risk, try searching with terms such as LED julgransljus for electric replica candles to get a similar effect.

Woven Christmas hearts are popular decorations in Sweden. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Paper decorations

Despite Swedes traditionally placing lit candles on their tree, decorations made from paper or straw are quite traditional. In terms of paper decorations, you’re likely to see handmade woven Christmas hearts (julhjärta), crackers (smällkarameller) or even small Swedish flags decorating Swedes’ trees this season.

Straw decorations such as small people or goats (julbock) similar to the famous straw Gävle goat are also common, and you might also see straw goats decorated with red ribbon on tables and windowsills during the Christmas period.

Baubles and tinsel

Of course, more modern decorations such as baubles (julgranskulor) and tinsel, often made of plastic, are also popular in Sweden, with many families decorating their trees with colour and glitter rather than choosing more traditional, pared back, paper or straw decorations.

Why not try mixing some Swedish elements into your Christmas decorations if you’re celebrating this year? Or maybe introduce your Swedish friends to some traditions from back home? Let us know how you’re planning on celebrating in the comments below.

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

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.

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