Swedish Christmas peaks on 24 December – with family, food and Santa Claus!
The first Sunday of Advent comes about four weeks before Christmas. That’s when people light the first candle in the Advent candlestick, a custom going back to the 1890s.
This is always a special event, eagerly awaited. Each Sunday until Christmas, a candle is lit (and blown out after a while), until all four candles are alight. And on each of these Sundays, many Swedes enjoy glögg – a hot, spicy mulled wine with blanched almonds and raisins – and pepparkakor (gingerbread biscuits).
With every Sunday of Advent, the children’s expectations grow. On the telly, there is a special Christmas calendar show for the young with 24 episodes that runs from 1 to 24 December. It, too, serves as a countdown to the big day.
A family affair
People have bought their presents and their Christmas food, and the home has been cleaned and decorated according to each family’s traditional habits.
A normal year, those wishing to be reunited with their families often have to travel far, as Sweden is a large country. Train and air tickets must be booked at least two months in advance, and motorists are advised to start their journeys in good time – and to drive carefully on busy roads.
Both in 2020 and 2021, the discussions circled around whether to celebrate together at all. Just like in many other countries, families found themselves separated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Modernisation of Christmas
Christmas in Sweden is a blend of domestic and foreign customs that have been re-interpreted, refined and commercialised on their way from agrarian society to the modern age.
Today, most Swedes celebrate Christmas in roughly the same way, on 24 December – also known as Christmas Eve. Many of the local customs and specialities have disappeared, although each family claims to celebrate it in true fashion in their own particular way.
The food you eat at Christmas may still depend on where you live in the country, or where you came from originally. But here, too, homogenisation has set in, due in no small part to the uniform offerings of the department stores and the ready availability of convenience foods. Few have time to salt their own hams or stuff their own pork sausages nowadays.
Holiday leave over Christmas and the New Year is fairly long, usually extending a week into January. Once Christmas Eve is over, a series of enjoyable − or, in some cases, dutiful − visits to friends and relatives ensues.
Swedes often travel many a mile during the holiday period. Christmas Day with the Anderssons, Boxing Day with the Johanssons, quite a few also go for a week of skiing in the mountains with the Svenssons.
Perhaps Christmas celebrations are more diverse than ever nowadays. Present-day family constellations, comprising ex-wives and ex-husbands, children from marriages old and new, newly acquired relatives and parents-in-law are all included in the festivities.
As a rule, Swedes expect a great deal from their Christmases. There should be snow on the ground but blue skies and sunshine, everyone is expected to be in good health, the ham must be succulent and tasty, and presents must be numerous. Moreover, the children are expected to be happy and well behaved and the home is expected to be warm and bright.
Everyone does their best, and the Swedes perhaps are better placed than most to celebrate Christmas. The ever-present candles and lights provide a nice contrast to the winter dark, the red wooden cottages are at their most attractive when embedded in snow, and the fir trees stand dark and sedate at the edge of the forest. Santa Claus moves about the land and the North Star pulsates up there in the night sky.
The perfect Christmas tree?
A few days before Christmas Eve, Swedes venture forth to look for the perfect Christmas tree. This is a serious matter − the tree is the very symbol of Christmas, and it must be densely and evenly branched, and straight. If you live in a city or town, you buy the tree in the street or square.
Those who live in the country fell their Christmas trees themselves. Many Swedes believe − mistakenly − that their legal right of access to the countryside allows them to fetch a tree from the woods wherever they like.
Trees are decorated according to family tradition. Some are bedecked with flags, others with tinsel and many with coloured baubles. Electric lights are usually preferred to candles on the tree because of the risk of fire.
Homes are also decorated with wall hangings depicting brownies and winter scenes, with tablecloths in Christmas patterns, and with candlesticks, little Father Christmas figures and angels. The home is filled with the powerful scent of hyacinths.
At three o’clock, many Swedes turn on the TV to watch a cavalcade of Disney film scenes that have been shown ever since the 1960s without anyone tiring of them. Only then can the celebrations begin in earnest, some say.
Abundance of food
Christmas presents are under the lighted tree, candles shine brightly and the smorgasbord (or smörgåsbord, as it’s written in Swedish) has been prepared with all the classic dishes: Christmas ham, pork sausage, an egg and anchovy mixture (gubbröra), herring salad, pickled herring, home-made liver pâté, wort-flavoured rye bread (vörtbröd), potatoes and a special fish dish, lutfisk.
The ham is first boiled, then painted and glazed with a mixture of egg, breadcrumbs and mustard. Lutfisk is dried ling or sathe soaked in water and lye to swell before it is cooked.
Once all have eaten their fill, Santa Claus himself arrives to wish the gathering a Merry Christmas and distribute the presents.
Swedish Christmas – the origins
Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Christ, has long been the most important festivity of the year. In the old days, it was a feast for the whole household as there was plenty of fresh food to be had. The Christmas table was laid with ham, pickled herring, jellied pig’s feet, sausage, rice porridge and lutfisk. The food was to be left on the table overnight, as it was then that the dead came to feast.
Homes were cleaned and decorated with wall hangings, and fresh straw was laid on floors. The birds were given an oatsheaf and the mythical farmyard brownie a plate of porridge. The practice of bringing a Christmas tree into the house and decorating it was imported from Germany in the 1880s.
Initially, Christmas presents were given anonymously, and playfully, often in the form of a log of wood or the like wrapped up and tossed through a front door. In the 1900s, people began giving one another real presents, handed out by Santa Claus, who was modelled on Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of schoolchildren.
At the early-morning church service on Christmas Day, traces of earth could be seen in the pews where the dead had held their own service overnight. After the service, people raced to get home first. The winner would harvest his crops before anyone else that year.
On Boxing Day, you got up early to water the horses in streams running north, as Saint Stephen, the patron saint of horses, was said to have done. Another practice, which breached the no-work rule, was to muck out other people’s barns.
Twelfth Night commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. The Swedish tradition of 'stjärngossar' – ‘star boys’ –derives from this. In former times, boys often went round the farms carrying a paper star, singing songs in return for schnapps. Today, the star boys are a part of the Lucia celebration.