A house with a Christmas tree outside in a snowy landscape.
A Christmas dream? Photo: Hans Strand/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

Christmas

Swedish Christmas peaks on 24 December – with smorgasbord, surprises and Santa Claus!

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.

A man, a woman and three children are taking food from a buffet table.
Julbord is the Swedish Christmas smorgasbord. Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

Christmas is a family affair

On 24 December, everyone has bought their presents and prepared their Christmas food. The home has been cleaned and decorated according to each family’s traditional habits.

Those wishing to be reunited with their families often have to travel far, as Sweden is a large country. People must book train and air tickets well in advance, and motorists are advised to start their journeys in good time – and to drive carefully on busy roads.

A longer holiday period for most

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. It might be Christmas Day with the Anderssons and Boxing Day with the Johanssons. Some 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.

A man and a woman seen through some Christmas decorations.

Getting into the Christmas spirit. Photo: Ulf Lundin/imagebank.sweden.se

A boy in a green overall and a furry hat on a sledge in the snow. A woman in a fur coat behind him.

Christmas, holiday and – hopefully – snow! Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

Branches of a Christmas tree with decorations on. A straw goat standing to the left.

Family tradition often dictates how the Christmas tree should be decorated. Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

A man dressed up as Father Christmas, with a child on each knee. A Christmas tree in the background.

Someone gets the honour of dressing up as Santa Claus. (Shh, don't tell the children!) Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

A man and a woman seen through some Christmas decorations.

Getting into the Christmas spirit. Photo: Ulf Lundin/imagebank.sweden.se

A boy in a green overall and a furry hat on a sledge in the snow. A woman in a fur coat behind him.

Christmas, holiday and – hopefully – snow! Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

Branches of a Christmas tree with decorations on. A straw goat standing to the left.

Family tradition often dictates how the Christmas tree should be decorated. Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

A man dressed up as Father Christmas, with a child on each knee. A Christmas tree in the background.

Someone gets the honour of dressing up as Santa Claus. (Shh, don't tell the children!) Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

A man and a woman seen through some Christmas decorations.

Getting into the Christmas spirit. Photo: Ulf Lundin/imagebank.sweden.se

A boy in a green overall and a furry hat on a sledge in the snow. A woman in a fur coat behind him.

Christmas, holiday and – hopefully – snow! Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

Branches of a Christmas tree with decorations on. A straw goat standing to the left.

Family tradition often dictates how the Christmas tree should be decorated. Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

A man dressed up as Father Christmas, with a child on each knee. A Christmas tree in the background.

Someone gets the honour of dressing up as Santa Claus. (Shh, don't tell the children!) Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

High expectations

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.

Perhaps the Swedish setting helps with the Christmas spirit. 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 – also known as Father Christmas, or jultomten in Swedish – moves about the land and the North Star pulsates up there in the night sky.

A candle is lit by a person in a red jumper.
The advent candles light up the dark. Photo: Maskot/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

Advent – the countdown to Christmas

About four weeks before Christmas, the first Sunday of Advent kicks off the countdown to 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, Swedes light a candle (and blow it 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.

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. Many prefer electric lights to candles on the tree because of the risk of fire.

People also decorate their homes with wall hangings depicting gingerbread cookies and winter scenes, with tablecloths in Christmas patterns, and with candlesticks, little Santa Claus figures and angels. Hyacinths fill the home with their powerful scent.

At three o’clock, many Swedes turn on the TV to watch a cavalcade of Disney film scenes – a tradition ever since the 1960s. 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 made by soaking dried ling or sathe in water and lye to let it swell before it is cooked. It's an aqcuired taste.

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 in the Swedish calendar.

In the old days, it was a feast for the whole household as there was plenty of fresh food to be had. People laid the Christmas table with ham, pickled herring, jellied pig’s feet, sausage, rice porridge and lutfisk. The food was then left on the table overnight, as it was then that the dead came to feast.

Some of the old traditions are similar to today's. 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. Swedes imported the practice of bringing a Christmas tree into the house and decorating it from Germany in the 1880s.

Initially, people gave Christmas presents 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.