Ever wondered how Christmases are spent in Sweden? Get a feel of a bit of both traditional and more modern traditions. Some might sound familiar, while some can be surprising.
Christmas in Sweden today blends foreign and domestic customs and traditions and can differ between regions, towns or families, but regardless of the many different interpretations of the popular holiday and season, Christmas, or jul in Swedish, is always rooted in cosiness and a lot of tradition. The colder temperatures of the winter months, the shorter days, and the abundance of snow initiates customs and traditions that enhance them.
Advent, the Arrival of Christmas
In Sweden, the Christmas spirit and celebrations start going underway as early as a month before Christmas day itself. These four weeks of advent are celebrated every Sunday, traditionally by lighting a candle for each Sunday leading up to December 24th, which is the traditional day of Christmas celebrations in Sweden. What’s more popular than lighting candles in modern Sweden, though, is getting together with friends and/or family and enjoying freshly-baked saffron buns or lussekatter/lussebullar in Swedish. The saffron buns come in many different forms and sizes but the S-shaped ones with raisins are the most common and are usually enjoyed with coffee or tea, glögg (Swedish mulled wine), and gingerbread cookies.
The julbord, which literally translates to “Christmas table”, is a feast that consists of both traditional and newer food items and beverages served as a buffet. It’s a seasonal take on the smorgasbord (or smörgåsbord in Swedish). What’s served on a julbord differs from region to region, but some of the staples include: meatballs, red beet salad, grilled ham, potatoes, and Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s Temptation), which is a traditional Swedish casserole made with potatoes, anchovies, yellow onions, cream and/or milk, and breadcrumbs. A cup of coffee often follows the big meal. The julbord was traditionally kept within families, but the tradition has now also made it into companies and organizations where both employers and employees get together and celebrate the season.
A Royal Feast
On a slightly larger and more formal scale, another food-related tradition is the Nobel banquet, which is held every 10thof December to celebrate the year’s Nobel Laureates. The tradition goes way back in 1901 and is always attended by the Swedish Royal Family, a select number of students, and the Nobel Laureates themselves. The banquet is a major culinary event that is broadcasted live on the Swedish national public television and radio, and abroad as well. It is also common that you can find a version of the Nobel dessert in a local confectionery so that all Swedes can join in and have a taste of the banquet.
One surprising tradition that Swedes consider hugely synonymous to Christmas is watching the TV program Kalle Anka och Hans vänner (Donald Duck and His Friends) on Christmas eve, or julafton, between meals. Yes, in Sweden, Donald Duck is a more prominent character than Mickey Mouse. The program is basically a collection of Disney film clips and additional short sketches, that has been on regular rotaion for over 60 years now. In fact, the tradition is so habitual and ingrained in Swedish society that “Kalle” is often used as a time reference on Christmas eve, as in “I usually put the casserole in the oven just before Kalle.”
Almost as old as Kalle and the Swedish national public television broadcaster itself is the children’s TV series, Sveriges Televisions julkalender (Swedish Television’s Christmas calendar), which is broadcasted daily from the 1st of December thru the 24th. To go along with the TV series, stores all over the country stock up and sell paper calendars with a few perforated windows to open each day. The windows reveal an image that coincides with the plot of that day’s episode. A more delightful and tasty variation of the Christmas calendar is the chocolate calendar where each window contains a piece of chocolate.
The Celebration of Lucia
If you have an interest in live performances, then a Lucia concert / procession will surely elate the holiday spirit. Every 13th of December, various choir groups all over the country dress up in full-length white gowns and sing songs together. The procession is led by someone who plays the role of Lucia / Saint Lucy wearing a wreath adorned with actual or battery-powered candles as a crown. Lucia events can be found in churches, schools, and even in stores and restaurants so it won’t be too hard to stumble upon one (or a few) on December 13. Yes, Lucia processions sometimes take place outdoors as well, and when there is a Lucia celebration you will also find a “Lucia fika”, normally with gingerbread or saffron buns together with glögg or coffee.
An Outdoor Season
Speaking of the outdoors, Sweden is fortunate to have beautiful winters with lots of snow that beautifies everything it covers including trees and rooftops of picturesque Falu rödfärg (Falu red colour) houses and cabins. The winter sets in motion popular recreational activities such as cross-country skiing, sledding, and ice skating on frozen lakes, often accompanied by an outdoor fika with coffee brought in an insulated beverage bottle, and sandwiches or buns.
Winter and Christmas in Sweden is truly a mix of traditions old and new, domestic and foreign, indoor cosiness and invigorating outdoor adventures, and everything in between, but never too far from a fika.