SWEDEN

The pre-Christian holiday of Yule, or jól, was the most important holiday in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Originally the observance of the winter solstice, and the rebirth of the sun, it brought about many practices that remain in the Advent and Christmas celebrations today. The Yule season was a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving, and gatherings, but also the season of awareness and fear of the forces of the dark. Swedish Christmas celebrations begin with the first of Advent. Saint Lucy’s Day (locally known as Luciadagen) which is the first major Christmas celebration before Christmas itself. The eldest daughter arising early and wearing her Lucy garb of white robe, red sash, and a wire crown covered with whortleberry-twigs with nine lighted candles fastened in it awakens the family, singing “Santa Lucia”, serving them coffee and saffron buns (St. Lucia buns), thus ushering in the Christmas season.
Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students and a national Lucia is elected on national television from regional winners. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out pepparkakor gingerbread cookies.

Boys take part in the procession as well, playing different roles associated with Christmas. Some may be dressed in the same kind of white robe, but with a cone-shaped hat decorated with golden stars, called stjärngossar (star boys); some may be dressed up as “tomtenissar”, carrying lanterns; and some may be dressed up as gingerbread men. They participate in the singing and also have a song or two of their own, usually Staffan Stalledräng, which tells the story about Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, caring for his five horses. Electric candles and glowing stars are placed in almost every window in the month of December in Sweden. Although December 25 (juldagen) is a Swedish public holiday, December 24 is the day when Santa Claus Jultomte (or simply Tomte) brings the presents. Although not a public holiday, Christmas Eve is a de facto holiday in the sense that most workplaces are closed, and those who work, for instance in shops or care homes, get extra wages as a compensation.

The Jultomte was originally a small invisible Christmas house gnome or dwarf from the Nordic mythology, who watched over the house and its inhabitants. An old superstition still calls for feeding the Tomte on Christmas Eve with a small bowl of porridge. If a bowl of porridge is not laid out for him somewhere in or outside the house, he will bring bad luck to everyone in the house the next year. The modern “Tomten”, nowadays is a version of Santa Claus in red cloth and white beard, except that he doesn’t enter the house through the chimney, but knocks on the door and asks “finns det några snälla barn här?” (“Are there any nice children here?”)

Christmas is, as everywhere else, an occasion celebrated with food. Almost all Swedish families celebrate on December 24 with a Christmas table, called Christmas smörgåsbord (julbord), a display of several Christmas food items. Almost all julbord has Christmas ham, (julskinka) accompanied by other Christmas dishes, such as small meatballs, pickled herring, spareribs, small hot dogs, lutfisk, pork sausage, salmon, Janssons frestelse (potato casserole with anchovy), and rice pudding. The Christmas julbord is served with julmust and beverage like mulled wine, Christmas beer or snaps. A Scandinavian speciality is the glögg (mulled and spiced wine with almonds and raisins), which is served hot in small cups. The different dishes of the julbord may vary throughout Sweden, from South to North. Businesses traditionally invite their employees to a julbord dinner or lunch the weeks before Christmas, and people go out privately to restaurants which also customarily offer julbord during December. Examples of candies and treats associated with Christmas are marzipan, toffee, knäck (quite similar to butterscotch), nuts and fruits: figs, chocolate, dates and oranges decorated with cloves.

Television also plays a big role, many families watch the Disney Christmas special Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (From All of Us to All of You), Karl Bertil Jonssons julafton (animated short), or a re-run of the Svensson, Svensson episode God Jul! (Merry Christmas) on the TV channel SVT1.

After the julbord on December 24, the presents are distributed, either by Jultomten or a family member, and usually from a sack or from under the Christmas tree where they have been lying all day or for several days. Around Christmas people hang oranges decorated with cloves in the window or place it on the table. Many Swedes still adhere to the tradition that each present should have a rhyme written on the wrapping paper, to hint at the contents without revealing them.

In older days a yule goat was an alternative to Jultomten, nowadays it is used as an ornament, ranging from sizes of 10 cm to huge constructions like the giant straw Christmas Gävle goat, famous for frequently being vandalized or burnt down. If one has two families to celebrate Christmas with, it is common that one of the families move their celebrations to Christmas Day or the day before Christmas Eve (commonly referred to as little Christmas Eve).

After December 24, the Christmas celebrations have more or less come to an end. Some people attend the julottan, an early morning church service on December 25. This particular service was the main service of Christmas historically—nowadays, the Midnight Mass has become increasingly popular. Others attend a simpler service called Christmas Prayer in the afternoon of Christmas Eve; however, many Swedes do not attend church at all during Christmas as the country is very secular. Even so, most families do set up a Julkrubba (Christmas Crib). On January 13 (locally known as knutdagen or tjugondag knut, English = twentieth day Christmas), 20 days after Christmas, the Christmas celebrations come to an end and all Christmas decorations are removed.

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