Christmas time in Sweden

Jultid i Sverige

Stockholm as seen from Skansen in December

Stockholm is one of my favourite places to visit at Christmas, especially if it is covered in a blanket of snow. Christmas festivities start with the first Advent Sunday, an event which is accompanied by lighting an Advent candle, making Lussekatter (saffron buns) and drinking glögg (mulled wine with almonds and raisins).

Jul

Heart shaped pepparkaka

Many of the Christmas traditions in Sweden stem from pre-Christian times. Indeed the Swedish word for Christmas (Jul) stems from Yule.

Yule was a midwinter festival which centred around feasting, drinking and sacrifice and was connected with worshipping the Norse gods.

When Christianity spread to Sweden, Yule celebrations, which happened to coincide with Christmas time, were absorbed into the Christmas festivities. The traditions of Yule are therefore still reflected in the way Swedes celebrate Christmas with such items as their Christmas ham and the ever-present halmbock.

Rural heritage

Although about 85% of Swedes now live in urban areas that has not always been the case. Before 1950 the majority of Swedes lived in the countryside, not in towns, and thus more Christmas traditions are inherited from rural living.

Halmbock

A halmbock

Most homes in Sweden include a halmbock (straw goat) in their collection of julprydnader (Christmas decorations). It is thought that the celebration of the goat was originally connected with the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats.

In Sweden, people thought of the Yule goat as an invisible spirit that would appear some time before Christmas to make sure that the Yule preparations were being made correctly.

A tradition developed of making goats out of straw bound with red ribbons. At one time a popular Christmas prank was to place this Yule goat in a neighbour's house without them noticing; the family successfully pranked had to get rid of it in the same way.

Banner from the blog by the Gävle goat

These days most families have a halmbock which is normally placed under a Julgran (Yule tree/Christmas tree). Large versions are frequently erected in town centres at Christmas.

The most famous of these is the Gävle goat. Gävle is a town just over 100 miles (160 km) north of Stockholm. It has the biggest and most famous halmbock. It was erected in 1966 when an advertising consultant came up with the idea of making a giant version of the traditional Swedish Yule Goat and placing it in the town's square. The first goat was a 13-metre (43 ft) tall, 7-metre (23 ft) long and weighed 3-tonnes.

Unfortunately, the goat has since had a history of being burnt down roughly every other year, 2012 being the 26th time. In 1996 webcams were introduced to monitor the goat 24 hours a day, but with little success.

The goat even has its own blog, but even that hasn't helped to prevent it being a target for arsonists. In 2004 the Gävle Goat's homepage was hacked into and one of the two official webcams changed to display Brinn Bockjävel (Burn, fucking goat) in the left corner of its live feed.

Tomte

A small Tomte

During the 18th and 19th centuries the Yule goat's role changed and it became a bearer of julklapper (Yule presents). Fathers would dress up as the Yule goat and knock on the house door to hand out presents to their children.

Things began to change at the end of 19th century when a figure from Nordic folklore called Tomte started to deliver the Christmas presents. There are some significant differences between Tomte and Santa Claus. Tomte:

•  Is a short (half the height of an adult), slim, bearded man dressed in grey clothes and a red hat,
•  Secretly lives at the house/farm and acts as its guardian,
•  Protects children from evil and misfortune,
•  Protects farm animals from mistreatment and is often seen with a pig or a goat,
•  Is bad-tempered if annoyed,
•  Plays tricks if he is offended,
•  Delivers presents through the door.

Traditionally British children leave out a glass of sherry and a plate with a mince pie on it for Santa Claus and a carrot for his reindeer. In contrast, poor Tomte only gets a bowl of porridge, with a pat of butter on top if he is lucky.

Jultomte

A Jultomte

These days Swedes often refer to Jultomte, who is a kind of mixture of an American Santa Claus and the traditional Tomte. Only if they refer to Tomte are they talking about the traditional figure with a grey coat and a red hat. Jultomte might arrive by sledge, but it would be pulled through the snow as he doesn't fly across the sky and he never comes down the chimney. 

Julgran

A real Christmas tree with real candles
Photo: Elsa Maria Lindqvist showing a julgran with real candles

Swedes normally have a large julgran (Christmas tree) which they normally go and get close to Christmas Eve. In a country full of tress it is nearly always a real tree, although according to experts one in five Christmas trees are said to be stolen from forests! That's a massive 600,000 Christmas trees illegally dragged from the forests each year!

Julkrubba

A Julkrubba

Many families have a candle-lit julkrubba (a nativity scene) which they have inherited and so they like to find a corner for it each Christmas. It's not that many Swedes are religious (less than 2% of Swedes attend Church regularly), but more a reflection of their respect for traditions and the Christian origin of Christmas.

Julskinka

A Christmas ham
Photo: www.nibble.se

In Sweden, the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. It is essentially a cold buffet accompanied by some hot dishes. The centre piece of the buffet is julskinka (Christmas ham).

The tradition of eating ham at Yule goes back to another of the Norse Gods. In Valhalla the Aesir gathered to feast every night on Särimner the boar, who was then brought back to life by collecting together the chewed bones after the meal, ready for the following day.

Piglet suckling
Photo: Niklas Lindblad (www.nibble.se)

Traditionally in Sweden it was a matter of pride and status to be able to have a large ham and to make sure that the pig was well fed. These days few people keep their own pigs but it is still common for Swedes to cook the most enormously large hams for Christmas: 5 kg (11 lb) is quite common!

Traditionally the ham is boiled so that dopp i grytan (literally, dip in the pot) can be made. This is a much-loved Christmas dish which involves dunking coarse rye bread in the salty, fatty broth left over from cooking the ham.

A terrine made from pigs trotters

None of the pig is wasted. Pigs feet is a traditional favourite at Christmas although these days most people prefer the meat more disguised in a terrine.

Kalle anka

Kalle Anke (Donald Duck)
Photo: public domain

Nothing illustrates Swedes' love of rituals better than their addiction to Kalle Anke (Donald Duck). At 3 PM on julafton (Christmas Eve) the majority of Swedes sit down to watch Kalle Anke. Yes, it really is the majority of Swedes!

Christmas TV listing showing Kalle Anka at 15.00

Sweden's Television (SVT) broadcasts the same episode every year: Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (Donald Duck and his friends wish you a happy Christmas). Many Swedes know every single word by heart!

Julbord

A Christmas meal

Julbord (literally Christmas table) is the main Christmas meal and is eaten on Christmas Eve. It is served as a buffet, but most families sit down round one large candle-lit table to eat it. The content of the meal varies slightly from one family to another but always starts with pickled herring and normally ends with risgrynsgrött (rice porridge). Swedes eat the leftovers on Christmas Day!

Juldag and julotta

Juldag (Christmas Day) is a day for recovering from julafton and generally relaxing. It is often a day when Swedes visit friends and relatives that they weren't able to celebrate with on julafton.

Julotta (otta is the time slightly before dawn) is a church service which is usually held at 7 AM on Christmas morning and is one of the most popular church services of the year.

Annandagen

The day after juldag (Christmas Day) is called annandagen (literally, the Other Day). How sensible is that? In the UK we call it Boxing Day but I'm sure that most Brits can't remember why and just accept it's another day off.

Skansen

Winter scene at Skansen

No visit to Stockholm at Christmas is complete without going to Skansen, the open-air folk museum, where you can enjoy a traditional Christmas market with stands filled with Swedish handicraft, sweets and lovely food.

The main square at Skansen at Christmas after the dancers have left

The whole park is attractively decorated and lots of people are in traditional Swedish dress. In the church you might find a Lucia concert and in the main square you may find singing and dancing.

Eating pancakes at Skansen

Of course it is cold, but wrap up warm and eat some hot food, perhaps washed down with a nice mug of glögg, and a great visit is guaranteed. If you get too cold you can always pop into one of the cafés for some traditional Swedish food.

John Duxbury

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