Christmas in Sweden

Home / Christmas / Christmas in Sweden

It would be very difficult to miss the arrival of the Christmas season in Sweden: in the beginning of December Advent calendars and their television tie-ins appear, Advent stars are placed in windows and on every Sunday another Advent candle is lit in homes and churches. Stores and buildings are draped in seasonal decorations but the real beginning of Christmas is December 13, St Lucia’s Day, when by tradition the eldest daughter in each family rises early in the morning and dons a white dress, a red sash and a lingon wreath with seven lit candles. She carries coffee and Lussekatter, special saffron-flavoured buns, to her parents; later in the day other “Lucy brides” will lead processions of white-clad girls and Star Boys in schools, offices and other public places.

Other Advent activities will include shopping, baking, entertaining friends with a smorgasbord, writing Christmas cards and decorating the home with greenery, candles, ornaments and flowers. The Christmas tree will be set up one or two days before Christmas — typical ornaments are those made of straw in many shapes but very often a goat, angels, candles, red apples, glass balls, flags and lots of candies and edible treats. The family crèche is a twentieth-century addition to Swedish Christmas (it was long resisted as smacking too much of Catholicism in a Lutheran land) but one that has become very popular.

Christmas Eve is a day filled with well-loved tradtions. It was once mandatory to take a bath to begin the day, one person at a time in the family tub, to put on at least one article of new clothing and to give the house a good scrubbing — such acts would guard the home from spirits who gathered during the Christmas season. Many no longer observe such safeguards but most will continue to honour the custom of doppa y gryttan, where the family gathers to take turns dipping a piece of dark rye bread into a pot of drippings. Later in the afternoon, after the family has watched the now-traditional Walt Disney programming on television, folk will sit down for the big holiday meal. This will begin with a smorgasbord of pickled herring, meatballs, sausage and jellied pig’s feet, etc. and will include lutfisk, julskinka — roast ham — cabbage, casseroles and potato with risgrynsgröt, the creamy rice pudding (with a hidden almond), spiced cakes and cookies for dessert.

After dinner many Swedes will attend a Christmas Eve service. For others, it is time for the gifts to be opened. It was once customary for an anonymous giver to knock loudly at the door (thus the name julklapp for Christmas present) and throw in a wrapped gift. The present would contain a mischievous rhyme aimed at the recipient and might be deceptively wrapped. For a time the legendary Gift-Bringer was the Julbock or Christmas Goat but in the nineteenth century he was replaced in popularity by the figure of Santa Claus. The Swedes named the old gentleman Jultomtenafter the tomte or household elf who guarded the home and farm through the year and who had to be bribed with a bowl of pudding at Christmas-time. In homes with children someone dressed as Jultomten will come to the house on Christmas Eve with a sack of presents, knock on the door and inquire “Are there any good children here?” After the presents are enjoyed familes sing carols, read a chapter of the Nativity story or dance holding hands around the Christmas tree.

Christmas Day is a time for an early-morning church service. Among the favourite Swedish Christmas hymns are “Var Hälsad Sköna Morgonstund” (All Hail Thou Radiant Morning-Tide), “Nu Så Kommer Julen” (Now Christmas is Coming) and “En Jungfru Födde Ett Barn Idag” ( A Maid Hath Brought Forth a Child). In snowy parts of Sweden when it was customary to travel to church by sleigh races home were an exciting part of the day.

December 26 or Second Day of Christmas is a time for special attention to livestock and legend linked St Stephen (whose feast day it is) with horses. This was once a time for the Staffan Riders with their horse races and parades and hymns to St Stephen. Nowadays it is another holiday with plenty time for visiting and parties.

New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night (January 5) offer more time for merriment. The traditional Epiphany custom in Sweden was that of the Star Boys, boys dressed as the Three Kings who walked about singing carols with an image of the Star of Bethlehem. Accompanied by a figure dressed as Herod and one as Judas, who carried a bag, they collected money for their efforts. This tradition fell into disfavour as an occasion for disorder. A 1712 edict warned against “irresponsible boys and other loose persons who gather together to run about streets and alleys and prowl about the houses with the so-called Christmas goats, stars and other vanities.” Today the Star Boys are mostly confined to a role in St Lucia processions.

The final day of the Christmas season is January 13, known as Knut — twentieth-day Knut driveth Christmas out is the folk saying. This is the day when children plunder the tree for any remaining candies or treats, final parties are held and decorations are put away for another year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *