Christmas in Sweden
Holidays are filled with so much tradition, much of which we don’t necessarily know the origins of. Have you ever stopped to think why in the world we would cut down a tree and bring it inside our houses only to put lights and sparkly objects on it? Well, of course it all started somewhere and not only spread, but changed to fit each and every culture it touched. As I start my second Christmas in Sweden, I am surrounded by many of the same traditions that I grew up with, but also with some new ones. Seeing that I just love comparing the Swedish customs and culture to that of my own American culture, I thought I would write about Christmas in Sweden.
Traditional Christmas Food
It only makes sense that each country and region eats the foods that are commonly found in that area. In the United States when you make a trip to any of the coastal towns, you will find fish and seafood in great abundance. Likewise, Wisconsin is known for it’s cheese because dairy farms were drawn to that area long ago with their fertile fields. In order to use the excess milk produced, cheese was what they decided to make.
Nowadays, with the commercial production and shipping of goods around the country, the menu in any given region doesn’t rely so much on what is available. Most countries and or regions though, go back to their roots when it comes to celebratory holidays. Sweden is no exception to that rule.
Take for example the Christmas pig. Not only is it a dish found on the table for dinner, but it is prevalent in many Swedish Christmas decorations. Being a newcomer in Sweden, one may think it a bit odd to decorate their house with so many pigs during Christmas; but as a Swede, it’s quite the norm.
How did this start you wonder? Well, a long time ago pigs were often slaughtered in the autumn when they were at their fattest. In order to keep this meat preserved, they would put the pork into a salt brine and it would have to last the household for the whole year. The following autumn more pigs were slaughtered and the cycle continued. Fortunately, (?) for one or two pigs, they did not meet their demise in the autumn. They were saved until Christmas where they were then served for Christmas dinner. This was quite a highlight for the Swedes since Christmas was a time they were able to eat fresh meat, as opposed to the brined meat.
Christmas Pigs Today
Having the pig decorations around reminds Swedes of that simple joy that fresh meat once brought to the country. Or, like many traditions, most people just use them in their decoration and never give the reason for their use a passing thought.
The Julbord (Christmas table) generally consists of three courses. The first course is mostly fish and other types of seafood. The second course is comprised of meats, cheeses, and breads. And the third course encompasses most of the warm dishes such as meatballs, hot dog-like sausages, ribs, and potatoes.
Another staple to the Julbord is Julmust. This is a carbonated drink that is brought out for the Christmas season and then sold under the name Påskmust during Easter. About 45 million liters of Julmust is consumed in December alone. If you are itching to try it, check out your local IKEA. It may be sold under the name ‘Vintersaga’.
Bringing in the Light
As most of you know, winter is really dark in Scandinavia. I’m talking the sun being almost completely gone by about 3:00 p.m and rising each morning by about 8:30 a.m. Due to the lack of light from the sun, Swedes do what they can to bring some light into their daily lives. They do this with lots of candles, lights in the windows of every house and building, and the peak of this occurs with the Lucia celebration.
While doing some research about Lucia I found some conflicting information. If you ask most Swedes why they celebrate Lucia, they will simply say because after the Lucia celebration (Winter Solstice) the sun begins to come back more and more each day. She is the celebration of the return of light.
Although the above it true as to why Lucia is celebrated today, that wasn’t always quite the case. The following narrative is what I seemed to find more often than not to give a more thorough explanation as to why Lucia is important and what each part of the celebration represents.
The Lucia celebration all begins with a young girl in the 3rd century. Her name was Lucy and her father died when she was very young. This left her and her mother alone at a time when it was quite important, and necessary, to have a male protector and provider. Her mother was sick with a bleeding disorder and wanted Lucy to have someone to watch over her; so she betrothed her daughter to a man. Unbeknownst to her mother, Lucy had promised God that she would remain a virgin. She wanted to distribute her dowry to the poor, not have it given to a man.
After a visit from Lucy and her mother, to a site of another martyred saint, her mother was cured from her bleeding disorder. While her mother was in high spirits, Lucy convinced her mother to allow her to distribute some of her dowry to the poor. When Lucy’s betrothed found out that some of the money he was to receive upon marriage to her was missing, he was furious. He reported Lucy to a high official and the official ordered Lucy to burn a sacrifice to the image of the emperor as her punishment. She refused to do it and was subsequently sentenced to be defiled in a brothel. When the guards came to take her, they were unable to move her. They put wood at her feet in order to burn her, but the wood wouldn’t light. They eventually did kill her with a sword though. She has since been recognized as a Saint in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches.
Lucia in Sweden
When the story of Lucy made it’s way to Scandinavia, the Lutheran people took to her immediately. Not only does her feast day coincide with the Winter Solstice, but Lucy’s Latin name ‘Lucia’ shares the same root (Luc-) with the Latin root for light (lux-) making her the bearer of light during the dark winter months. Celebrating the light that will soon be returning after the Winter Solstice, is quite the highlight here in December.
During the celebration, a young girl will dress all in white and have a red sash around her waist. The white represents purity and resembles the white baptismal gown. The red sash is the symbol of martyrdom to remember Lucy. The young girl portraying Lucy wears a wreath made from an evergreen tree with lit candles on her head. The evergreen branches symbolize new life during the long winter and the fire on the candles represents the fire that wouldn’t kill Lucy.
The history of Lucy and how she became important may not be recognized so much today, but she is a very important part of the Christmas festivities.
I read a statistic that stated that 92% of Swedish households have lights in their windows during the advent season. These lights take on many different forms. If one walks down the street in December you can see everything from illuminated stars, v-shaped candelabras, to straight lined candelabras in almost every window.
It was quite common a long time ago, to have a single candle in the windows of a house from Christmas Eve through to Christmas day. This was to ward off the evil spirits. Starting in about the 1930s, it became more and more common to have the window lights and decorations that we still see today. Window lights begin to be seen more and more around the first week of December. This of course is the start of Advent, which is another common tradition among Swedes.
The word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’ which translates to ‘a moment of preparation for the coming’. This is a time to celebrate not only the birth of Christ, but also the time when Christ should return at the end of times. The beginning days of Advent were more than just chocolate calendars for kids and lit candles each Sunday, it held (and still does for may) a very purposeful meaning to many Christians.
It is quite impossible to know for sure when Advent was first celebrated or recognized in any sense. We do know that sometime in the early 500’s Saint Gregory of Tours talks about how the monks prepared. One of those ways was to fast every day leading up to Christmas. During the mid 6th century in Rome, Advent was celebrated for a period of 6 weeks with fasting every couple days to prepare the mind and body for the coming of Christ.
The four Sundays leading up to Christmas in Sweden, are marked with the lighting of a new candle. There are many different types of Advent candle displays, but no matter the look, the premise is the same. Each Sunday evening leading up to Christmas, usually at dinner time, another candle is lit. Not only is it a very visual representation of the fact that Christmas is soon approaching, but the ‘darkness’ of the world is snuffed out more and more with each lit candle. Considering Jesus has been said to be ‘the light of the world’, this is shown quite clearly as we lite each new candle every Sunday.
These days the celebration of Advent isn’t only for the religious. Many light candles every Sunday as a way to mark the amount of time until Christmas or enjoy some type of Advent calendar counting down the days until Christmas. Advent calendars take on many different forms. You can get a calendar with small piece of candy, a Bible verse, a new lotion, a small Lego creation, you name it! Advent calendars can be traced back to the 18th century when German Protestants began making chalk tally marks on their doors only to wipe one away each day marking the days until Christmas. In the early 1900s, a German newspaper began including an advent calendar in their papers. It was a huge hit, and with that the Advent calendar was born.
Starting December 1 in Sweden you can enjoy the Julkalendar on both radio and TV. Each day until Christmas a short episode will air that becomes one big series by the end. This year’s show focuses around three children who are accepted into a futuristic academy. Last year’s was about a girl who wanted to get to Santa’s Kingdom. The first such radio show aired in 1957 and the first televised Julkalendar came out in 1960.
Tomten- Jul and Otherwise
Tomten are small gnome like men that are not only associated with Christmas but with everyday life in Sweden. Ancient folklore has these small men no taller than 35 inches, with long white beards, and a brightly colored knitted cap. It is said that these men live on the land and act as a sort of guardian of the house and land. Tomten are said to be the soul of the first person who cleared the ‘tomt’ or land that the house currently sits on.
They are a little testy though. If they are angered, it is said that they will play tricks on the household and may even kill some of the livestock. If the humans in the house treat the Tomte well, then they might even help out with some of the household chores and ward off evil. One of the requirements of keeping your Tomte happy was to leave him gifts. An example of a gift would be a bowl of porridge on Christmas night.
Jultomten is just like a ‘regular’ Tomten, but he travels with a straw goat called the Julbocken (Yule Goat) while coming to everyone’s house on Christmas Eve to hand out presents. It is customary to leave porridge out for the Jultomten as well.
In 1881, a newspaper published a poem about the Jultomten that was accompanied with a beautiful painting. Around this same time, Father Christmas/Santa Claus was becoming more and more popular in other parts of the world. Due to this the Julbocken stopped delivering the presents and it became the role of the Jultomten instead. Over time, Jultomten has taken on more of the traits of Santa, but he still holds some of his historic look. He is said to live somewhere in the forest, not in the North Pole. He doesn’t come down the chimney, but instead directly to the door to deliver the presents to the children. He isn’t fat like Santa, he’s just a ‘normal’ sized gnome/person. He isn’t always with his reindeer, but if he is they don’t fly.
Generally Tomten are only talked about today during the Christmas season and are often seen and portrayed more like the Jultomten painted in the 1800’s. It is common to hear a Swede wish for a ‘hustomte’ to come and help with the household chores; because who wouldn’t want a gnome-like man to fold laundry or clean bathrooms in exchange for a bowl of porridge?! Sign me up!
At 3 o’clock on Christmas Eve about 50% of Sweden is glued to their TV watching a 1958 Disney Christmas Special. For those of us that didn’t grow up with this, it seems a bit of an odd choice; but for Swedes, it’s just another Christmas tradition. If you think about it, us Americans watch Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from the 1960s quite regularly during the holiday season.
Over the years the station has tried to change and or pull this cartoon for various reasons, but each time they are met with HUGE backlash from the public. Since it first aired in 1959, not much has changed about the show. Families use this hour to gather together and watch a show that has captivated audiences for almost 60 years.
Long before Christianity spread throughout the world, people used evergreen branches to decorate their houses during the winter months. These evergreens reminded the people of the Spring that would be coming soon and helped to ward off evil spirits and witches. Eventually Christians adopted the use of evergreen trees to signify the everlasting life people have with God.
Germany is said to have really started the Christmas tree as we know it today. This was in the 16th century. During this time they were decorated with edible items like apples, gingerbread cookies and so on. Eventually glass makers saw this as an opportunity to design and make glass balls that could be hung from the trees. Baby Jesus was originally placed on top of the tree and that eventually changed into the angel or the star that it is today.
The Christmas Tree in Sweden
When the Christmas tree came to Sweden, it was used and decorated much in the same way that the Germans did. It is said that when Martin Luther was out in the forest one evening he saw some evergreen tress with the stars twinkling behind them. He wanted to replicate that for his family and put candles on the Christmas tree. Around 1880, not only were Swedes decorating with fruit and hand made items, but commercial Christmas tree decorations began coming to Sweden all the way from Germany.
Set up and Take Down
The day in which a tree is set up and decorated varies from family to family, but it is traditionally put up sometime between the 13th (Winter Solstice) and the 23rd of December. It is then taken down about January 13 on St. Knut’s Day. This day marks the end of the Christmas celebrations. It is a time that is generally celebrated by children as they take down the Christmas tree and sing some songs.
Tradition is defined as ‘a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another’. Over time, we may not fully understand why something is important, but it generally has some historical significance to either your family or culture as a whole. Christmas in Sweden is wonderful in so many ways. Learning, and living, other cultures is one of the best educations that I have received. I look forward to adopting some of the Swedish traditions into our lives, our children’s lives, and hopefully our grandchildren’s lives also.