Christmas is a time when Swedes hunker down for what is invariably a lengthy winter, with short days and many long, dark nights. These days, Swedish Christmas is a hodgepodge of Christian, Pagan, Norse and Germanic traditions through the ages, with many of the older customs based on chasing away darkness and evil spirits. To this day, candles and lights are ubiquitous in homes and windows throughout December.
The first advent kicks off the count down to the Swedish Christmas festivities. Many households pause to light advent candles, enjoy some pepparkakor (gingerbread) or a saffron-scented Lucia bun washed down with small glasses of glögg – strong Swedish mulled wine with almonds and raisins. Many will also gather together in the weeks preceding the big day to bake or make sweets and chocolates, delicately wrapped and boxed to be given as gifts or devoured on Christmas Eve.
On the 13th of December, Swedes celebrate St Lucia of Syracuse, a martyr who died in 304. According to legend, she brought provisions to persecuted Christians hiding in the dark Roman catacombs. To light her way, she wore a wreath of candles on her head. Today, processions take place in homes, offices and schools alike. The parade will be dressed in white gowns, carrying candles and singing traditional Christmas songs, lead by a girl representing St. Lucia with a red sash and a wreath of candles on her head (these days often battery-powered!). If you are lucky the procession will also come bearing coffee and saffron buns (‘lussekatter’).
Swedes celebrate Christmas itself on the 24th of December, generally with a delicious smörgåsbord lunch, laden with a succulent mustard-glazed Christmas ham, meatballs, gravadlax, ‘gubbröra’ (a salty mixture of egg and anchovy), homemade patés, mini sausages known as ‘prinskorv’ and pickled herring. The tradition of serving pork dishes at Christmas goes back to a time when most Swedes were farmers and would slaughter their pig at this time of year.
Rice porridge is a common feature of Swedish Christmas meals, as bowls would often be left outside for the house elves that were believed to look after every farm, in order to keep them happy. Other desserts include tartlets made from almond pastry, filled with cream, winter berries or compote.
A modern and uniquely Swedish tradition is to plonk down after this hefty lunch in front of the TV to watch ‘Donald Duck’s Christmas’ a series of Disney cartoons from the 1950’s. The program is pretty much the same every year, but nonetheless, at 3pm on Christmas Eve every year, the whole country shuts down to watch it.
Today, much to every child’s delight, Santa visits homes once it gets dark (generally after Donald Duck). Upon entering the house he will ask ‘are there any good children here?’ Parents will generally reply in the affirmative, with a bit of hesitation for dramatic effect, and concede that their kids deserve their gifts from Santa. It doesn’t matter that this is often quite obviously a family member wearing a token white beard and red hat, for every Swedish child, it’s the most exciting moment of the year.