Christmas Traditions in Sweden
St. Lucia Day has been known to light up the lives of people in many Scandinavian countries on December 13. But for Sweden, which celebrates this Christmas holiday in perhaps the grandest style of all, it takes on added significance.
This northern European country, wedged between Norway and Finland, is divided into three regions: Norrland, which covers the northern three-fifths of the country; Svealand, located in the middle region, which is “home” to Stockholm; and Gotaland, in the southern region. Norrland lies within the Arctic Circle, so in mid-winter, or from mid-December to mid-January, the region is engulfed in 24-hour darkness. Even in Stockholm, December can be a gloomy month: the sun rises before 8:30 a.m. and sets at about 3 p.m.
And so it is with great anticipation that Swedes look forward to the Christmas festival that celebrates Lucia, the Latin word for “light.” St. Lucia is credited with secretly bringing food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. To light her way and to keep her hands free to carry food, she wore candles on her head. Her enemies killed her for her deeds in 304 A.D. and she became a martyr in the eyes of both Roman Catholics and Lutherans – a notable point considering that nearly 90 percent of Sweden’s 9.3 million people belong to the Church of Sweden, which is Lutheran.
Swedes begin “the festival of light” at dawn on the morning of December 13. The youngest daughter in the family dons a white robe, a red sash and a crown of evergreens – symbolizing new life -- with candles atop. She wakes her parents and serves them coffee and sweet Lucia buns, which often are marked with an “X” to represent Christ. This pervasive image – that of a young girl cloaked in a white gown with a glowing, evergreen headpiece – is often duplicated in Western countries by people who regard St. Lucia as an angel.
This view is not far afield, as many schools and villages in Sweden host St. Lucia processions – the country’s official St. Lucia parade takes place in Stockholm – while many Swedes place electric candelabra in their windows to honor her walks through the darkened catacombs. They toast her sacrifice on the first Sunday of Advent and beyond, when they gather for glogg fests. Glogg is a hot, mulled wine that Swedes often enjoy with almonds, raisins, saffron buns and ginger cookies.
Despite their otherwise early start on the Christmas season, Swedes usually wait until one or two days before Christmas Day to put up their Christmas trees. Here, too, specks of light illuminate the Swedes’ dark December days. In the most traditional homes, the decorations also might include Swedish flags, small gnomes, straw ornaments and little goats made from biscuit dough or straw, which is meant to express the wish for abundance and good fortune in the upcoming months.
On Christmas Eve day, many Swedish families still gather in the kitchen for a tradition known as “dipping in the kettle,” or doppa I grytan. A kettle is filled with the drippings of beef, pork and cabbage and each person dips a piece of dark bread into the kettle until the bread is soaked, then eats it. This custom is meant to remind the family to be thankful and to remember those who are less fortunate and who subsist by “dipping in the kettle.”
At this point, many Swedish families require no such reminder, for their Christmas Eve dinner, known as julafton, is usually a culinary sight to behold and one of Sweden’s Christmas traditions that has been idealized and replicated the world over, both on Christmas and other holidays: the smorgasbord.
“Smorgas” means bread that is covered with a spread on an open-face sandwich while “bord” means table. So combined, “smorgasbord” means a table loaded with sandwiches, though the fare has come to describe a buffet that includes a wide variety of food. To people in the West, smorgasbord simply means “all you can eat” and “help yourself,” both of which are apt descriptions as well.
And on Christmas Eve, no one creates a smorgasbord like the Swedes. Traditionally, the julbord was divided into different “plates,” or courses, though many people now simply build a plate of food based on their own preferences.
Still, it’s not uncommon for a Swedish julboard to open with a cold fish dish, such as pickled herring, salmon, eel, shellfish, gravlax (salmon that has been cured in sugar, salt and dill) and lutfisk, a dried cod fish that is soaked and boiled and served with a thick, creamy gravy.
The second plate often includes cold cuts such as julskinka (Christmas ham), roast beef and turkey, a variety of cheeses, such as julost, and a multitude of breads, such as vortbrod, a sweet, dark bread that is flavored with cloves, cinnamon, raisins, ginger and cardamom. And, of course, the Swedes don’t forget to include a variety of spreads, from butter to whipped creams and pates.
Hot dishes follow on the third plate and often include Swedish meatballs, prinskorv (sausage), revbenspjall (roasted ribs), koldomar (meat-stuffed cabbage rolls), jellied pigs’ feet, green and red cabbage, beetroot salad and janssons frestelse (matchstick potatoes layered with cream, onion and anchovies).
The dessert-side of the julbord might include ostkaka, a rich, almond-flavored custard served with fruit or jam, cookies, fruit bread, rice pudding, cheesecake and fruit tarts. Risgryngrot is a special rice porridge that has to be eaten with caution, for not only does it have an almond hidden inside, but tradition holds that the person who discovers it will marry in the coming year. Christmas beer, schnapps – a fancy way to say a “strong alcoholic drink” – and julmust, a festive soft drink, round out the fare.
After Christmas Eve dinner, a family member dresses up as tomte or a Christmas gnome. Wearing a red robe and a long, white beard, the tomte distributes gifts from a sack – at least to children who pledge that they have been good the year before.
While the Christmas season lasts until January 6 in many European countries, in Sweden it goes on for another week, until January 13. There are several explanations for this extension, the most plausible being that Knut’s Day is celebrated on the 13th day, and King Knut, who ruled from 1080 to 1086, once declared that Christmas should be celebrated for 20 days.
Children sing special “Knut songs” and make a fun, festive day out of taking down the Christmas tree and gobbling up the edible decorations that fall in its wake. Many Swedes still continue a tradition whereby they pick up the tree and literally toss it out of their house and to the curb, singing a song that might go like this:
“Christmas has come to an end,
And the tree must go.
But next year once again
We shall see our dear old friend,
For he has promised us so.”