Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve in Sweden

In Sweden we really start celebrating Christmas a long time in advance with the beginning of Advent and St. Lucy's Day which is taken very seriously here in Sweden. Here in Gothenburg the whole city is covered in lights from Liseberg Park to the Harbour. This year the really cold weather has helped to create the perfect atmosphere (especially if you are warm and indoors looking out the window!).

The Swedes, being a particurly difficult people, prefer to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 24th. (Same thing with Easter - we really are a tricky bunch!) Traditions differ between families, but for most people Christmas is one of those seasons when you enjoy spending time with your family. We decorate the Christmas tree together, cook, drink glögg (mulled wine) or julmust (very sweet like beer but with no alcohol) and eat far to many oranges, knäck (fudge), lussekatter (St. Lucy buns eaten right through Advent) and pepparkakor (little ginger bread men). Then, at precisely three o'clock Christmas starts for real - with Donald Duck on TV.

After about an hour of pretending not to laugh at the same silly things as the year before it's finally time to start eating. A traditional Swedish Christmas dinner or julbord is a huge meal with many differnet kinds of inlagd sill (pickled herring) and ägg (eggs - sometimes mixed together as gubbröra), rödbetor (beetroot), salad, prinskorv, fläskkorv and isterband (types of sausages), köttbullar (meatballs), rödkål, grönkål and brunkål (different kinds of cabbage - pickled and cooked), sweet bread, julost, bondost, herrgårdsost, prästost and getost (types of cheese), salmon, omelette, rökt ål (smoked eel), lutfisk, a special fish dish, paté and all sorts of pickles and condiments.

Recipes for the most important dish julskinka, the Christmas ham, are handed down through generations - they still all manage to taste exactly the same. The ham is enjoyed with mustard or apple sauce and is often accompanied by dopp i grytan, which means 'dip in the cauldron,' a slice of vörtlimpa (sweet bread) that's been dipped in the water in which the ham's been boiled.

Another Swedish Christmas tradition is the julbocken or Christmas goat. In the same way that the julbord is a reminder of pagan feasts the julbocken is pagan tradition based on the legend of the god Thor who used to ride in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr but the tradition has been Christianised into the devil who would appear to menace St. Nicholas in the medieval mystery plays. In past centuries people used to play pranks disguised as the julbocken in the same way as on the Dymmelonsdag ('clapper Wednesday'). This is very like the Julebukking of Norway.

In some places, the julbocken brings the presents to children instead of jultomten, the Swedish Santa Claus. Unfortunately, not in my city. I would have loved a Christmas goat to bring me presents! Some towns such as Gävle build huge straw goats for the celebrations. Small straw goats wrapped in red ribbon can also be bought as a Christmas decoration.

There is also a tradition of carol singing associated with the julbocken that is very similar to the Wren Boys of Ireland.


mogLi said...

Hej! Thanks for visiting and commenting at a recent post in my blog. I wrote about Swedish Christmas some two years ago. Here is the link:

Anonymous said...

God Jul! This is a really excellent post. My mouth was watering. Every season in Sweden seems to have its own rich traditions. Are they still alive?

Anka said...

Sure they are! Well, most of them, anyway. Not every family have kept all of them, but they are all represented somewhere... =)

Anonymous said...


Are these customs universal or are they restricted to conservative christian areas of Sweden?

Thanks for all your efforts in preserving and promoting these beautiful traditions.

Anka said...

Anonymus; I'm not sure there are any conservative christian areas in Sweden. The traditions are pretty much present everywhere, even though a lot of the people who partake in the celebrations are not always crystal clear on why they are what they are - everyone celebrates like this, een though not everyone follows ALL the traditions. For example, the julbocken doesn't come to people's houses anymore, but little straw julbocken figures are very popular as decorations on the table or in the Christmas tree. A guess is that Swedish winter is so awful people need something to look forward too, and all the candles and lights associated with advent and Christmas are very welcome in a country where, in some parts, the sun comes out for only three hours a day!

Anonymous said...

How are the Swedes all so thin with all this food at every festival?




I love all these posts. More please.

Anonymous said...

Have you anything to say about jugondedag Knut Anka?

Anonymous said...

The inclusion of Donald Duck leads me to imagine that there is an element of the ridiculous injected into these rituals to save participants from having to address the true import of their continuance as a comment on the essential conservatism of the socio-cultural dynamic.

I haven't come across this retention of cultural ritual in so articulated a form, except where the underlying socio-cultural assumptions remain intact.

To undertake such elaborate ritualised behaviour and thus retaining the symbolic while at the same time seeming to have, or believing that you have, rejected the essence, is in interesting cultural mindset.

Could you tell us a little more about the gender roles that pertain during the ritualised behaviour. Is there anything gender-specific in these customs? Have earlier gender-specific functions been abandoned? Does any of this apply to the other festivals?

Have secular rituals taken over any of these other Christian or proto-Christian festivals? Are there secular or pagan festivals observed in similar ways in Sweden? If so, in what way do they differ in terms of ritualised behaviour?

Alice W.

Semper Eadem said...

It's really cool that Sweden still has all these unique traditions. Is there any symbolism of the Christmas goat?

Recorder said...

Hey Anka! When are you inviting us over to Sweden? It sounds like one big advertisement for the IKEA restaurant! I know where I'm having Christmas lunch next year! Gud Jul!

Anka said...

A post on Tjugondedag Knut is planned for next year - so stay tuned! ;)

Alice W.; I don't think the DD-inclusion is to ridicularize the holiday, rather a way to include children in the celebration. It's only on for an hour and it's the same clips every year - it's no longer funny, believe me. =) I do see your point, though - Sweden is a very secularized country. Part of the point with these posts is, however, to show how religious tradition still is very much alive in "the only Godless country in the world".

Anonymous said...

Detta är en mycket bra blogg. Du bör ha inkluderat en bild av julbocken för alla dumma utlänningar. ;-0

Veronica Lane said...

I keep returning to these posts. Can you recommend one place/time of year that I could visit in Sweden? I assume that Stockholm will not have such a rich folk culture as other parts of the country. Somewhere with a direct London flight would be ideal.

Little Al said...

These posts are really intereting and useful. I would like to read more of them.

Zara Folch said...

What a splendidly rich Christmas heritage.

Anka said...

Veronica Lane; I would suggest either summer which is the only really pleasant season or advent/St. Lucy's Day so that you can partake in the celebrations while the rest o the world are just "waiting for Christmas".