Thursday, December 20, 2012

Swedish Christmas Traditions - what we've learned so far

God Jul och Ett Gott Nytt År!! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sweden is a beautiful place for the Christmas season.  The snow reflects what (little) sunlight may be shining and everything seems so much brighter and lighter.  The change from dreary gray November to bright white December happened essentially overnight.  We have learned that Christmas in Sweden is not unlike Christmas in America in that people still like to decorate their houses with lights - maybe not quite the crazy displays on Candy Cane Lane because Swedes are a little more understated, but still lighting the street with white lights and candles in the windows.  There are Christmas trees up in the airport and the city streets are lined with snowflakes.  Every part of town seems to have their own Christmas tree (and they all judge one another's) and this year, at least, everything is covered in a few feet of white snow.
US Candy Cane Lane Christmas light craziness
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
St. Lucia

I mentioned St. Lucia in my earlier article but St. Lucia day, December 13, is a day of celebrating light and re-birth. It is a clear reference to life in the peasant communities of old: darkness and light, cold and warmth. Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with a role of a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters.  The St. Lucia song goes something like this:

The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

Like any good Swedish holiday, this one features 2 desserts -- ginger snaps and sweet, saffron buns (lussekatter) shaped like curled up cats with rasin eyes.  You enjoy them with glögg (the name of our blog) and/or coffee.

Tomte and his warm risgryngröt
America has Santa Claus and Scandinavians have Tomte.  Back in the day (olden times), Sweden was entirely rural and every farm had their own tomte, gnome, dressed in grey, who guarded the farm.  He watched the family and made sure everyone did their job.  If the family was lazy, tomte would punish the farm with bad crops, weather, etc.  If you worked hard, the tomte would reward you with a good harvest.  Every year around Christmas time,
you would leave out rice porridge (risgryngröt) with milk and cinnamon as a way of saying "thank you" for watching the farm all year.  Tomtes are cantankerous, easy to anger, and not overly cuddly family gnomes.  Basically, don't be lazy, rude or disrespectful and you should be ok -- probably a good way to live life anyway.  In modern times, tomte has blended with the German Santa Claus, probably because Santa is friendly, approachable and doesn't terrify children.


The yule goat is decorative and made of straw but it's history goes back to pre-Christian times.  The Julbock would bring presents to each house at Christmas time.  His spirit was in charge of making sure  yule celebrations were done correctly. From the 1600s -1900s the Julbock is associated with pranks.  Neighbors would attempt to sneak a Julbock into someone's house undetected as a joke.  The only way to rid yourself of this Julbock is to do the same to your other neighbor and so on and so on.  There is a town, Gävle, where they erect this huge Julbock made of straw.  It is tightly guarded and it is a crime to vandalize the Julbock but anytime you make something forbidden, people are tempted to rise to the challenge.  "Crazy people" (according to our Swedish language teacher) in Gävle will attempt to set fire  or destroy the large Julbock each year without getting caught.  People in Gävle even bet on whether the Goat Committee will succeed or fail in keeping the goat safe each year.  Here is a timeline of what has happened to the goat each year.  This year (2012), the goat burned on December 12, before St. Lucia.  Jon - do you want to place bets for the 2013 goat?
Gävle's julbock - looks ripe for burning
Christmas Eve
Swedes celebrate Christmas on December 24th, not the 25th.  I asked someone why they do it a day early and she responded by asking why we celebrate a day late.  Touchè.


This article, here, has everything you might want to know about what Swedes eat for dinner at Christmas.  Generally it's a lot of herring, korv, vegetables in mayonnaise, and potatoes.  Like most traditions, somethings you just have to have on the table even though most people don't like them (Janssen's potatoes?)  The fish taste can get a little strong but I like the smörgåsbord concept -- where the term comes from -- allowing you to sample a little of everything.  This is not a foreign concept to Americans where we can appreciate a full table of food.  The more the merrier!


Last year, at our send-off party, my mom made glögg from scratch.  She will find out this year that they sell glögg in bottles at Systembolaget.  So much easier this time around!  Glögg is mulled-deliciousness and is best enjoyed when there is a ton of snow on the ground and you are freezing.  Nothing tastes better.  It's also the name of our blog -- so now you know.

Donald Duck
Believe it or not, every year on December 4th at 3pm, Swedes gather around the tv to watch Donald Duck on tv.  Swedes love it and what's not to love?

Hej Tomtegubbar
And this song...


Yule soda -- so popular this time of year it actually outsells Coca-cola products.  I have no idea what it tastes like but we are going to give it a try this year!

So this Christmas Eve, we will be eating a traditional Julbord at a nice restaurant and will be celebrating our Christmas present-opening on December 25th - American style.  As our family grows, we are creating our own traditions -- mostly American but incorporating some new Swedish ones along the way.  What a wonderful time of the year!


  1. Thank you for the excellent description of all these customs. Have a most happy Christmas with your Mom and Dad and eat hearty! someday maybe we'll all do a "Swedish" Christmas together. Much love, Grandma

    1. Thanks for the blog request! We are happy to oblige and it was an interesting topic to research. Jon drank a lot of snaps to get all of these traditions out of his Swedish coworkers ;-) Love you!


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