Swedish Christmas Crash Course

By Helena Honkaniemi

The holidays are right around the corner, and though some of you may be well aware of what that entails, not everyone is familiar with Swedish Christmas traditions. For those who are new to the country, and wish to experience this holiday to the fullest, consider this a crash course and quick guide on Swedish winter holidays.


After a month of jam-packed Christmas markets and a St. Lucia’s Day celebration, it’s time to begin preparing for the real thing. Decorations do not begin to appear until the beginning of December. Even then, homes are often very humbly decorated with simple Christmas lights and candlesticks, and adorned in poinsettias and red tulips. Finally, the Christmas tree is ornamented only a few days before Christmas Eve, with juldocka or straw figurines, bells, colorful baubles and even little Swedish flags.


Throughout the month of December, restaurants will serve a traditional Christmas meal, julbord, which includes pickled herring, cured salmon (gravlax), pate, crispbread (knäckebröd), ham (julskinka), meatballs with beetroot salad, lutfisk (a customary Nordic dish of dried whitefish treated with lye) and pork. Keep in mind though that reservations are scarce and must be made well in advance! This holiday-themed buffet is also served on Christmas Eve in many Swedish households. It is accompanied by glögg, a delicious mulled wine served both hot and cold, and julmust, a root beer-like soda sold exclusively around Christmas time. The meal is only complete with pepparkakor, ginger snaps or cookies cut into various festive shapes, and risgrynsgröt, a sweet rice pudding containing a raisin or almond. Whoever finds the raisin or almond may either be granted one wish, or may even be married within the next year!


Finally, the day has arrived! Christmas Eve, or julafton, is the main event in Nordic Christmas traditions. The true celebrations begin in the afternoon. Every year since 1959, at exactly 3 PM or 15:00, Swedish television broadcasts a Christmas cartoon featuring Donald Duck – Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (“Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas”). The program has become an integral part of Swedish Christmas in the last half-century. In the evening, following the julbord, presents are distributed by tomten, a white-bearded Swedish gnome dressed in a red robe. However, in recent years the more internationally recognized Santa Claus has begun to replace this custom. Finally, some Swedes end their night with a beautiful candlelit procession to midnight mass.

In the morning, many continue with church services to welcome Christmas Day, followed by a second round of Christmas food and treats. In fact, the Christmas season continues well past New Year’s Eve with Trettondedag Jul (Epiphany) on January 6th, and finally ends on January 13th with Hilarymas, or Sankt Knuds day, which is celebrated by throwing the Christmas tree out of the window and finishing the remaining Christmas sweets, ready to face a new year.

So, with that, I’d like to wish you:

God Jul & Gott Nytt År!


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