Around Christmas time in Sweden, one of the biggest celebrations is St. Lucia’s Day (or St. Lucy’s Day) on December 13th. The celebration comes from stories that were told by Monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden.
St Lucia was a young Christian girl who was martyred, killed for her faith, in 304. The most common story told about St Lucia is that she would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head so she had both her hands free to carry things. Lucy means ‘light’ so this is a very appropriate name.
December 13th was also the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, in the old ‘Julian’ Calendar and a pagan festival of lights in Sweden was turned into St. Lucia’s Day.
St. Lucia’s Day is now celebrated by a girl dressing in a white dress with a red sash round her waist and a crown of candles on her head. Small children use electric candles but from about 12 years old, real candles are often used!
The crown is made of Lingonberry branches which are evergreen and symbolise new life in winter. Schools normally have their own St. Lucia’s and some town and villages also choose a girl to play St. Lucia in a procession where carols are sung.
A national Lucia is also chosen. Lucias also visit hospitals and old people’s homes singing a song about St Lucia and handing out ‘Pepparkakor’, ginger snap biscuits.
Small children sometimes like dressing up as Lucia (with the help of their parents!). Also boys might dress up as ‘Stjärngossar’ (star boys) and girls might be ‘tärnor’ (like Lucia but without the candles).
A popular food eaten at St. Lucia’s day are ‘Lussekatts’, St Lucia’s day buns flavored with saffron and dotted with raisins which are eaten for breakfast.
St Lucia’s Day first became widely celebrated in Sweden in the late 1700s. St Lucia’s Day is also celebrated in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Bosnia, and Croatia. In Denmark it is more a of a children’s day and in some part of Italy, children are told that St Lucy brings them presents. They leave out a sandwich for her and the donkey that helps carry the gifts!
Christmas Eve is also very important in Sweden. This is when the main meal (well really a feast!) is eaten.
This is often a ‘julbord’ which is a buffet, eaten at lunchtime. Cold fish is important on the julbord. There is often herring (served in many different ways), gravlax (salmon which has been cured in sugar, salt and dill) and smoked salmon.
Other dishes on the julbord might include cold meats including turkey, roast beef and ‘julskinka’ (a Christmas ham); cheeses, liver pate, salads, pickles and different types of bread and butter (or mayonnaise). There will also be warm savoury foods including meatballs, ‘prinskorv’ (sausages), ‘kåldolmar’ (meat stuffed cabbage rolls), jellied pigs’ feet, lutfisk (a dried cod served with a thick white sauce) and ‘revbenspjäll’ (oven-roasted pork ribs). Vegetables such as potatoes and red cabbage will also be served. Another potato dish is ‘Janssons Frestelse’ (matchstick potatoes layered with cream, onion and anchovies that is baked to a golden brown). There’s also ‘dopp i grytan’ which is bread that is dipped in the broth and juices that are left over after boiling the ham.
The desert of the julbord might be a selection of sweet pastries, some more pepparkakor biscuits and some home made sweets!
Wow, I think I like the sound of a Jolbord! To wash all that food down you can have some ‘glogg’ which is sweet mulled wine and some coffee to finish off the meal!
Another popular food at Christmas in Sweden is ‘risgrynsgröt’ (rice porridge that’s eaten with ‘hallonsylt’ [raspberry jam] or sprinkled with some cinnamon). It’s often eaten during the evening after people have exchanged their presents.
If there is any risgrynsgröt left over, when it’s cold it can be mixed with whipped cream and eaten with a warm fruit sauce. This is called ‘Ris a la malta’ and sounds rather yummy!
Presents are normally exchanged on Christmas Eve. People often go to Church early on Christmas morning.
Another popular and important thing that many Swedes do on Christmas Eve afternoon is to watch Donald Duck! Every year, since 1959, at 3.00pm on Christmas Eve, the TV station TV1 shows the Disney special “From All of Us to All of You” or in Swedish it’s “Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul” meaning “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.” About 40 to 50% of the Swedish population stop to watch it!
Like their neighbors in Finland, there was a traditional belief in Sweden that a ‘Yule Goat’ was connected with the mid winter festival. In Sweden it was thought to be an invisible spirit that looked on and made sure all the preparations were going well. Between Christmas and New Year, men would sometimes dress up as goats and go from house to house singing songs and playing tricks! This is known as ‘Julebukking’.
Now, the goat is mainly seen as a straw ornament which guards the house and Christmas Tree! Straw is used as a decoration in homes, to remind them that Jesus was born in a manger. Christmas Tree decorations that are made of straw are also very popular.
In the city of Gävle, a huge straw goat is built every year for the start of Advent. It’s 13m/43ft tall and takes two days to put up! It has a large metal structure on the inside and is covered with straw. The tradition started in 1966. The first Gävle Yule Goat was burnt down on New Year’s Eve 1966 and ever since it’s been the target for vandals. In its 50 year history it’s only survived throughout the Christmas and New Year period about 12 times! In 2016, its 50th year, it was burnt down in less than two days!
In Sweden, presents are brought by Santa who’s known as ‘Jultomten’ or just ‘Tomten’ (that mean ‘The Christmas Gnome’ or ‘The Gnome’). He’s often helped by gnomes/elves which are called ‘Nissar’ (male elves/gnomes) or ‘Nissor’ (female gnomes/elves).
The end of Christmas in Sweden is on January 13th (twenty days after Christmas) which is called ‘Tjugondag Knut’ (Twentieth Day Knut) or ‘Tjugondag jul’ (Twentieth Day Yule) and is named after a Danish prince called Canute Lavard. On Tjugondag Knut it’s traditional that the Christmas Tree is taken down and and left over cookies and sweets are eaten!
In Swedish Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘God Jul’. In North-Sami, spoken in northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, it’s ‘Buorit Juovllat’. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.
Sweden’s Christmas traditions closely align with Scandinavian Christmas traditions in general but are very different from those celebrated in other parts of the world. When planning your holiday travel to Sweden, it can be a good idea to get acquainted with the Swedish customs during the holidays.
Before you get a handle on the customs, it might make the best sense to know how to say, “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” in Swedish. For “Christmas,” you would say, God Jul, which if you are a native English speaker, you might recognize “good yule.” English and Swedish are related languages, both are descended from the Germanic branch of the language tree. For “Happy New Year,” you would say, Och Ett Gott Nytt Ar.
Start of the Christmas Season
In Sweden, Christmas begins with the annual Saint Lucia Day on December 13. The date commemorates Saint Lucy (or Lucia in Scandinavian countries). The saint was a 3rd century martyr who brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the catacombs using a candle-lit wreath to light her way. Her feast once coincided with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, it is why her feast day has become known as the Christmas festival of light.
Usually, the eldest girl in the family portrays St Lucia. She puts on a white robe in the morning and is allowed to wear a crown full of candles. Personifying St. Lucia, she serves her parents buns, cookies, coffee, or mulled wine.
Usually, Christmas trees are set up at the latest, two days before Christmas. Common dressings on the tree include baubles, candles, apples, Swedish flags, small gnomes, tasseled caps, and straw ornaments. The homes are decorated in seasonal spirit with gingerbread biscuits, flowers such as the julstjärna (poinsettia), red tulips, and red or white amaryllis.
December 24, or Christmas Eve, is known as Julafton in Swedish. Christmas Eve is the main day that Swedes celebrate Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Swedish locals form processions to the church with lit candles. For some, traditional Christmas Eve dinner usually includes a smorgasbord, or a Swedish Christmas buffet, with ham, pork, or fish, as well as a variety of sweets.
A popular Christmas tradition in Sweden is to serve risgryngrot, a special rice porridge with one almond in it. Traditionally, the person who finds the almond gets to make a wish or is believed to get married the coming year.
Tomte or Santa Claus?
After the festive Christmas Eve dinner, someone dresses up as Tomte. Tomte is a Christmas gnome, who according to Swedish myth, lives on a farm or in the forest. Tomte looks a little like Santa Claus and hands out gifts to the family while saying funny rhymes. Nowadays, the westernized version of Christmas is quickly catching up to Sweden, and Tomte is beginning to lose his original identity and beginning to look a lot like commercial Santa Claus figures.
End of the Christmas Season
Christmastime does not end in December for Swedes—it goes until January. The date of the Epiphany on January 6, is recognized as a religious holiday in Sweden. It is also called trettondedag jul, or “13th-day yule,” as January 6 is the 13th day after Christmas Eve.
Rounding out the end of the Christmas season is Hilarymas, also called Knut’s Day or Tjugondag jul on January 13. Christmas trees are taken down on this day, which is the “20th-day yule,” the 20th day after Christmas Eve. Candies and cookies that decorated the tree are eaten. The feast held during this event is called Knut’s party. Knut, spelled Canute in Danish, was the patron saint of Denmark who was assassinated and canonized for his efforts to secure Denmark from usurpers.