After nearly a month of waiting, Christmas Eve finally arrives — the height of the celebration in Sweden. Work is at an end, schoolchildren are on holiday and the Christmas preparations are complete.
A family affair
People have bought their presents and their Christmas food in crowded shops and department stores, and the home has been cleaned and decorated according to each family’s traditional habits.
Christmas is the main family event of the year, and there is always a certain amount of discussion about where to celebrate it this time round. Sweden, as we have mentioned, is a large country, and those wishing to be reunited with their families often have to travel far. Train and air tickets need be booked at least two months in advance, and motorists are advised to start their journeys in good time.
Waiting for Santa Claus can take all day — or so the children feel.
Photo: Heléne Grynfarb/Bildarkivet.se
Modernisation of Christmas
Christmas in Sweden is a blend of domestic and foreign customs that have been re-interpreted, refined and commercialised on their way from agrarian society to the modern age.
Today, most Swedes celebrate Christmas in roughly the same way, and many of the local customs and specialities have disappeared, although each family claims to celebrate it in true fashion in their own particular way.
The food you eat at Christmas may still depend on where you live in the country, or where you came from originally. But here, too, homogenisation has set in, due in no small part to the uniform offerings of the department stores and the ready availability of convenience foods. Few have time to salt their own hams or stuff their own pork sausages nowadays.
Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning film Fanny and Alexander, although set in the late 19th century, nevertheless reflects Swedish Christmas celebrations today: a bright and lively occasion, full of excess, good food and happiness, but also a time during which family secrets tend to surface.
Holiday leave over Christmas and the New Year is fairly long, usually extending a week into January. Once Christmas Eve is over, a series of enjoyable — or, in some cases, dutiful — visits to friends and relatives ensues.
Swedes travel many a mile during the holiday period. Christmas Day with the Olssons, Boxing Day with the Perssons and a week’s skiing in the mountains with the Svenssons.
In the north of Sweden, a white Christmas is sure to be enjoyed. Photo: Henrik Trygg/imagebank.sweden.se
Perhaps celebrating Christmas is more complicated than ever nowadays. Present-day family constellations, comprising ex-wives and ex-husbands, children from marriages old and new, newly-acquired relatives and mothers-in-law, are all hard to fit into the nuclear family celebration that, deep down, all Swedes prefer. As though they weren't already under enough pressure to celebrate a perfect Christmas.
As a rule, Swedes expect a great deal from their Christmases. There should be snow on the ground but blue skies and sunshine, everyone is expected to be in good health, the ham must be succulent and tasty, and presents must be numerous. Moreover, the children are expected to be happy and well-behaved and the home is expected to be warm and bright.
Everyone does their best, and the Swedes perhaps are better placed than most to celebrate Christmas. The ever-present candles and lights provide a nice contrast to the winter dark, the red wooden cottages are at their most attractive when embedded in snow, and the fir trees stand dark and sedate at the edge of the forest. Santa Claus moves about the land and the North Star pulsates up there in the night sky.
The typical Swedish red wooden cottages are at their best when embedded in snow. Photo: Thomas Adolfsén/Bildarkivet.se
The perfect Christmas tree?
On the day before Christmas Eve, Swedes venture forth to look for the perfect Christmas tree. This is a serious matter — the tree is the very symbol of Christmas, and it must be densely and evenly branched, and straight. If you live in a city or town, you buy the tree in the street or square.
Those who live in the country fell their Christmas trees themselves. Many Swedes believe — mistakenly — that their legal right of access to the countryside allows them to fetch a tree from the woods wherever they like, with an axe, a bucksaw or — as in western Värmland on the Norwegian border — with a shotgun. Not to be recommended.
Trees are decorated according to family tradition. Some are bedecked with flags, others with tinsel and many with coloured baubles. Electric lights are usually preferred to candles on the tree because of the risk of fire.
Homes are also decorated with wall hangings depicting brownies and winter scenes, with tablecloths in Christmas patterns, and with candlesticks, little Father Christmas figures and angels. The home is filled with the powerful scent of hyacinths.
At 3 p.m., the whole of Sweden turns on the tv to watch a cavalcade of Disney film scenes that have been shown ever since the 1960s without anyone tiring of them. Only then can the celebrations begin in earnest.
Abundance of food
Christmas presents are under the lighted tree, candles shine brightly and the smörgåsbord has been prepared with all the classic dishes: Christmas ham, pork sausage, an egg and anchovy mixture (gubbröra), herring salad, pickled herring, home-made liver patty, wort-flavoured rye bread (vörtbröd), potatoes and a special fish dish, lutfisk. The ham is first boiled, then painted and glazed with a mixture of egg, breadcrumbs and mustard. Lutfisk is dried ling or sathe soaked in water and lye to swell before it is cooked.
Once all have eaten their fill, Santa Claus himself arrives to wish the gathering a Merry Christmas and distribute the presents.
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Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic with the Stockholm daily, Dagens Nyheter. Po Tidholm wrote the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today.
Agneta Lilja is a lecturer in ethnology at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. Agneta Lilja wrote the sections about the history of Swedish traditions and festivities.
The authors alone are responsible for the opinions expressed on this web page.
Translation: Stephen Croall/Lingon
Copyright: 2004 Agneta Lilja, Po Tidholm and the Swedish Institute. This text is published by the Swedish Institute on www.sweden.se.