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Christmas 2017 and 2018

Christmas in Sweden is known as “Jul,” and Sweden has many unique Yuletide customs, even if it is firmly within the general Scandinavian-style Christmas tradition.

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In Sweden, Jul begins on December 1st and continues until January 13th, Saint Knut’s Day, when Christmas finally ends with the taking down of the tree and the gobbling down of any cookies or other treats that have not yet been consumed. The main event, as it were, of Swedish Jul is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, which is the time when the festive meal is eaten and Christmas presents exchanged.

The tradition of a mid-winter time of merry-making and of the term “Jul” itself seems to pre-date Christian times in Sweden. It once involved sacrifices to Norse pagan gods and a feast marking the winter solstice. On the island of Gotland, it even involved human sacrifices. Today, thankfully, only the feasting and the word “Jul” have continued.

The 13th of December is the traditional day to set up your Christmas tree in Sweden. Tree decorations include the usual baubles and lights but also such things as apples, candles, gnomes, and ornaments made out of straw. Homes will be decorated with red tulips and have the aroma of gingerbread wafting through the air.

Santa Claus is known as “Jultomten” (the Yule Man), and brings children presents in person on Christmas Eve evening, knocking on doors instead of sneaking down chimneys. The tradition of Jultomten seems to derive both from the old pagan gnome called “Tomte” and from the Dutch Saint Nicholas. An elderly man in the neighbourhood normally dresses up as Jultomten and carries a sack of presents around the town.

In many homes, a straw goat is constructed to “guard the Christmas tree,” and straw is also used as a decoration throughout the house to remind of Jesus’ birth in the straw-filed manger. While Sweden is a very secular nation in general, on Christmas morning, many will get up very early to go to church for special services.

Very central to a Sweden Christmas is the “julbord” (Christmas table), which is a smorgasbord special to the Yuletide and eaten on Christmas Eve. It is traditionally a three-course meal, fish dishes being served on the first course, cold cuts on the second course, and non-fish, hot-served dishes on the third course. Foods often included are: ham with mustard, salmon, pickled herring, eel, bread dipped in ham broth, Swedish meatballs, pork ribs, pork sausage, potatoes, head cheese, other cheeses, boiled cabbage, eggs mixed with anchovies, liver patties, and warm-served potato salad.

Some ideas on things to do if in Sweden for Christmas include:

  • Tastes some “julmust,” which is a special Swedish soft drink drunk throughout the Jul season. It was first made in 1910 as a non-alcoholic drink that tasted a little like beer and a little like root beer. The syrup it is made from is from a single manufacturer, but numerous companies make julmust from the syrup, allowing for variety.
  • Sit down with the kids and watch what around half of all Swedes will be watching on Christmas Eve, Disney’s classic Christmas special From All of Us to All of You. It has aired on TV every year since 1959 at 3pm.
  • Visit Stockholm’s Old Town. You can get some authentic Swedish cocoa at a quaint little cafe, ice skate in Kungstradgarden, shop for gifts along Queen Street, and peruse the Christmas market in the Main Square. Also look for the Stockholm lights display, which covers 35 streets and is among the biggest in all of Europe.

Sweden is a land where a “white Christmas” is not hard to come by, and it is also a place where you can learn to appreciate the uniqueness of a “Swedish Christmas”.