Swedish Christmas embodies the best of the holiday season
Christmas traditions in Sweden focuses on good food and good company. The traditional Swedish Christmas food is a delicious collection of savoury dishes and sweet treats, enjoyed throughout the season. And while old traditions get modern twists, the importance of spending time together remains at the heart of the celebrations.
There is no one way to celebrate Christmas in Sweden, but certain Christmas traditions have stood the test of time and are holiday mainstays across the country.
Lucia – the celebration of light
While the First Sunday of Advent marks the official start of the Swedish Christmas season, the festivities really begin on the 13th of December with the celebration of Sankta Lucia (Saint Lucy). Commemorating the deeds of an Italian martyr, Lucia is a celebration of light that is popular throughout Scandinavia.
In churches, schools and even office buildings, the day is marked by processions led by a white-gowned Lucia, wearing a crown or wreath of candle lights. The rest of the trail is similarly dressed, carrying candles or wearing cone shaped hats. Younger children may also dress up as tomtenissar (Santa’s elves) or other holiday characters.
Modern times have seen a move away from the traditional blonde-haired Lucia, opting for inclusiveness. The city of Malmö recently announced that their Lucia could be a woman, man or person of non-binary gender, truly mirroring Sweden’s progressive mindset.
Christmas traditions and the importance of togetherness
Often starting in November, Swedish Christmas markets pop up around the country. Here you’ll find handmade decorations, artisan crafts and wintertime treats such as gingerbread biscuits and mulled wine. The yellow 'lussekatt' is another holiday specialty, a sweet saffron-flavoured bun.
Other popular Christmas traditions include building 'pepparkakshus' (gingerbread houses), decorated with sugary trimmings, as well as making Christmas sweets. From the 1st of December, the days until Christmas are counted down on an advent calendar. The four Advent Sundays are often spent together, over a cup of 'glögg' (mulled wine) and 'pepparkakor' (gingerbread biscuits).
A white Christmas with the snow piled high is at the top of every Swede’s wish list. When there’s snow, popular pastime activities are to sled down-hill and to go skiing. Ice-skating can be enjoyed on frozen lakes or outdoor ice rinks.
In Sweden, the holidays are a time to leave the everyday behind. Traditional food and activities aside, the most important thing is spending time with friends and loved ones.
The Swedish julbord, a Christmas feast enjoyed all season long
The traditional Swedish 'julbord' gets many Swedes in a festive mood. Literally translating to Christmas table, this buffet-style meal consists of 'julskinka' (Christmas ham), meatballs, 'sill' (pickled herring), 'gravlax' (cured salmon), short ribs, 'prinskorv' (cocktail sausages), potatoes and 'rödbetssallad' (red beet salad) – luxury foods for Swedish households a couple of centuries back. A relatively new addition, coming to the table in the 1940s, is 'Janssons frestelse', a casserole made of julienned potatoes, onions, anchovies and cream.
Each household adds their favourites to these julbord staples, and the pickled herring in particular can take on a world of flavours – from classics like dill or mustard to exotic fusions like ginger, lime and chili coconut. The julbord more and more often contains several vegetarian or vegan dishes.
A traditional dessert is 'Ris à la Malta', a creamy vanilla rice pudding, often served with orange slices. The julbord also includes various kinds of sweets, like the butterscotch toffee known as 'knäck' and chocolate truffles. Common drinks are 'julöl' (dark, seasonal beer), the carbonated soft drink 'julmust' (tasting a bit like root beer), and, of course, the traditional snaps. Skål!
Swedish Christmas food is such a treasured treat that most people eat it several times throughout the season. Company-sponsored julbord celebrations often take the place of an office Christmas party. However, the proper julbord takes place on Christmas Eve, the main event for celebrating Christmas in Sweden.
Merry Christmas, or as the Swedes say, 'God jul'!