So you’re going to your company’s julbord? Maybe you’re celebrating with your Swedish in-laws or your sambo’s best friends on Christmas Eve? You might even have already tried this once or twice before but still aren’t sure if you’re doing it right. Or maybe you just remember a time when you were as nervous as some of the newcomers and have some stories to share?
Whatever the case, this handy how-not-to-be-an-idiot primer presumes you just want to get through your Swedish Christmas smorgasbord without being the amusing story everyone talks about during the first fika (coffee break) back at work.
While smörgåsbord has become a full-fledged English word (leaving behind the diacritics –those dots and rings over letters), the seasonal julbord, aka the Christmas smorgasbord, remains quintessentially Swedish. In other words, it’s not just your average run of the mill buffet, but a tradition with its pedantic dos and don’ts and a few “Oh my goodness, he didn’ts.”
Swedes merrily recount stories of the uncertain foreigner struggling at the smörgåsbord making the amusing faux pas of mixing hot and cold or putting on the wrong sauce. But the Swedes I have heard tell the tale of the smörgåsbord-challenged have at least sympathized that it can’t be easy to figure the system out. They’ll still smirk, but they’ll do it with warmth in their hearts (though that could be the aquavit talking.)
Seriously, we don’t want to make you too self-conscious and nervous. It’s not really that difficult if you follow some straightforward general guidelines. And it is really only about the order in which you serve yourself the food from the buffet table. Rest assured, if you draw a blank at the critical moment, you really only have to ask a Swede.
Grab a plate or three
The traditional julbord is essentially a Christmas-inspired variation on the traditional smorgasbord. That means it’s made up of hot and cold dishes, bread of both the soft and crisp varieties, and -- if you are fortunate (or misfortunate…the day after will tell) -- a selection of spiced and unspiced shots of strong liquor, snaps, will accompany the meal.
Every smorgasbord is expected to make use of a minimum of two plates since cold dishes are always eaten first followed by the hot stuff. Christmas excess, in all its splendor, also tends to demand a third trip to the buffet table. But no one is stopping you from fourth or fifth servings.
Roll up your sleeves
All of the herring, pickled or otherwise cured, are among the cold dish selection and are the first to fill your dish. If you have never had them before, or they make you feel queasy, I suggest a skimpy cross section. That way you don’t have too much left on your plate when you scrunch up your nose, gag a moment from the unfamiliar texture and unexpected sweetness of many of the herring dishes.
The good news is that the marinated salmon dishes also are available during this course. And if you wimp out and skip the herring altogether, you can fill your first plate with boiled potatoes and/or hard-boiled eggs. Don’t turn down a taste of smoked eel, it’s a bit oily but tasty. And of course you have a variety of creamy salads, dips and sauces.
During the next round you are expected to pile up the cold cuts of meat, including the focal piece: the Christmas ham. You'll also be treated to smoked leg of lamb, sausages, fois gras and something menacing-sounding called head cheese or brawn (sylta), which is most certain more animal than cheese, though in nearly two decades I still haven’t quite figured it out. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Once again, breads, cheeses, potatoes and pickles are all for the retaking this round if you are so inclined.
Round three brings warmth. There are meatballs, small weenie sausages (prinskorv), spare ribs and Jansson’s temptation (Janssons frestelse), a warm, creamy potato casserole with onions and Swedish anchovies. For real julbord aficionados, baked beans and rice porridge must also appear on the serving table.
Wash it down
Few self-respecting Swedes would dream of drinking anything but beer and snaps with their julbord. But Swedes are polite enough to let you drink wine if you choose and it’s not a bit enough deviation from the tradition to merit day-after-gossip. I can still get away with red wine and snaps, though my Swedish husband will blame it on my Americanism—whatever that means.
You can quickly redeem yourself by holding up a snaps glass and heartily belting out the one snapsvisa (snaps song) they’re certain to sing during dinner, Hej, tomtegubbar:
Hej tomtegubbar, slå i glasen
Och låt oss lustiga vara!
En liten tid
Vi leva här
Med mycket möda
Och stort besvär!
A Swede loosely translated this as ”Life is tough and short so let’s get drunk.” Google translate might offer you something more accurate.
There is one final cautionary word of wisdom offered by Bengt, a Swedish friend of mine, “[There’s] no sex with colleagues under the julbord, at least not until after everyone's finished eating.”
I think you’re ready. God Jul.