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CHRISTMAS

The forgotten history behind Sweden’s most bizarre Christmas traditions

From TV specials to decorations and food, there are plenty of ways to get fully into the festive spirit in Sweden. The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in this bumper guide.

The forgotten history behind Sweden's most bizarre Christmas traditions
Did you know the Swedish Santa is inspired by old folklore? Photo: Bert Mattsson/TT

The beloved TV series that changes every year

Christmas is all about traditions, and the advent calendar television show produced by Swedish broadcaster SVT is one of them. From the beginning of December until the 24th, every evening brings a new episode for the whole family to watch. Cliffhangers are guaranteed.

Read more about the television traditions around Christmas in Sweden to plan your festive viewing.

The children selling magazines on your doorstep

When Christmas is approaching, Swedish children go door to door to sell jultidningar (Christmas magazines). The tradition of the magazines has origins going back to the late 19th century. These magazines played a crucial role in popularizing the now-classic image of the jultomte, also known as the Swedish Santa (more on him later).

Learn more about the tradition of Christmas magazines.

How glögg sends Swedish wine consumption through the roof

Each December, Swedes drink around five million liters of glögg, a Swedish variety of mulled wine. The drink is closely associated with winter and the chilly weather, and is sold at Christmas markets, at Systembolaget and in supermarkets.

If you like sweet, spiced hot wine make sure to read the article.


Photo: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se

Julmust, the festive drink that outsells Coca-Cola every winter

In 1910 a father and son in Örebro began producing and distributing the julmust Christmas soft drink. More than a hundred years later, the drink even outsells Coca-Cola during the winter season. 

More about the famous julmust drink.

How a folklore tomte became Sweden’s Santa

The Swedish version of Santa Claus is known as jultomte. Originally a folklore creature linked to agricultural traditions, writer Viktor Rydberg transformed him in a 1871 story into a figure who delivers gifts on Christmas Eve. 

Meet Santa’s Swedish brother.

The biscuits that were once thought to improve your sex drive

Getting together with the family to bake some pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) in all sizes and shapes is a typical Swedish Christmas activity. The cookies were once thought to cure illnesses like indigestion and depression, produce a calming effect, and even improve sex drive…

Sound good? Read the fascinating history of pepparkaka here.

How a German Christmas tradition became distinctively Swedish

During the dark northern winter days close to Christmas, the Swedes like to get cosy at home. The typical advent lights are everywhere to be seen and initially began as a tradition to count down the days until Christmas. You can’t miss them while visiting Sweden during winter time.

Learn more about advent lights in Swedish winter.


Photo: Ulf Lundin/imagebank.sweden.se

A Christmas candy with an unfortunate name

Swedes are real sweet tooths, so of course there’s a Swedish candy tradition just for Christmas. The juleskum sweets are soft and come in a lot of flavors. Although the name isn’t that appetizing to English-speakers, the sweets are rather tasty.

More about these skum sweets.

The foreign traditions embedded in Swedish Christmas

Over the years, Sweden has adopted Christmas traditions from all over the world. From pepparkaka cookies to glögg, and from the adventsljusstakar to Saint Lucia, much of Swedish Christmas actually has its roots outside Sweden. 

Read about foreign influences in Swedish Christmas in the past and today.

The festive feast that has stood the test of time

The julbord, which translates to ‘Christmas table’, is a Scandinavian tradition with historical roots going back to the time of the Vikings. A typical julbord contains a mix of savoury and sweet foods with a lot of fish. You are guaranteed a festive evening.

Learn about julbord and its culinary history.

Why lussekatter are one hell of a bun

We all know the famous Swedish cinnamon buns. But have you also heard of lussekatter buns? These buns are associated with Luciadagen (Lucia day) on December 13th. 

Read more about the Lussekatt buns (and try the recipe).

The historical dark side of Sweden’s Lucia tradition

Together with Christmas and Midsummer, Lucia Day is one of the most important cultural traditions in Sweden. But behind the gentle twinkling candlelight of a traditional Swedish Lucia procession is a far more complex and varied history than many people may realize.

Read about the remarkable history of the Saint Lucia tradition.


Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/Imagebank.sweden.se

How common sweets became Swedish julgodis

Among the most traditional Christmas sweets (julgodis) are marzipan, caramel and toffee. With 18 kilograms of candy consumed per person per year, no other country eats as much as Sweden. So Christmas here is paradise for sugar-lovers.

More about Sweden’s favourite candy during Christmas.

Stepping back in time with Swedish Christmas markets

The wooden houses, typical music and twinkling lights: Christmas markets bring warmth and light to the darkest time of the year. Swedish favourites like warm glögg, brända mandlar (candied almonds), and julgodis like knäck are sold on the markets that are open all December. Don’t miss them!

Read more about the history of Christmas markets in Sweden and famous markets in Stockholm.

How one Swedish woman influenced the candy cane

Did you know a Swedish woman invented the candy cane? Thanks to Amalia Eriksson we now have the iconic polkakäpp (candy cane) in our Christmas trees.

More about the Amalia Eriksson and the story of her sweet invention.

How Elsa Beskow created a timeless Swedish Christmas

Elsa Beskow was both a talented illustrator and writer. Her work left a lasting impression on Swedish Christmas. Many children grew up with her stories, which made Swedish Christmas the celebration it is today.

Get to know Elsa Beskow’s Christmas stories here.

How the julbock went from demonic creature to straw figure

Every year a massive julbock (Christmas goat) is built out of straw in the Swedish city of Gävle. These days the giant statue is mainly known for its unfortunate history of being set on fire by arsonists, but there’s much more behind this festive symbol.

Read more about the tale of the julbock.

Sweden’s favourite Christmas filmThere’s nothing like watching the same movie every year during the festive season. The movie Fanny och Alexander is from the 80’s, but is still very popular. A Swedish Christmas simply isn’t complete without this film.
 
 
The festive Swedish songs just for adults

A drinking game during Christmas dinner? That’s what the snapsvisor tradition is all about. Just sing and drink, sing and drink. That’s probably why Sweden in the 1800s was called “the most drunken country in Europe”.

Fill your glasses and get to know more about Sweden’s Christmas drinking songs.

The tradition with a surprising connection to H&M

Your decorations aren’t complete without an accompanying advent star. These paper stars can have up to an impressive 110 points and play an important role in the seasonal preparations.

More pointy facts about advent stars.

The tradition that’s not really all about Kalle Anka

Donald Duck, or Kalle Anka as he’s called in Sweden, has an important role to play in the festive season. Every year at 3pm sharp on Christmas Eve it’s one full hour of Disney cartoons on television.

More about Donald Duck and Swedish Christmas here.

The Day Before Dipping Day

December 24th, for some Swedes, means a traditional meal of bread dipped or soaked in a liquid. The day before this festive event is called ‘the day before dipping day’ or dan före dopparedan

More about the day before dipping day:

Christmas is here… 

Where other countries celebrate Christmas on December 25th, Swedes can’t wait and have picked julafton (Christmas Eve) as the main day of festivities instead. Meeting with the family, exchanging gifts and gathering around a perfect julbord all add up to the perfect Swedish Christmas Eve.

More about celebrating a true Swedish Julafton.

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CHRISTMAS

How to make your own Christmas julbord if you live outside Sweden

Planning a Swedish Christmas meal – the scrumptious julbord – outside of Sweden this year? Here are The Local's tips on how you can make your own julbord, and where to source essential ingredients.

a swedish julbord
How can you source your essential julbord ingredients outside of Sweden? Here's our guide. Photo: Henrik Holmberg/TT

Not sure what a julbord is? Here’s our guide.

Plan the menu

The first, and perhaps most obvious step, is to decide what you want to serve at your julbord. There’s no point making ten different kinds of herring if there will only be a few of you eating, and it may not be necessary to source real Swedish prinskorvar if your guests are happy with some cold cuts and Christmas ham.

You can also let your menu be dictated by what you can get hold of, and what you can manage to make yourself – homemade meatballs use relatively simple, easy-to-source ingredients, whereas you might have trouble sourcing sprats or ansjovis for Janssons temptation, depending on where you live.

A handy list of recipes for Swedish julbord staples can be found on John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website here. Simply pick your favourites from each category, and get cooking.

What can you buy ready-made?

Once you’ve planned your julbord and decided what you want to include, split your dishes up into what you can buy where you live and what you need to make yourself. In some countries, you may be lucky enough to have a dedicated Scandinavian food shop with delivery – such as Scandikitchen in the UK or Nordic House in the US – in which case you’ll have a wide range of foods to choose from.

Most sides, like red cabbage, brown cabbage, kale, potatoes and beetroot salad are made from easily-available ingredients which you should be able to source wherever you are, so they shouldn’t be an issue.

An Ikea food market in Norway. But did you realise you could buy your julskinka here? Photo: Heiko Junge/Scanpix/TT

A surprisingly good source for hard-to-find julbord essentials is Ikea, who offer meatballs (both normal and vegetarian), prinskorvar, Christmas ham, herring and salmon in their food markets, as well as julmust, pepparkakor, crispbread and Swedish cheeses. Their choice is limited and many of their items are frozen, so you may need to plan ahead to make sure you can get hold of everything you need in time.

What do you have to make yourself?

If you don’t have an Ikea or a Scandinavian food shop close by, then you’ll have to make some dishes yourself. Here’s what you should keep in mind for your Swedish Christmas essentials.

Christmas ham

A Swedish Christmas ham or julskinka is made from fresh, unsmoked, salt-cured ham. For best results, it should still include the pork skin and fat. Gammon joints are suitable for making julskinka as they are uncooked and unsmoked, but it may be a good idea to ask your butcher for help.

A Christmas ham is usually boiled and then glazed with mustard and breadcrumbs and finished in the oven, but you can also try roasting it – although this is not traditional. Here is The Local’s list of Christmas ham recipes for you to try.

Herring is an essential part of many Swedish holiday celebrations. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

Herring

If you want to pickle your own herring, you have two options. Either you can buy ready-salted herring fillets which can be pickled straight away, or you will have to buy fresh herring fillets which you salt yourself – the latter option can take up to two weeks so requires a bit of advance planning.

Ask your local fishmonger if they can source ready-salted herring fillets for pickling, and if they can’t help you, try looking in Polish, Dutch or German grocery shops (or your local supermarket if you’re based in one of these countries) – pickled herring is not only popular in Sweden, so you might get lucky.

Can’t find suitable herring? Consider a vegetarian alternative – recipes exist for pickled courgette, aubergine, tofu and mushroom. They obviously don’t taste exactly the same, but may be a better alternative than avoiding the herring course completely.

Here are a selection of pickled herring recipes from John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website.

Meatballs

Swedish meatballs are relatively easy to make at home, but one important thing to note – especially if you are using a Swedish recipe – is that meatballs are often made from blandfärs in Sweden. This is simply a mixture of beef and pork mince – often a simple 50:50 ratio – so you can just mix the two types of mince yourself if this is not available where you live.

Here’s The Local’s Christmas meatball recipe.

Bread

Depending on the type of bread you want for your Christmas dinner, you may have to bake it yourself. Wort bread (or vörtbröd in Sweden) is made from wort, a by-product of beer-brewing, but you can try substituting a dark beer such as a porter if you can’t get hold of wort.

Fresh yeast – the most common type of yeast in Sweden – is not readily available in all countries, but this can be substituted for dry yeast. Just divide the amount of fresh yeast by three to find out how much dry yeast you should use. For example, a recipe requiring one 50g packet of fresh yeast would need around 17g of dry yeast.

Crispbread may also be hard to get hold of outside of Sweden. Try looking in delis or cheesemongers, or look for similar alternatives such as Ryvita. You can also bake your own – it requires no kneading and no yeast, so is a good project for beginner bread-bakers.

Here’s a recipe for homemade crispbread.

Tinned sprats or ansjovis are essential for a Jansson’s temptation. But what can you do if you can’t get hold of them? Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Jansson’s temptation

Jansson’s temptation, a creamy potato casserole baked in the oven, can be difficult to make if you can’t source Swedish ansjovis, known as sprats in English. Although it may be tempting, you should avoid substituting ansjovis with anchovies – the former are much milder and spiced, whereas the latter will be far too salty.

One option could be to use similar spices to create the same flavour you would gain from the ansjovis. Try simmering the cream used in your Jansson’s for a couple of minutes with a pinch of ground allspice, a pinch of ground cloves, a pinch of ground ginger, a pinch of white pepper and a few bay leaves instead. This also has the benefit of giving you a vegetarian version of the popular casserole, which may be useful if any of your guests don’t eat meat.

Check out this Jansson’s temptation recipe from our archives.

Drinks

The main drinks offered at a julbord are julmust and glögg. Your best bet for sourcing julmust is probably Ikea, where they sell their own brand under the name vintersaga. If you can’t get hold of it, we’ve heard reports of people mixing low-alcohol beer and Coca Cola for a similar taste, although we have no idea if this tastes anything like the original, so try at your own risk… Otherwise, root beer is an option.

If you skip the julmust, it’s worth knowing that wine is not part of a traditional julbord, but beer is comme il faut.

You’ll be pleased to know that glögg is easy to make at home. Here’s a recipe from The Local’s archives.

Are there any julbord essentials we’ve missed? Let us know and we’ll be sure to update our guide if we can help!

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