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READER QUESTIONS

Everything you ever wanted to know about Swedish Christmas

On last week's episode of our Sweden in Focus podcast, we asked Jonas Engman from Stockholm's Nordiska Museet to answer your questions on Swedish Christmas.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Swedish Christmas
Santa, or tomten as he's known in Sweden, comes into our homes on Christmas Eve. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Jonas Engman, curator, ethnologist and folklife researcher at Stockholms Nordiska Museet, joined The Local’s Paul O’Mahony and James Savage in Stockholm last week for the lastest episode of Sweden in Focus, with Richard Orange and Becky Waterton calling in from Malmö.

“I specialise in rituals,” he explained, “everyday life, rituals, and holidays throughout the year, and the holidays or rituals of the lifecycle as well.”

Ahead of Engman’s appearance on the podcast, we asked podcast listeners on social media to send in their questions about Christmas in Sweden, which Engman was more than happy to answer.

Jonas Engman. Photo: Karolina Kristensson, Nordiska museet.

Why do Swedes celebrate the night before holidays?

Like most holidays in Sweden, the main day of celebrations is actually the evening or afton prior to the official holiday. For this reason, Swedes celebrate on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, as is the norm in some other countries.

This tradition in fact goes back more than a millennium.

“In pre-Christian times – so, 1,200 years ago – we counted the hours of the day in a different way,” Engman explains.

“It actually didn’t match the Christian way of structuring the 24-hour day. It was eight hours early. So that’s that’s probably the reason why we always celebrate the day before you do in Britain, for instance, or in the Western world. That’s why we celebrate aftonaftnar, on the eve.”

The day would start at sunset, ending at sunset the next day, so Christmas Day actually started as soon as the sun set on Christmas Eve.

“That’s the reasonable explanation, at least,” he said.

Why do Swedes watch Donald Duck on Christmas Eve?

At this time of year, the sun usually sets around 3pm here in the south of Sweden, which coincidentally is the time the majority of Sweden’s population will be sitting down on Christmas Eve to watch Donald Duck, or more specifically Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the Swedish version of the 1958 Walt Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You.

Engman (who added that yes, he will be watching Donald Duck on Christmas Eve this year) explained that Swedes do this “because it’s part of the definition of Christmas!”

“It’s what you do, and that’s very typical of rituals. That’s just what you do, in order to create a kind of ritual structure. I have to watch Donald Duck every Christmas. In my case, I’m the only one who does it because the rest of the family hates it.”

A family sits down to watch Donald Duck on Christmas Eve. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

What is the ‘day before dipping day’?

Another tradition discussed in the podcast is uppesittarkväll, or celebrating the day before Christmas Eve.

“It’s sometimes called lillajulafton or ‘little Christmas Eve’,” Engman explained. “We eat a bit of the ham and the Christmas food.”

Engman also said that this day can also be referred to as dan före dopparedan, or “the day before dipping day”.

“We have this idea that people used to eat bread and dip it in the juice from the boiled ham. Which is quite terrible. My father loved it, but I think it’s awful,” he said. “It’s very salty.”

What is the jultomte and where does this tradition come from?

Another way in which Swedish Christmas differs from how Christmas is celebrated in other countries is the fact that Santa doesn’t come down the chimney and leave presents under the Christmas tree.

“He comes into our homes, he comes into our private zone,” Engman said, “which I’m not sure is unique, but is very typical for Sweden and the Nordic countries.”

He isn’t called Santa in Sweden, either, Engman explained.

“As folklorists, we say he differs a lot from the Anglo-Saxon Santa Claus, he’s called tomten, which is like a gnome.”

“The gnomes were supernatural beings that protected the farm from poverty and took responsibility for animals, and made sure that people really took care of the animals. If they didn’t they would get a slap from him.”

This is one of the reasons Swedes leave a bowl of porridge out for tomten the night before Christmas Eve, to thank him for looking after the animals.

This porridge was probably made of rye though, not rice, like the ris a la Malta often served at Christmas buffets nowadays.

In the late 19th century, this tomte was mixed with traditions surrounding Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas to be more specific, resulting in the tomte seen today.

Engman explained that the father of the house will always leave to buy a newspaper, just before the jultomte knocks on the door, which he describes as “magical”.

“We always wondered, why does he need to buy a newspaper on Christmas Eve?”

On a more serious note, this aspect of the jultomte – the paradox – is one that can be seen in almost all ritual symbols.

“It starts with a paradox. You have to learn that your mode of thinking at Christmas is that you’re entering a paradox, this paradoxical symbol enters your home and does funny things that people don’t usually do.”

The Gävle Christmas goat in 2022. Photo: Mats Åstrand/TT

What about the Christmas goat?

Another ritual symbol is Sweden’s Christmas goat, the most famous example being Gävle’s Christmas goat which often meets a fiery end before Christmas Eve.

“If you go back to Germany, on the sixth of December, and throughout Europe in the 15th-16th century, you can see St. Nicholas in plays,” Engman said.

“He was a saint. He gave things to children. And he could come on stage holding the goat in a rope, and the goat was a representation of the devil. So what that tells us, is that this good saint, Christianity, had tamed the goat – tamed the devil.”

The goat therefore represents an idea of evil, or even more specifically a representation of the devil, he explained.

“In ritual scholarship terms, this is a good illustration of how ambivalent symbols are. We don’t remember this, we don’t know it.”

“Maybe the answer lies in the question, why do we put it there? Well, because we put it there. It’s an anomaly. That’s why we think, ‘oh, a goat’, then we start to interpret things. We’d never ask ourselves, ‘why do we bring in a tree into our apartment’? That’s kind of paradoxical, but that’s the same thing.”

“Well, actually what is the tree doing there? Well, of course, it’s because it’s Christmas. Historically, we can have some kind of explanation. But why do people do it today? It’s because it’s it’s impregnated with a kind of cultural meaning.”

Why do Swedes give Christmas ‘klappar’ instead of ‘presenter’?

Another strange quirk of a Swedish Christmas is that, despite the Swedish word for a present being a present, Swedes don’t give julpresenter, rather they give julklappar

“The word julklapp, ‘Christmas clap’, probably goes back to a tradition in the pre-industrial society,” Engman said. “Kids ran around villages ‘clapping’ or knocking on doors and throwing in a piece of wood or a little doll or something in order to tease the people who live there. And they were supposed to quickly throw it out again. The word for that was klapp, so julklapp goes back to this tradition.”

Interview from The Local’s Sweden in Focus podcast. Article by Becky Waterton.

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedag jul, literally "the thirteenth day of Christmas" always falls on January 6th, which this year is a Friday. It's a public holiday in Sweden meaning many people have a day off. But why is it celebrated it at all?

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedagen, or trettondagen, or Epiphany as it is sometimes referred to in English, is the thirteenth day after Christmas Eve, the day when Swedes celebrate Christmas. Unlike most Swedish holidays such as Midsummer’s Eve (midsommarafton), Easter (påskafton) and Christmas Eve (julafton), the trettondag holiday is celebrated on the actual day, rather than the night before on trettondagsafton.

As a Christian holiday, it marks the day the three wise men met baby Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and therefore the day God’s son arrived on earth. In Denmark and Norway, the day is still referred to as helligtrekongersdag, or “day of the three holy kings”.

Unlike the Twelfth Night or the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is considered to be the last official day of Christmas in many Christian countries, the official final day of Christmas in Sweden falls on the twentieth day after Christmas, January 13th or tjugondag Knut. So, you can keep your decorations up for a while yet.

In Småland, trettondagen is sometimes referred to as farängladagen or änglafardagen(literally: “angel travel day”), as it was previously believed that the dead returned home the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, returning to their graves on January 6th.

How is it celebrated in Sweden?

In modern Sweden, most people don’t do anything in particular to celebrate trettondagen, other than perhaps taking down their Christmas decorations (although as mentioned above, many people do this on January 13th instead). It’s a day off for many, and state-run alcohol chain Systembolaget is closed.

In the Swedish Church, trettondagen is a day for raising funds for various charitable campaigns elsewhere in the world, such as this year’s campaign to end child marriage, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence.

The Swedish Church will often hold services on trettondagen or trettondagsafton. If you’re interested, you can find out what services churches in your parish will be holding here. Just type in your address, then look for trettonhelg to see what’s on.

How did Swedes celebrate in the past?

Traditionally in Sweden, the day was marked by boys and young men walking from town to town telling the story of the three wise men. These young men were known as stjärngossar (literally: star boys), a precursor to the stjärngossar you still see at Saint Lucia celebrations in modern Sweden.

This stjärngossetåg (star boy procession) would include the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who represented Europe, Africa and Asia, wearing pointy hats and white shirts, alongside King Herod, who Mary and Joseph were fleeing from (and the reason Jesus was born in a stable), Herod’s servants and a julbock (Christmas goat).

These storytellers would occasionally be given presents or money, and taking part in a stjärngossetåg was often a way for poor boys and men to earn some money, or even be given something alcoholic to drink.

The julbock‘s role was to collect these gifts or money, and it could even have a funnel hanging from its jaw which would lead to a container to collect any snaps gifted to the procession.

This stjärngossetåg still exists in some parts of Sweden, such as on the islands in the Stockholm archipelago.

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