Jul, the Swedish Christmas holiday, is celebrated throughout December and traditionally until St. Knut's Day on January 13. The main celebration and the exchange of gifts takes place on Christmas Eve, December 24. The Lucia Day is celebrated during Advent, on December 13.
Christmas in Sweden is a blend of domestic and foreign customs that have been re-interpreted, refined and commercialised on their way from agrarian society to the modern age. Today, most Swedes celebrate Christmas in roughly the same way, and many of the local customs and specialities have disappeared, although each family claims to celebrate it in true fashion in their own particular way.
The origin of the word "Jul" is somewhat unclear. In prehistoric times there was something called "julblot" or "midvinterblot", which was a ceremony held at the time of the winter solstice. The reason for the celebration was just that the days became longer and the nights shorter; it was a worship of this phenomenon in nature. The Æsir interpreted it as a resurgence of nature. The Æsir who was especially hailed at this time was Odin, who commonly went by the name of "Jólner". Already around the year 900, the word Jul can be found in a tribute to Harald Harfager, where someone is said to "Dricka Jul" (Drink Jul).
The celebration of Christmas in the end of December is a very old tradition with many origins. Among these is the Old Norse Christmas celebration - which was prevailing in Scandinavia in the eleventh century - and was celebrated in connection to the mid-winter offering celebration. Moreover, we have the Christian celebration in memory of the birth of Jesus Christ. The earliest records of these celebrations are from year 333. Eight hundred years later this is merged with the Old Norse Christmas celebration.
In the Old Norse sources the pagan celebration of Jul in the Nordic countries is often described as “to drink jul/yule”. The central aspect of the pagan Germanic celebration of midwinter was to eat and drink well. To bake and to produce ale and mead were important preparations for the celebration. On medieval wooden calendars and pre-Christians picture stones, this celebration is still symbolised by a barrel of ale, or a drinking horn. So the emphasis on food and drink traditions is originally pagan trait of the “Christmas” celebration.
The story of the Christmas tree begins in Germany in the sixteenth century. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century the Christmas tree started being dressed with candles. The first Swedish Christmas trees were generally decorated with live candles and treats such as fruit and candy. Apples were often hung on the branches where the candles were located to make them more parallel to the ground. It soon became more common for families to make their own decorations with paper and straw. Some families preferred to build a Ljuskrona decorated with cut paper. From around 1880 and on, commercial Christmas tree decorations were readily available in larger Swedish cities, the finest of which were imported from Germany. The day that people in Sweden buy and dress their Christmas tree varies greatly from family to family, but most have them dressed on the thirteenth of December and throw them out by January thirteenth. Commonly used decorations today include: Baubles, candles, apples, Swedish flags, small gnomes, tasseled caps, and straw ornaments. The house may be filled with red tulips and the smell of "pepparkakor" - a heart-star, or goat-shaped gingerbread biscuits.
The costume and colours of Santa Claus come from St. Nicholas red bishop gown, and the pointy bishop’s hat. The depictions of St.Nicholas/Santa Claus have varied over time. Today’s picture of the fat and jolly Santa Claus in his red costume with the white fur trimmings, black belt and boots, and flying reindeers, is actually made by the Coca Cola Company. The image originated in a commercial campaign Coca Cola started in 1931, made by the Swedish/American illustrator Haddon Sundblom. In the Scandinavian folklore there is a figure often confused with Santa Claus, and therefore has been associated with midwinter and Christmas time. It’s the “nisse/tomte”, a small gnome kind of being, a fairly unpleasant choleric guy with a red pointed cap, watching over the cattle and the farms. If not treated with porridge at Christmas he could instigate bad luck and illness among both people and cattle. He has nothing to do with Santa Claus, he does not give gifts to anybody and he despises children.
Food & Drink
The food you eat at Christmas may still depend on which region you live in the country. But here, too, homogenisation has set in, due in no small part to the uniform offerings of the department stores and the ready availability of convenience foods. Few have time to salt their own hams or stuff their own pork sausages nowadays.
Traditional foods include a julbord which has been prepared with all the classic dishes: Christmas ham, pork sausage, an egg and anchovy mixture (gubbröra), herring salad, pickled herring, home-made liver patty, wort-flavoured rye bread (vörtbröd), potatoes and a special fish dish, lutfisk.
A traditional julbord is typically eaten in three courses. The dishes include local and family specialties. The first course would typically be a variety of fish, particularly pickled herring and lox (gravlax). It is customary to eat particular foods together; herring is typically eaten with boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs and is frequently accompanied by strong spirits like snaps, brännvin or akvavit with or without spices. Other traditional dishes would be (smoked) eel, rollmops, herring salad, baked herring, smoked salmon and crab canapés, accompanied by sauces and dips.
The second course is often a selection of cold sliced meats, the most important cold cut being the Christmas ham (julskinka) with mustard. Other traditional cuts include homemade sausages, leverpastej and several types of brawn. It is also common to serve the cold meats with sliced cheese, pickled cucumbers and soft and crisp breads.
The third course would be warm dishes. Traditionally, the third course begins with soaking bread in the stock from the Christmas ham but this is rarely practised today. Warm dishes include Swedish meatballs (köttbullar), small fried hot dog sausages (prinskorv), roasted pork ribs (revbensspjäll), and warm potato casserole, matchstick potatoes layered with cream, onion and sprats called Janssons frestelse (literally "Jansson's Temptation").
Other dishes are pork sausages (fläskkorv), smoked pork and potato sausages (isterband), cabbage rolls (kåldolmar), baked beans, omelette with shrimps or mushrooms covered with béchamel sauce. Side dishes include beetroot salad in mayonnaise and warm stewed red, green or brown cabbage.
Lutfisk, lyed fish made of stockfish (dried ling or cod served with boiled potato, thick white sauce) and green peas that can be served with the warm dishes or as a separate fourth course. Lutfisk is often served as dinner the second day after the traditional Christmas Yule-table dinner.Julbord desserts include rice pudding (risgrynsgröt), sprinkled with cinnamon powder. Traditionally, an almond is hidden in the bowl of rice porridge and whoever finds it receives a small prize or is recognized for having good luck. Julbord is served from early December until just before Christmas at restaurants and until Epiphany in some homes.
The ham is first boiled, then painted and glazed with a mixture of egg, breadcrumbs and mustard. Lutfisk is dried ling or sathe soaked in water and lye to swell before it is cooked. Beer and the occasional snaps are common beverages to this Christmas meal. Mulled wine glögg, ginger nuts and saffron buns are served throughout December.
- Sweden.se: Lucia and Christmas
- Sweden.se: Christmas
- Firajul.nu: Ordet "Jul"
- Bandoli.no: Where is the Christ in Christmas?
- Sweden - Christmas traditions & customs