Christmas Traditions in Sweden
Most of the customs we nowadays are performing are of a relatively late date. Our traditions change very fast; and the influence from other countries and other culture circles is more and more obvious. We look at television; we have a lot of immigrants etc. Earlier people were stationary, lived in the same area for generations and the traditions were firm.
Today Christmas is a mixture of religion and business, a mixture of old rites coming from the heathen times and Christian rites. We celebrate Christmas for weeks, you can say that it is beginning at Advent Sunday and ending at Canute Day on January 13. There are lots and lots of traditions in the celebrating, and each family has there own customs even if those mostly have the same basic pattern.
The old heathen part of the Christmas celebrations is most clearly visible when you look at the food, the Christmas Smorgasbord, all the dishes made of pork, but the Christmas Eve food in Sweden has some weft of the Advent Lent food in the "lutfisk" and other fish dishes..
The housewives have a hectic time before Christmas to prepare all the tradtional dishes and make all the baking of the coarser bread for the "smorgasbord" and baking for the sumptuous coffee table. There you traditionally can find saffron buns, fruit cakes, Christmas ginger biscuits and a lot of other biscuits and cookies. Every family has their own specialities. But nowadays in many homes you don't prepare such a lot of food and cookies as you did before.
Advent Sunday we light the first candle in the advent candleholder. On December 13 we celebrate Lucia.
Some day before or at Christmas Eve you decorate the Christmas tree.
In many homes you build a landscape of the stable in Bethlehem with the crib and the holy family and shepherds and their animals and angels and the three holy kings.
Christmas Eve is the high point of the celebrating. At that day the Christmas Swedish Smorgasbord is served, even if the restaurants have had it for weeks before. There you can find e.g. herring dishes, a selection of cold pork dishes, meatballs,
julskinka, (which is the Christmas decorated ham), red cabbage, dark bread flavored with wort, thin unleavened bread, cheeses, whey-cheese, and as hot food "lutfisk" (special fish dish) and for dessert rice porridge.
This picture is the crèche from my childhood, now set at my brother's house each Christmas
After eating you assemble around the Crèche and read the Gospel and sing the hymns of old, "Holy Night, Silent Night" and many others, some fairly international but most of them very Swedish.
Gradually the singing becomes more dancing songs and often you begin to dance around the Christmas tree. "Jultomten" is coming with the presents and you read the verses written on the presents and open them, full of expectations.
Christmas Day many people begin by visiting the early service at church, and then they are just relaxing. Boxing Day earlier was the traditional day for great family assemblies. After that there are a few days between, and so the great celebrating of the turn of the year, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day . A few days after, on January 5 it is "trettondagsafton" Twelfth Night and January 6 Epiphany.
Of old the Christmas celebrating was finished on Canutus Day January 13 with playing and round dancing and childrens parties undecorating the Christmas tree. The saying is "On Canutus Day the Christmas tree away" but most people are tired of Christmas long before that day nowadays.
Among the farmers of old the celebrating of Christmas was filled with folklore and symbols of different kind. You did not work at Christmas. Before Christmas you had cleaned the whole house. You had all stores filled with what you needed. You had time for visiting friends and neighbours and for dancing parties and plays and joy. For Christmas you often dressed in the best clothes you had, you ate and drank and was very keen to see that all the animals and all the poor people in the village had enough to eat.
The Early Christmas Service was special among the farmers - they drove there in sleighs and carried torches to light the dark way in the night. And when driving home to far away villages, they had a race -those coming first should have the best luck in his farming the coming year.