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How to do a really Swedish Christmas

Christmas is very special to Swedes plain and simply because a Swedish Christmas is very special. Many people who do not have any Swedish roots have also adopted some of the picturesque customs that have been globalized by IKEA, Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” and Swedish generally by Christmas enthusiasts spread around the world.
The real enjoyment of a Swedish Christmas is in the preparations. The “getting there” should be just as joyful as the real thing. This is important because many an ambitious housewife is too exhausted to enjoy the actual festivities.

The Christmas stress is fuelled by “countdowns” in the form of the Advent Candles and the Advents Calendar that provide for a reminder that Christmas is fast approaching.

The advent candle custom came to Sweden from Germany as late as in the 1920s. Any holder for four candles will do, and you can fill it with moss and small toadstools. You can also improvise with four separate candlesticks. Light one candle on the First of Advent, the first Sunday in December or at times the last Sunday in November. Let it burn down a little and then light it again on the second Advent together with the second candle and so on.
In Sweden you can also buy tall candles with 24 pre-printed dates. You can make your own with a marker pen.

The first widespread advents calendars evolved from the 24 gingerbread cookies with numbers made of melted sugar that Gerhard Lang got from his mother. When he grew up and became a printer, he adapted the idea to make decorative printed advents calendars in 1903. Today most children in Sweden get a Swedish Television calendar that is based on a serialized story that they can follow as they open each window.

In North America you can buy the chocolate calendars that are popular in Sweden too. Many families make special advents calendars of their own with a small gift or a message for each day. You can hang 24 small dated packages with everything from chewing gum or stickers against a colourful backdrop or make a little chest with 24 drawers out of small matchboxes.

General Christmas preparations can be divided into three categories - decorations, gifts, and food and entertaining. And tucked somewhere in there is the compulsory thorough cleaning of the house including changing curtains and draperies.

Colourful Christmas lights are quite a late development in Sweden where white lights still dominate as an outdoors Christmas decoration. The origin of this may well be the advent Christmas tree that the Swedish church introduced around the same time as the Christmas tree was introduced in Sweden in the late 19th century. Each advent the church lit seven candles in the advent tree so that in the end there were 28 burning candles in the pine or juniper tree. Between Sundays the tree was placed outdoors in the snow without any decoration other than the candles and this is probably the inspiration for the way Swedes do their decorating outdoors.

Door decorations are a relatively young feature in Sweden where it has traditionally been customary to decorate windows with candles, hyacinths and home-made decorations. In the 1940s the founder of H&M, Erling Persson made a small fortune getting Swedes to hang an electrically lit paper star lantern in their windows. Nowadays the most popular window decoration is an electric 7-candle candelabra that you can buy at Swedish gift stores or at Ikea.

As for the centerpiece of Christmas decorations, the tree, most families in Sweden wait until the day before Christmas Eve to bring in the tree and decorate it with Swedish flags on ribbons, lights and hand-made trinkets collected through the years. Candles are still used and many homes keep to a theme like all red trinkets or angels of all kinds.

The Christmas tree is not thrown out before the Twentieth Day Knut, that falls on January 13. And of course this has to be done with a bit of pomp and ceremony. It is fun to throw a party on this day and dance around the Christmas tree for the last time before “plundering” it and throwing it out through the window.

In the olden days farmers spent the dark autumn evenings working with straw. Fewer and fewer people make billy-goats and other ornaments from straw themselves these days. Even the straw is in short supply so it may even be hard to get hold of the traditional sheath of hay to place outside the home for the birds.

Luckily you can get “Swedish” Christmas straw ornaments that are imported from Asia in gift stores and at Ikea and pet stores have many alternatives to sheafs to feed the birds.
Nevertheless it is great fun and very gratifying to make some decorations as well as small gifts by yourself. Reserve an evening for do-it-yourself “pyssel” . You can make heart baskets out of brightly coloured paper, cardboard angels or crackers made of brightly coloured tissue paper. Use scraps for other decorations and for personalizing Christmas cards. In Sweden 80 percent of households send an average of 20 Christmas cards each and it is always the personal touch that counts.

Christmas in Sweden is all about lighting a cozy fire and having as many candles as you can squeeze in. If you are entertaining it is also nice to have candles outside the door or if there is snow you can make “snölyktor” like snow caves made of snowballs with a candle inside.

In rural Sweden of the past, special candles were made for each family member at Christmas. The performance of each candle was given much importance because it foretold all kinds of thing. Candle-making has long been a favourite pursuit but this is quite a fussy business. You can take a short-cut by recycling old stumps. Make a small hole in the middle of the bottom of an old soup can and stick a thick wick through it and tie a knot at that end. Straighten the wick out and tie a pin to the other end on top of the can. Melt candle stumps in a double boiler and pour in about two centimeters of the wax into the can at a time. Let cool and continue the process making sure you don’t get any air bubbles in the wax. When the wax has solidified, open the bottom of the can with a can opener and slide the candle out.

Candles make nice personal gifts. If you are not a good knitter or seamstress or terribly handy with wood, you can put in a little personal touch into bought gifts with a poem or a personal wrapping with sealing wax.

In Sweden you go to the local “julmarknad” to get the traditional ornaments and to get into the Christmas spirit. In Stockholm you don’t want to miss the market at Skansen or at Stortorget in the Old Town. In North America Swedish and Nordic organizations set up Christmas fairs where you can get traditional handicraft.

Hospitality flourishes during this season. In the old days a visitor to a house was not allowed to leave without eating or drinking something “otherwise the Christmas spirit would leave the house.” A glögg party is one of the nicest ways to start off the Christmas season. There are lots of different recipes for this mulled wine. You can be creative but the spices - cinnamon, cloves and cardamom - are essential. You can also buy the ready-made stuff at Ikea and mix it with wine or even keep it non-alcoholic. Serve the glögg with almonds and raisins in small glasses with spoons. All you really need as an accompaniment are ginger snaps. These days however glögg parties have become elaborate affairs where you get a pre-taste of the Christmas buffet.

Many people have their glögg party on December 13, Lucia Day. This day starts early in the morning with a female member of the family clad in white with a bright red sash, and wearing a crown with lit candles serving coffee and Lucia buns to the members of the household. You can use a nightgown if you don’t have a white gown and it may be advisable to get the battery-operated plastic Lucia crown instead of using real candles. The very first documented Lucia in Sweden actually wore angel wings and had the candles on the tray so this the only really Swedish Christmas tradition is open for interpretation. The Lucia rite is repeated throughout the day in various forms in schools, offices and at organized events everywhere.

One of the last nights before Christmas must be devoted to baking and the making of candy. Saffron buns and gingerbread figures are the classics but most families also make various kinds of cookies. Seven types - sju sorters kakor - was the prescribed number in the olden days.

For candy you can make figurines out of marzipan and dip them in chocolate or embark on the other two classics - knäck and ice chocolate that are somewhat more time-consuming. Other favourites are Pink Caramels, Mint Kisses and Brandy Balls.

On a more ambitious level you can make a gingerbread house from scratch or get an assembly-ready one at Ikea and concentrate on the decoration and with the help of cotton for snow and a mirror for a frozen pond create a winter wonderland filled with santas and other figures. This is in essence the non-religious version of the manger.

The Julbord - the Christmas buffet - requires quite a big of pre-preparation.. Much of the food eaten on Christmas Eve has to be prepared ahead which is practical because it makes for a more relaxed day. Nowadays you can take quite a few shortcuts and you can pick and choose the items you want to concentrate on. December 9 is the day when you have to think about lutfisk if you are preparing it from scratch. These days most people buy it ready made which is also true for the ham that you buy cured and bake and dress. If you are ambitious you can make your own sausage and flavour vodka to make your very personal schnapps - aquavit.

The best thing about a Swedish Christmas is that Santa often comes in person to deliver the gifts. In Sweden you can rent a Santa (for about SEK 400) but in North America you have to be creative. Normally the tomte comes in the evening of Christmas Eve and asks if there are any nice children there before he plunks down his sack and distributes gifts. To make the wait for tomte even shorter many families have introduced a “little santa” who comes in during the night and fills stockings with gifts to occupy children with until the big tomte comes.

Before he makes an appearance, it is time to enjoy the Julbord with the compulsory ham, herring, gravlax, herring and beat salad, meatballs, Jansson’s temptation, sausages, ribs, paté, veal brawn, red cabbage and “dip in the pot” all downed with mumma and aquavit and rounded off with rice porridge with its hidden almond.

In Sweden all Christmas Eve activities stop at 3 in the afternoon when the Donald Duck Special comes on television and everybody, absolutely everybody sits down to watch this hour-long programme that has become as much a part of Christmas celebrations as the ham and the tomte.

Some time during this special day there has to be dancing around the Christmas tree and music in some form or another.

Christmas day, December 25, is a quiet day for Swedes. It starts off with a church service in the wee hours of the morning. Julotta services are held in many places in North America.

© Swedish Press from December 2003 issue