Christmas Traditions in Sweden
The Christmas season in Sweden begins on December 13, referred to as Lucia Day, the first day of the Christmas Advent. At one time Lucia, the Queen of Light, was a part played by the eldest daughter who would dress in a white dress with red sash and wear a crown of candles. She would bring her family coffee and pastries while singing “Santa Lucia,” a popular Italian song at dawn as they wake. She represents a Christian martyr who would bring food to persecuted Christians before being put to death in 304 AD. Legend has it that she would wear the candles on her head for light to keep her hands free to carry food. A boy, or boys wearing a pointed star hat and carrying a pointed star wand often follow her.
The highlight of the festivities takes place on Julafton, or Christmas Eve. Families gather for the Christmas buffet, and presents are exchanged. Good little children are visited by one of Santa’s elves, Jultomten, with a straw goat, Julbock, and they bring them gifts as they sleep. The holiday traditionally lasts until January 13, when the Christmas tree comes down. This is because King Knut, who ruled Sweden from 1080-1086 decreed that Christmas would last 20 days.
The tradition of an Advent wreath in Sweden dates to the 1920’s when the custom was brought from Germany. One takes a traditional candleholder that will hold four candles and decorate it with paper-mache mushrooms or red berries and white lichen. Each Sunday thereafter, the first candle is lit along with the next candle until Christmas. Advent calendars are also very popular, with 24 windows or 24 stickers or pieces of gum or candy for each of the days counting down from December 1 until Christmas Day. Many children in Sweden find their Advent windows contain a serialized story they can follow sponsored by Swedish Television.
Christmas decorations in Sweden have been simple and somewhat rural until a short time ago. White lights are still favored over colored lights, and this is attributed to the fact that Swedes decorate so much with candles over the Christmas season. The tree is the center of Swedish Christmas decorating, and it is erected the day before Christmas Eve. It is decorated with Swedish flags, hand-made ornaments collected through the years, and lights. In olden times, farmers crafted ornaments from straw and placed them outside for birds. Today, it is more likely that one would purchase such ornaments from a store.
As with many holidays, food is an important part of the celebration in Sweden. The biggest meal of the holiday season is served on Christmas Eve, and it is referred to as the Julbord, or Christmas buffet. This is usually served smorgasbord style with one table heaped with plates and bowls of traditional Swedish food and pastries and drinks. Family and guests fill their plates up as many times as they like throughout the evening. Traditional Swedish foods include pickled herring, Swedish meatballs, a potato gratin dish called “Jansson’s Temptation,” baked vegetables, Swedish cabbage, and Swedish baked apples with almond filling. Families eat many times throughout the month-long Christmas season.
St. Stephen’s Day began a very long time ago in England and is celebrated on December 26. Servants were required to work on Christmas Day for their wealthy masters and mistresses, so they were given the day after Christmas off to spend with their families. They were usually given boxes of gifts and/or bonuses to take with them as gifts for their families for the holiday. Therefore, the holiday is also commonly referred to as “Boxing Day.” Even today this day is celebrated, even though people no longer have servants in their households. Usually this day is spent shopping for after-Christmas sale items or spent recovering from the Christmas feasting and entertaining.