There’s no better time than Christmas time to get your feet wet when it comes to trying out Scandinavian traditions. Just like in America, Scandinavian Christmas celebrations have become more secular events during recent decades, opening up this festive time of year for everyone to enjoy, regardless of faith, nationality, or background. Leave it to the Scandinavians to know best how to brighten the darkest time of the year – after all, they’re pros!
You’ve got the Fritz Hansen chairs, you’ve got your Iittala glass and you have polished your Georg Jensen silverware – now how about making some Swedish meatballs to go with your posh Scandinavian interior? Or what about filling that Orrefors decanter with some spicy, homemade glögg (mulled wine)? There’s no better time than Christmas time to get your feet wet when it comes to trying out Scandinavian traditions. Just like in America, Scandinavian Christmas celebrations have become more secular events during recent decades, opening up this festive time of year for everyone to enjoy, regardless of faith, nationality, or background. Leave it to the Scandinavians to know best how to brighten the darkest time of the year – after all, they’re pros! A glass of glögg with raisins and almonds will keep you warm and cozy, as will a lussekatt (a saffron bun) dipped in strong coffee on Christmas morning. Whether you want to celebrate a full-scale Scandinavian Christmas with all its traditional trimmings, or just add a Scandinavian element to your own holiday, Nordic Reach provides you with a guide that covers everything from where to find a pan for your æbleskiver and explaining the difference between julmust and mumma to why Scandinavians soak their fish in lye and where to buy a cool Scandinavian gift for under $20. And find out why on earth Scandinavian girls get decked out in white and wear bizarre crowns of lit candles.
In the beginning there was Yule
Would it come as a surprise to you that the Scandinavian Christmas celebrations are rooted in the paganism of the Old Norse? Probably not! Even though Christmas in the Nordic countries is by its very nature a Christian holiday, many traditions are positively heathen. Let’s begin by taking a look at the words for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages: jul in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, jól in Icelandic and joulu in Finnish all correspond with the English word Yule, an archaic term for Christmas originally applied to a heathen festival lasting twelve days around the winter solstice. During the heydays of the Vikings, a midwinterblót was celebrated on the year’s shortest, darkest day in recognition of the return of the sun. Exactly how these celebrations took form nobody knows, but large logs (the origins of today’s yule logs) were set on fire to honor the god of thunder, Thor, and everyone would feast until the logs burned out. These celebrations were also most certainly bloody affairs with sacrifices of animals and even humans. The ritual of slaughtering a wild boar, for example, lives on in the Finnish and Swedish traditions of having ham on the Christmas table – something quite unthinkable in many other countries.
But what does Yule mean exactly? Well, one theory connects the word to the Old Norse word for wheel, hjól, indicating the wheel of the year coming to a close, but many linguists doubt that explanation. One thing is sure, however, and that is that around the year 900 the term to drikke jul (drink yule) is mentioned in an ode to the first Norwegian king, Harald Fairhair. What Harald and his companions drank was probably mead or beer, the drink of choice in those days. For many Scandinavians today, a Christmas table is still not complete without juleøl or julöl (Christmas beer).
And what’s up with that julbock, the ever-present straw goat that adorns so many homes in Scandinavia during the holidays. Its origins might be connected to the god, Thor, who rode across the heavens in a goat-drawn carriage. Initially the julbock was quite a character, turning tricks on people, and it became a custom for Scandinavian village men to dress up as a julbock and pull pranks. Later on it softened and went on gift-giving missions, not unlike Santa himself. The Finnish word for Santa Claus, Joulupukki, literally means Yule Goat. Today the yule goat is really just a straw goat figurine, traditionally made from the last grain of the harvest, bound in red ribbons and kept as a token of hope for the New Year. Apropos Santa and gods, have you ever seen old depictions of that other Norse god, Odin, on his eight-legged horse Sleipner? Galloping at full force with his long blond beard flying, he bears an uncanny similarity to today’s Santa Claus behind the reindeer.
Lucia and Advent
When Christianity made its entrance into the Scandinavian countries (around the 10th century), the pagan Yule celebrations were gradually blended with the new Christian beliefs. In Scandinavia today, particularly in Sweden, Sankta Lucia (Saint Lucy’s Day) on December 13, is the official Christmas kick-off. According to legend, Lucia was a Sicilian girl who died a martyr in 304. A Christian person who gave food to the poor, Lucia had vowed her life to Christ and refused marriage with a pagan, she was killed for her faith. How and why she came to be celebrated in Sweden is debatable, but Swedish Lucia festivities are mentioned as early as 1764. Wearing a long white gown (symbolizing innocence), a red sash (the symbol of her martyr death), a crown of candles (symbols of her name, which stems from the Latin word for light, lux, and the fact that she was a carrier of light), the Lucia celebrations of today have all the trapping of a beauty pageant: A national Lucia is chosen, and every school chooses its own Lucia. Carrying a tray with coffee, lussebullar (saffron buns) and pepparkakor (ginger snaps), Lucia is followed by a procession of tärnor (maidens) carrying candles, tomtar (brownie elves) and stjärngossar (boys carrying stars), as she visits offices, classrooms, day care centers, and nursing homes. The procession, like a train which sings as it makes its way in the dark, early morning, is a beautiful sight – something all Nobel Prize winners can attest to, as the Lucia procession in Stockholm is a popular component in the Nobel festivities.
As important as Lucia is the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. The four Sundays of Advent are celebrated with four candles, one to be lit each Sunday. Advent candles are lit in homes and in schools throughout Scandinavia, and Advent candlesticks are sometimes decorated with lingonberry sprigs. Advent is a big deal in Scandinavia; apart from the candles there are Advent calendars for children to help them count down to Christmas. These calendars are 3-dimensional with twenty-four windows, one of which is opened every day from December 1 to December 24. Behind each window is a picture, a clue, or – if you’re lucky to have a chocolate calendar – a sweet. There’s also the popular televised Julekalender directed at children, which also helps count down to Christmas.
Scandinavian homes are decorated with an array of Advent paraphernalia. One example is the Advent star, an electrically lit star made of paper, metal, or wood, which is hung in a window.
The Scandinavian julenisse
Unlike Santa Claus in America, the Scandinavian nisse (nisse in Danish and Norwegian, tonttu in Finnish and tomte in Swedish) is a pint-sized gnome-like creature with roots in Scandinavian folklore. An older bearded man in simple farmer’s clothes, the nisse lived on the farm and was both mischievous and helpful, a spirited little fellow who expected his bowl of porridge topped with a pat of butter on Christmas night. Many people, especially old folks, still put out a bowl of porridge for nisse.
The name nisse also alludes to Nicholas, as in Saint Nicholas, of course, and sometime in the 1840’s the Danish nisse turned into a julenisse (Christmas nisse), who brought the Christmas presents to the families. That tradition followed suit in the other Scandinavian countries. Over the years, julenisse has grown taller, and today, even though his name is still jultomte, julnisse or tonttu, he has lost much of his own original identity to Santa Claus. Julenisse, however, doesn’t enter the house through the chimney but through the front door on the eve of December 24th.
Instead of nisse, Iceland has thirteen Christmas lads, or jólasveinar, and they date back to the 17th century. The sons of two trolls, Gryla and Leppaludi, the jólasveinar were frightening creatures. In early stories they would arrive thirteen days prior to Christmas, one by one, and do their utmost to upset the Christmas preparations. In fact, stories about this troll family were so horrible that the Danes, who in those days governed Iceland, issued a law in 1746 to put a stop to the frightening of children with them. But today the jólasveinar have grown much milder and children happily put out their shoes on their windowsills to have them be filled by gifts from the Christmas lads.
A walk down Laugarvegur – Christmas in Iceland
“On the night of the 23rd everyone walks down Laugarvegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik,” says Bergthora Laxdal, Secretary at Iceland’s Consulate General in New York. “Either to do their last minute shopping or just to breathe in the feeling of Christmas and to see and be seen.”
If you’re nowhere near Laugarvegur, however, you can still recreate a bit of Icelandic holiday feel in your home.
“Mix one part malt soda with one part orange soda, and you have a very traditional Christmas drink. We drink it with basically everything,” Laxdal says.
And in the country that brought us the amazing Sagas, there cannot be holidays without books.
“Christmas is the time for reading,” finishes Laxdal. “Everyone needs a book under the tree to enjoy on the lazy days of Christmas.”
Plait hearts and ris à la mande – Christmas in Denmark
In Denmark, the day of the 24th is spent with family, and most Danes go to church in the afternoon before they eat a large Christmas dinner in the evening.
“After the dinner, the family gathers around the decorated tree, sings Christmas carols and psalms, and dances around the tree,” says Mark A. Herron at the Royal Danish Embassy in Washington. “Often a family member will sneak out during the dancing and singing and return disguised as Santa Claus bearing Christmas presents for the whole family.”
And of course there’s an abundance of food. Most Danes serve either duck or goose as the main dish, with roast pork as a substitute or supplement to the main course. The adventurous might want to try the more exotic recipes mentioned here, or why not just add a side dish of “sugar potatoes” (regular potatoes rolled in melted sugar before being served) to the table.
“The dessert is most often ris a la mande with warm cherry sauce on top. A single almond is hidden in the bowls, and the person who finds it, receives a present,” Harron continues.
A Danish tree, he explains, is often decorated with woven hearts, real candles and candy holders shaped like cones.
Finding the perfect tree - Christmas in Finland
“The great hero of Finnish Christmas is Joulupukki, the real Santa who comes from Finland and lives in Korvatunturi,” says Magdalena Herrgård, Media Relations Coordinator at the Consulate General of Finland in New York. “Finnish Christmas celebrations differ whether you live in the city or countryside. On our family farm there’s a custom that we all go to the forest to find the perfect Christmas tree. It’s a long process with a lot of different opinions!”
A traditional Finnish Christmas meal, Herrgård explains, consists of delicacies such as herring, rosolli (root vegetable salad), vegetable casseroles and Christmas ham with a dessert of cold, pureed plum.
“One of the most beautiful traditions in Finland,” she continues, “is to visit the graveyard on Christmas Eve. Relatives remember their deceased loved ones by placing candles on their graves. Seas of burning candles look beautiful against the white snow and light the dark sky. But I remember always being extremely cold during those trips.”
Pinnekjøtt and marzipan pigs – Christmas in Norway
Christmas in Norway wouldn’t be complete without Advent candles, a Christmas calendar, aquavit (a flavored distilled liquor), marzipan pigs, pinnekjøtt and kålrabistappe (dried, salted lamb with mashed turnips).
“These are some of the most important items for a Norwegian Christmas,” says the Consul General’s Assistant Tove Bucknavage, at the Consulate General of Norway in New York.
“And then there’s the gingerbread house, singing carols around the tree and just spending time with family,” she adds.
Another popular Christmas tradition is to listen to or read the story “The Night Carpenter Andersen Bumped into Santa Claus” written by Alf Prøysen in 1971. This classic story has been shown on Norwegian TV and played in many local theaters across the country.
Dopp i grytan – Christmas in Sweden
“Sweden had a state church from the year 1500 to 2000, and thus Christmas is steeped in the Lutheran traditions,” says Ia Dübois, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. “Advent is an important event with the lighting of the four Advent candles each Sunday. Christmas decorations are taken out on the first of Advent and include adventstjärna, a large electrically lit star made of wood, metal, or paper and is placed in the window, little elves, gingerbread houses, tomtar, and julbockar.”
The main meal, explains Dübois, is served on Christmas Eve and consists of a smorgasbord of meatballs, ribs, cold cuts, lutfisk, different kinds of herring and cabbage, and centers around the Christmas ham. And then there’s the dopp i grytan (dipping in the kettle) tradition, when you dip bits of bread in the broth leftover after boiling the ham. For dessert there’s risgrynsgröt (rice porridge) with a hidden almond.
“The one who gets it will have a prosperous year ahead,” Dübois says.
Text: Eva Stenskär
Photography: Pär Domeij