It's a festivity when we do everything in our power to spend time with family and friends.
Christmas is indeed a serious matter in all of Scandinavia. Not serious in the true meaning of the word, but rather it’s considered a time of year when on a mandatory basis you take time off to celebrate with friends and family. Whether due to pagan traditions, the generally dark Scandinavian winters or an urge to socialize during a time when travel inside the countries isn’t always so inviting, it is there, and it is important to make the most of it.
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While children are probably most focused on Santa’s visit, for a majority of adults the food has an integral role. Christmas food has always been especially important to us, and this will not change. Christmas is based on traditions that go back decades and centuries, and each family has developed its own “rituals” for this important holiday period. What we do have in common is that certain ingredients and components appear in virtually every Christmas buffet. This goes back to how we used to make use of everything that was available at Christmas time. This, in combination with modern-day preserving methods, has resulted in a number of traditions.
A Swedish Christmas is a cross between both heathen and Christian traditions. The actual word for Christmas, jul, can be traced back to Old Swedish. During heathen times we celebrated a midwinter sacrifice at about the time of the winter solstice, the day when the sun returned to the northern latitudes.
It wasn’t difficult for the wise and ingenious priests to puzzle together both the heathen and Christian beliefs when Sweden became christianized. By approximately 100 A.D. the Church had already established December 25th to be the date of Jesus birth.
One can also explain why just Christmas ham wound up on the Christmas smorgasbord. The wild boar was probably tamed sometime during the Bronze Ages. Its meat was tender and succulent and soon became the cult animal of the Vikings. Valhalla was the Vikings paradise and where warriors met to hold nightly feasts. Every night they dined on a special boar named Särimner which was roasted over an open pit. Beautiful amazons served mjöd, a beer brewed from honey and hops, to the warriors. Then, abracadabra, each morning lively little Sarimar reappeared in his pen once again, grunting happily and eagerly awaiting a new slaughter for the evening feast.
Dried fish, preferably cod and ling, were the Vikings most important provision during their long journeys at sea. This eventually evolved into lutfisk and wasn’t served more often during times of fasting than it is today. During the Catholic period in Sweden the Christmas fast wasn’t over until Christmas Day. That is why we still dine on lutfisk on Christmas Eve.
Rice pudding is a later tradition. People used to put both coins and small figurines of the Christ Child in the pudding; nowadays we sometimes use an almond instead. The one who gets the almond - and has come of age - will marry during the coming year. In addition, everyone must try to make up a little verse while eating the pudding. No poet laureate has ever emerged thanks to this tradition…but it’s great fun!
The Swedish Christmas actually begins on December 13th with the celebration of Lucia, which combines a tradition from the Western part of Sweden together with an Italian saint. By the time “lusse” rolled around every year, all of the autumn farm chores of slaughtering, brewing, and baking had been completed. Both city dwellers and country residents had time to socialize now, and there was such an abundance of food that everyone - almost - was able to make a glutton of himself.
Our modern Christmas smörgåsbord is very lavish but also features much fruit and greens, thereby making it much more balanced than its predecessor. We pickle two or three different kinds of herring and make homemade liver pate or sausage from family recipes handed down from one generation to the other. Now, however, we don’t devour everything on a single occasion but rather spread out our dining enjoyment throughout the holiday season.
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We have even begun to follow the Anglo-Saxon tradition of dining on turkey on Christmas Day, something unthinkable only 30 years ago. In every Swedish home there exists a special little pot filled with simmering spiced wine just waiting for guests who might pay a visit during the period from Lucia until Tjugondag Knut, that is to say January 13th, the day when Christmas is thrown out. This is literally the case now as this is the date when one usually throws out a Christmas tree that is shedding needles badly and seems to have done its part to enhance the Christmas season.
We exchange Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve. Our Swedish Santa is anglicized and allied to the Catholic Bishop Nicolaus, Santa Claus. In most Swedish families the father suddenly needs to run an errand at about four o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. While he’s away, Santa usually shows up carrying his heavy sack…
Long ago the Christmas smörgåsbords of different provinces distinguished themselves from one another. For example, in Hälsingland one churned much more butter at Christmas and moulded two cones in which a branched candle was placed. There was one branch for each family member. The butter from these cones was never eaten but remained on the table as a symbol of family fortune and was considered to be an extra blessing. In Hälsingland, one also ate a roast of veal seasoned with cloves instead of ham.
By Ulf Barslund Martensson,
staff research and Professor Jan-Öjvind Swahn