According to Skolverket (the Swedish National Agency for Education), there are to be no religious elements in the Christmas celebrations that take place in schools. This has led to protests: Swedes want their old, Swedish Christmas traditions respected and kept alive.
But is there such a thing as a Swedish Christmas? Theologian Viktor Aldrin at Göteborg University says, “Christmas can change and change a lot, too.”
In order to understand the truth in this statement, go back a few generations and look at what Christmas in Sweden was like then. All of Advent (an important time for Swedes) meant restraint and fasting—no ham, or any meat. The Christmas tree (which might as well have been a pine tree) was something that scared away evil spirits and was usually put in the dunghill outside the house. When the tradition changed and the tree was brought inside, it was usually hung up in the ceiling. And forget Santa, it was “julbocken” the Christmas goat who brought the presents. At this time “tomten” was someone who guarded the farm and had to be bribed or he’d be nasty. The Austrian folk song “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”) had not yet reached the Swedish shores, and Swedes hadn't yet heard of glögg. Neither the Advent star nor Christmas card had been invented, and exile awaited those who wanted to leave the Lutheran faith.

You see? The traditions we are desperate to keep aren’t necessarily old or particularly Swedish. Says Kurt Genrup, professor emeritus in Ethnology at Umeå University: “This ever-changing Christmas, we don’t want that. We want traditions. We want to gather our families and have a good time. But we must remember that the way we celebrate Christmas today is a fairly new thing.” He adds that modern man needs the stability of traditions in a world that’s continuously changing as well.

Skolverket’s director general Anna Ekström and head of the Board of Education, Claes-Göran Aggebo wrote a guide for confused headmasters who need to know what they may and may not do. And who is not confused? It’s OK for Swedish schools to have a gathering in a church during Advent, but no religious elements may be included in the ceremonies. The school law, new since July 1, 2011, states clearly that the Swedish school is non-denominational, and therefore should not profess any religious beliefs. Still, the law met a great deal of opposition from politicians as well as writers and bloggers in newspapers’ comment fields as well as social media. Social Minister Göran Hägglund (Christian Democrats) is one who’s critical: “There’s no reason to protect our children from our traditions and our cultural heritage,” he said. Some say the schools aren’t allowed to keep their traditions because these may offend immigrant students or students with other religions. But most complaints of religious elements in the celebrations in school actually come from ethnic Swedes who are non-believers.
Aldrin says, “Christmas is a super tradition. And a great tradition must be able to go through changes with time. It ought to change with new people, new needs. It will stand even though you remove what doesn’t work. Christmas can change a lot.” Not even three in 10 Swedes consider themselves religious, and Aldrin says most Swedes celebrate a very un-Christian Christmas. “It’s a cozy, fun holiday. It’s not the most important Christian holiday—that’s Easter.”

So celebrate Christmas and a Swedish Christmas as much as you want, but remember this: The Christmas tree and ginger snap cookies (“pepparkakor”) come from Germany, “Jultomten” is a Turkish immigrant, Christmas cards are originally from England, and “Stilla natt” was written by a Catholic priest from Austria.

Be all of it as it may, there's no Christmas like a Swedish Christmas!

More Christmas Trivia for the Inquiring Mind and Just in case you were looking for a quick way to set up your own Swedish Christmas or the perfect Christmas present, see our book, 'God Jul - Recipes for a Swedish Christmas' /Ed.