Sweden is one of Europe’s most beautiful Scandinavian countries, with a wealth of wonderful food, time honored traditions, and people who are always looking to bring more light and joy into their lives and the world around them. None of this is more true than at Christmas time, when the Swedes pull out all the stops to make the season of light and giving completely magical. Being one of their largest holidays, the Swedish people have developed many beautiful traditions in order to help them celebrate this time of year together, and ensure that the closing of the year is filled with light, happiness, and love.
As you enter into the Christmas season and celebrate your own traditions, take a look at these Swedish ones and see which of them you might like to try and incorporate into your own yuletide celebrations. You may just find some of that Scandinavian Christmas magic within in your own home this season!
Bringing light with the glow of candles
During the winter months, much of Sweden finds itself in deep darkness, where the sun often appears for only a few hours every day. In the north of the country the sun disappears altogether for months at a time. The Swedes have had to find a few clever ways of bringing light back into their lives during this cold, dark season. One of the best and most beautiful ways they do this is through the abundant use of candles. So great are the Swedes’ affections for candles and so heavily do they rely on them, that the word for candle and light are exactly the same, ljus.
The small glow of candles can be found throughout a typical Swedish house during dark winter nights. There are many traditional candle holders, or ljusstake, that the Swedes use to display their candles, which are often carved from wood or fashioned from metal, and painted bright colors. The most well-known of these being the advent ljusstake, which is a triangular shaped holder that holds seven candles along its top. It is placed out to signify the beginning of the advent season, and placed in a window for all to see.
Try and see what a few well placed candles can do for your own home this season. In our modern world where intrusive blue lights stream from our screens, and the artificial glare from electric lights can feel cold, candles can instead bring a sense of warmth with their gentle glow.
Starting the Christmas season sooner with the Queen of Lights
In Sweden, the Christmas season starts much sooner than December 25th. The country ushers in the holiday with the celebration of St. Lucia, whose feast day is on December 13th. Lucia was a 3rd century Italian martyr who delivered food to the poor in catacombs, all while wearing a wreath of candle light on her head. Of course, with the Swedish people’s love of all things having to do with light they were quick to adopt the saint and her feast day as their own.
Traditionally, Lucia is celebrated when the eldest girl within a village dresses up in a white robe, places a wreath of candles upon her head, and goes door to door delivering to all her neighbors traditional Lucia rolls, or lussebullar. She is followed by a small procession of younger boys and girls, including her maidens (also dressed in white), and her star boys, who walk around with what look like dunce caps on their heads and holding wooden sticks with paper stars attached to them. They do this all while singing the traditional songs of Lucia.
Even if you don’t opt into putting a wreath of flames on your head and disturbing your neighbors with pastries, it can still be worth it to begin your holiday season a little early. Not only does it makes the season last longer, but it also helps to put you and your family in the Christmas mood during a time when the season can be overshadowed by the stress of holiday shopping and planning.
Christmas doesn’t end at Christmas
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sweden also celebrates the holiday for a much longer period of time. The season for them doesn’t end until the holiday of Epiphany on January 6th. The day is in honor of when the wise men came to visit and bestow gifts to the Christ child. It is a traditional Christmas holiday that has been mostly lost in the non-Europe west. This date also marks the 13th day after Christmas Eve, and is know as trettondedag jul, the “13th day of Jul.”
Along with trettondedag jul is the day of tjugondag jul, “20th day of Jul.” This day is the very tail end of the Christmas holiday, and is the day when the Christmas tree is taken down and thrown out. And with the tree gone Christmas is officially over in Sweden.
The specifics of the dates aren’t as important as the fact that the joy and holiday spirit of Christmas time is extended for much longer than just the 25th. You don’t have to celebrate the religious aspects of Epiphany, or keep your tree up far past its due date in order to incorporate this tradition of pushing the Christmas season farther.
Eating the finest foods with the Julbord
Around Christmas time you’ll find the Swedish people indulging in non-stop holiday feasting. They throw together an entire spread of traditional holiday foods such as meatballs with lingonberry jam, smoked salmon, pickled herring, and, of course, the traditional mulled wine they call glögg. These feasts are called Julbord, which literally translates to “Christmas table.” These Julbords aren’t just for Christmas day either. You’ll find these celebrated meals pop up at work parties, community centers, department stores, and even as picnics after a day of skiing or snowshoeing. And yes, this same holiday meal will be served again on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, and sometimes well into the rest of the holiday season.
Many Swedes can become fed up with eating the same food again and again after being invited to countless Julbord parties throughout the season. However, beginning the feasting early and often is no doubt an excellent way to get into the Christmas spirit. Inviting friends, family, and co-workers to celebrate the holidays with delicious food is a great way to foster community and connection in a season that can often get lost in commercialism and stress.
Sweden is at its best during Christmas. From the glow of candles in every house, to the celebration of light and giving during Lucia; it is clear that the Swedes have learned how to make the most of the holiday season. They understand the importance of getting into the spirit of the holiday by celebrating the magic of the season far beyond just the two days of Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
The Swedes also emphasize the importance and power of community and family by engaging in the never ending feasting of the julbord. No matter what your own holiday traditions are, it might just be worth it to embrace and add in some of these Swedish Christmas traditions into your own home, so that the light, warmth, and joy of the Swedish people may be found in your own home this holiday season.