“‘Tis the season to be merry! and it is surely the Scandinavians who know best how to do just that!”
‘Tis the season to be merry! and it is surely the Scandinavians who know best how to do just that! Whether it be Jul (Danish, Norwegian or Swedish), or Yule – a word with ancient Germanic roots thought to have been brought to England during the 5th and 6th centuries by the invading Anglo-Saxons – Yuletide is considered by many to be the most important holiday in the year.
Throughout December there are many parties and events during which we enjoy the company of family and friends, as well as the wonderful sights, sounds and flavours that the Swedish festive season has to offer. Many traditions are steeped in ancient pagan ritual, but that doesn’t detract from the joyful spirit still enjoyed by thousands of Swedes and tourists today.
Stockholm is now alive with an exuberant Christmas spirit; those living further afield flock into the city to do their Christmas shopping, and tourists from elsewhere in Europe come to savour the famous Christmas markets. Here one can taste and buy many delicious treats: smoked and cured meats including pork, wild boar, reindeer, elk, lamb and beef, and various home-made jams: hjortron sylt (cloudberry jam), lingon berry, gooseberry, strawberry, blueberry and raspberry.
There are also the traditional bakes: peperkakor (crisp, heart-shaped spicy biscuits, delicious with coffee or served with blue cheese), and the decorative peperkakshus (gingerbread houses) embellished with white glacé icing and brightly-coloured sweets. Other stalls sell soft gingerbread hearts hung with red ribbon and decorated with coloured icing, doughnuts and hot chocolate.
There are also home-knitted goods – gloves, mittens, scarves and beanies, and leather and fur goods, including Russian “bear” hats (with furry ear-flaps), muffs and pretty fur-edged wraps, and gloriously soft grey-and-white reindeer pelts. There are beautiful hand-made Christmas decorations, wreaths, ornaments, oranges pierced with cloves, sweet-meats and scented soaps.
Braziers placed at strategic points to warm cold hands give off an acrid scent of burning pine, mingling with the spicy aroma of heart-warming glögg (hot spicy mulled wine) laced with almonds and raisins, marzipan, gingerbread, and hand-made chocolates.
Small choral groups and musicians entertain the visitors with traditional Swedish folk songs and carols.
Christmas market in Kungsträdgården
Christmas market in Gamla Stan (the Old Town)
The most popular Christmas markets are set up in Kungsträdgården (The King’s Garden), Gamla Stan (the Old Town), and Skansen – Stockholm’s famous theme park and zoo, which harbours various Nordic animals.
Sometimes there is no snow until after Christmas, other years there is snow in abundance, creating a magical vision of snow-capped turrets, spires and rooftops.
The “Operan” ‐ Royal Opera House The Nordiska Museet (Museum)
Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde (villa and art gallery) St. Peter & St. Sigfrid
Lake Mäleren, in which the city’s archipelago of islands lie, is frozen into mirror-smooth ice or blanketed with snow, and the parks and squares feature Christmas-card-pretty, snow-clad fir trees.
Our friend Paul on the frozen Lake Snow‐clad fir trees
The avenues in the city are festooned with twinkling lights and decorations,
Kungsgatan Sergelstorg with glass obelisk
and the air is redolent with the fragrant aromas of freshly baked saffron and hazelnut cakes, and brända mandlar (roasted caramelized almonds.)
Candy‐floss, sweets and gingerbread hearts Hot caramelised almonds
Market stalls in the city squares, which sell vegetables and fruits from all corners of the globe during summer, now sell Christmas trees (granar), mistletoe, and wreaths created from fir boughs, sprigs of holly, red ribbon and glass balls, and other fancies.
Christmas wreaths and trees for sale Christmas tree wrapping machine (with netting)
The light begins receding rapidly from September onwards, and by December we have but six or so hours of weak daylight; sunrise occurs at about nine in the morning, and by three in the afternoon it is already dark. But glorious sunsets on partly cloudy days, and abundant bright city lighting, keep at bay the winter darkness and gloom.
Early evening sunset in Järfälla Balconies decorated with lights
The lighting of candles from late autumn until early spring is a delightful, heart-warming Scandinavian custom which renders every home, restaurant or café, cosy and inviting. Apart from the usual decorated fir trees, “pyramid” lights are traditionally displayed in the windows, and large trees are festooned with twinkling fairy lights. Here in Stockholm I have seen the European picture books of my childhood, and traditional Christmas cards featuring snow-clad landscapes, come alive. In the apartment blocks, residents hang stars in the windows and string twinkling coloured lights along their balconies.
Skating in the city parks is a popular outdoor activity, to the accompaniment of piped Christmas carols and rousting jolly melodies. Kungsträdgården – a central city park with an outdoor ice-rink and stall for skates to hire – though small, is the most popular. Church bells ring out to add to the joyous atmosphere, and street musicians entertain the crowds with accordions, guitars or pipes.
Skating in Kungsträdgården (The King’s Garden)
A delightful activity in December is to attend a Lunch Concert at the Operan (Royal Opera House), an hour-long event held in the “Gustav III” cellar, warmly illuminated by candle-light. (Gustav III was the Swedish King assassinated in the foyer of the opera house in 1792 while attending a masked ball. This dramatic story became the subject of Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera – 1858-9.)
During the first half hour each guest receives a salad bowl with salmon, cheese or ham, served with bread, crisp breads and butter, coffee/tea, and a glass of wine or mineral water. This is then followed by half an hour of music: songs, chamber music or a solo recital. During the festive season Christmas items are sung by artists from the Operan, accompanied by a few instrumentalists and a piano. An ingenious method, indeed to generate income for the company, as well as to provide a solo platform for singers usually relegated to the chorus. Artscape take note!
Lunch Hour Concert in the Gustav III Cellar
The musical season is also at its peak during the winter months, with marvellous performances in the concert halls and Operan – both opera and ballet, the latter including the seasonal favourites, Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
In December the stores spare no expense in decorating their interiors and windows. The most famous of these, “NK” (Nordiska Kompaniet) is the largest, most illustrious department store in Stockholm. It houses a number of restaurants and cafés, and this year the grand foyer, hung with the usual massive Christmas bell, features several small Christmas market stalls selling Belgian and Swedish chocolates, and traditional Swedish gifts.
Every year in late November, the NK windows are covered with brown paper, piquing the curiosity of the public, and generating much excited anticipation. At last, with much ceremony, the windows are unveiled, and one is hard-pressed to get a good view of each, so crowded is the side-walk outside with eager, camera-clicking throngs.
Santa is always there to receive children (and adult visitors), as well as written requests for Christmas presents.
Posting a request letter to Santa Claus Entering into the Christmas spirit!
Åhléns is the other significant, centrally-situated, department store, and this year, not to be out- done by NK, made an extra effort with both their interior decoration and their window dressing.
Åhléns Christmas window dressing
On the First Sunday of Advent, the first of the four Advent candles is lit and the requisite hymns sung, heralding the Christmas season and reminding us of the reason for all this celebration. A large illuminated star is hung in household and shop windows, recalling the star that guided the Three Wise Men to Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem. Children open a window in their Advent calendars each day in December, and a decorative wreath is hung on each front door.
Lucia is a tradition that can be the 13th December. The winter solstice is now on 21-22 December, but the idea of Lucia night as the darkest, longest night lives on. The festival is named after the Catholic Saint Lucia, whose name day is 13th December. This charming ceremony features choirs of young singers who present concerts in their schools, in private homes, and in a number of churches. The ceremony begins with a procession of young choristers all clad in white robes and led by a girl who wears a crown carrying four lit candles upon her head. The origin of this traditional festival is somewhat obscure, but there is some connection with both the Latin word lux (light), and Lucifer (Satan) in the etymology of the word.
Lucia was also a time of feasting, presaging the Christmas fast which began on Lucia Day. This is the time to bake the favoured lussekatter – saffron-flavoured buns in the shape of a figure-of- eight, or cat – a custom which dates back to the 1880’s*.
The typical Swedish Julbord (Christmas buffet table) features a wide variety of delicious dishes:
sill (pickled herring), köttbullar (meatballs), prinskorv (mini Vienna sausages) and gravad lax (cured salmon). With an abundance of herring in both the North and Baltic Seas, Swedes have been pickling since the Middle Ages, mainly as a way of preserving the fish for storage and transportation. Pickled herring comes in a variety of flavors – mustard, onion, garlic and dill – and is often eaten with boiled potatoes, sour cream, chopped chives, hard sharp cheese, and sometimes boiled eggs.
Pickled herrings Knäckbröd (crisp bread)
In addition to bread and butter, there is also crisp bread called knäckebröd, served with the main meal. Once considered poor man’s food, crisp bread has been baked in Sweden for over 500 years, and can last for at least a year if stored correctly. It comes in various shapes, thicknesses and flavors, with entire store shelves devoted to it. Crisp bread can be topped with anything from sliced boiled eggs and caviar squeezed from a tube for breakfast, to ham, cheese and cucumber slices for lunch, or just plain butter, accompanying a meal.
Other favourite dishes are Janssons frestelse (“Jansson’s Temptation”) – a delicious baked potato gratin which includes anchovies – and Swedish meatballs served with a cream sauce, mashed potatoes, pickled gherkin and lingonberry jam.
Janssons fretelse Meatballs with side dishes
IKEA have recently launched an excellent marketing ploy which features a fabulous Julbord for only Kr 99 (R156) per person – excellent value indeed, for a spread that includes all manner of pickled herrings (mustard, spicy, garlic, dill, etc.), liver pâté, Christmas ham, meatballs, mini sausages, vegetables including sugary red cabbage, greens and mashed potatoes.
Desserts include traditional ostkaka (cheesecake) served with jam and cream, vanilla panna cotta in tiny plastic glasses, and risgröt (rice pudding).
Top restaurants in Stockholm, such as Ulla Windbladh (https://www.ullawinbladh.se/Engelska.html and Ulrichdals Wärdshus https://www.ulriksdalswardshus.se/ENGELSK/eindex.htm always lay on the most sumptuous
Julbord, serving dishes as above, but with infinitely more variety and flavours: ham glazed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, egg and mustard, pork sausage, gubbröra (“Old Man’s Hash” – a hard- boiled egg and anchovy mixture), pickled herrings, home-made liver pâté, vörtbröd or kavring (molasses- or wort-flavoured rye bread), potatoes and a special fish dish – lutfisk – dried ling or scathe soaked in water and lye until it swells and is ready for cooking.
For dessert – apart from the abovementioned – nipponsoppa (rosehip “soup” – a thickened fruit juice) or blåbärsoppa (blueberry soup) with whipped cream and tiny almond biscuits, ostkaka with lingonberry sauce, and vanilla ice-cream with a splash of Caloric (Swedish) Punch.
* “Lussekatter” (Saffron cats)
1 packet of fresh yeast 200 g salted butter 300 ml milk
1.5 g saffron 250 ml sugar 1/2 tsp salt 1 egg
150 ml crème fraîche 1700 ml flour
100 ml raisins 1 egg (beaten)
“pearl” sugar and raisins to decorate.
Melt the butter and add the milk. Crumble the yeast in a large bowl and dissolve it by adding some of the butter and milk mixture.
Pour the saffron and sugar into the remaining butter and milk mixture, stir and add this to the yeast mixture.
Stir in the salt, egg and crème fraîche and then the flour (15dl) leaving enough for kneading afterwards. Mix by hand for approx. 10 minutes or in mixer 5‐6 min. The dough should keep together and not stick to the edges.
Leave to rise under glad wrap or a towel in a warm and non‐drafty area for 40 min.
Knead the dough on a floured surface ‐ this is when I add the raisins. Divide the dough in half. Make a long roll out of each piece and cut evenly in to 20 pieces each (a total of 40). Now take each small piece and roll into a “snake” and form it into a figure 8 bun.
Place them directly on a baking sheet and pan and leave to rise under a towel for 20‐40 min. Put on the oven at 250°C.
Just before you bake them in the oven ‐ decorate with a raisin in each “swirl”, brush with the egg mixture and sprinkle with the “pearl” sugar.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 8‐10 minutes. (Jessica Dölling‐Gripberg : https://www.tostockholm.com/ )
Janssons Frestelse (Temptation) (4)
30g can anchovy fillets in olive oil 25g butter
2 medium onions, very finely sliced
4 medium, waxy potatoes (about 800g), thinly sliced 284ml carton double cream, made up to 300ml with milk
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan180°C/gas
Drain the anchovies, reserving their oil. Gently heat half the butter in a saucepan and stir in the anchovy oil as it melts. Add the onions and fry over a low heat until they are very sweet – don’t let them brown. This should take a good 20 minutes. Once cooked, set aside.
- Smear a deep, 25‐litre baking dish with the remaining butter and arrange half of the potatoes in the base. Pour over the onions and arrange 12 anchovies on top. Add the remaining potatoes and half the cream. Season lightly and bake for 30 minutes. Add the remaining cream and bake for another 25 minutes, until golden and the potatoes are very tender. Serve immediately with grilled lamb chops or a good steak.
Christmas in Sweden has become a blend of both local and foreign customs that have both evolved and become commercialised as the country changed from an agrarian culture to the onslaughts of the modern age. As in most countries, each family has their own way of celebrating Christmas, but a common factor is the enjoyment of rich, delicious fare, decorative lights and candles, and a blend of mouth-watering aromas that never fail to whet the appetite.
https://lostinstockholm.com/2011/12/06/the-guide-to-a-swedish-christmas/ https://www.visitsweden.com/Testmapp/Attractions/Culture/Traditions/A-very-merry-Swedish-Xmas/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_worldwide#Sweden