I am not Swedish, but have lived here for 15 years. I am married to a Swede and have Swedish(ish) children. Now that the temperature is dropping and the days are getting shorter, we all need something to look forward to and Christmas and the festivities leading up to the 24th of December are definitely worth experiencing in Sweden. In this blog I will write about the festivities leading up to Christmas and in one of my next blogs I will write about Christmas Eve itself.
Christmas starts after Easter!
There is a Swedish Christmas song which loosely translated says “It’s Christmas again, its’s Christmas again and Christmas lasts until Easter…” I don’t know about that, but sometimes it seems as though Christmas starts just after easter! This is of course an exaggeration, but it is surprising how early Christmas makes an entrance in the calendar. In October, if you go to certain stores, such as IKEA, you will see that the Christmas decorations have already made their way onto the shelves! And at the local supermarket, Julmust (a traditional Christmas Soda) is available for purchase at the beginning of November.
I personally start thinking about Christmas in the middle of October, but only for a few hours. When I first came to Sweden I was reading the local newspaper and found a recipe for something called “Dunderglögg” (which can loosely be translated as “Thunder Glögg”). Traditional glögg is a Christmas drink made with red wine (or port), sugar and spices. Dunderglögg, on the other hand, is made with another traditional Swedish beverage called Svagdricka (don’t ask me what it is). Anyway, the instructions were to mix Svagdricka with potatoes, yeast, sugar, raisins, ginger, cloves and cardamon and leave it for six weeks until it is ready to be tapped into bottles. I tried to make it and loved it. So every year, six weeks before Advent, I buy the ingredients and mix a batch. I then forget about Christmas until the first Sunday in Advent (except for when I walk into the kitchen and smell Christmas in the air)!
Advent is the period of time starting four Sundays before Christmas. It is observed in commemoration of the coming of Christ into the world. The first Sunday in Advent is when many Swedes begin with their Christmas preparations. We decorate the house, listen to Christmas music and light the first of four candles in the “Adventsljusstake” (or advent candelabra). It is very “mysig” (cozy) as they say in Sweden.
Pepparkakor & Julmust
I wonder how many kilos of Pepparkakor are eaten in Sweden during the Christmas season? They are everywhere! You can of course buy them, but it is much more fun to get involved in making them. You can make your own dough or, like most people, buy it ready to roll out and cut it into a multitude of shapes (my kids’ job) before baking them. You can even make a gingerbread house. Don’t worry, if you are not that creative, you can buy a set at the supermarket, which you assemble and then decorate. Now onto Julmust, a soda that makes an appearance in early November (if not earlier) and is drunk in copious quantities by Swedes – children and adults alike – until after Christmas. I can’t really compare it to anything else, but legend has it that it outsells Coca-Cola every year in spite of Coca-Cola only advertising on television at this time of year.
There are many Christmas markets to choose from in Stockholm. The most well-known are perhaps the one on Stortorget in Gamla Stan (the old town of Stockholm) and the one at Skansen (the open-air museum on the island of Djurgården, within the city limits of Stockholm). It is wonderful to wander around with a cup of cocoa or glögg, drinking in the atmosphere and buying Christmas gifts at the many stalls selling traditional Christmas fare and handicrafts.
Lucia is celebrated on the 13th of December. There is some uncertainty amongst Swedes as to the reason for this celebration. One interpretation is that the legend stems from Syracuse on the island of Sicily, where a woman called Lucia devoted her life to God and the poor at at time when Christian beliefs were not looked upon favorably. To this day, she remains a symbol of hope and faith in times of hardship. How the tradition came to Sweden is also debated! On this day, everybody eats Lussekatter (a saffron bread/cake in the shape of an infinity sign, decorated with raisins) and watches processions of children (or adults) dressed in long white gowns, carrying candles and singing Christmas songs. Lucia herself wears a crown of candles in her hair (electric candles if she is a child!)
After Lucia, we take a deep breath and get ready for the real celebration on the 24th of December. But more about that in a future blog.