It quickly became apparent in the summer that due to the January arrival of baby No.2 we would be spending Christmas in Sweden, which was perfect as it would give me a chance to write about the unique Swedish Christmas experience.
Now the first thing to note is that Swedes love Christmas. Winters here are long, cold and fairly miserable and I believe they use the Christmas holiday period as an opportunity to break up the monotony of a long, bleak winter by really getting into the spirit of things. For starters the city is festooned in all manner of decorations; indeed I’m sure you’d agree that nothing truly says Christmas like a family of giant fairy light elks rampaging through the city centre. In fact, the whole city appears to have been lifted straight from a picture postcard version of Christmas from the open access skating rinks through to an assortment of Christmas markets, it all makes for a pretty unique atmosphere.
Another key signifier that Christmas has landed is the placement in windows throughout the country of advent stars and candles. The Swedish Christmas is all about ‘warmth and light’ and it’s no exaggeration to say that more windows feature stars than don’t. Apparently these Stars of Bethlehem first appeared at the end of the 1800’s and really do bring an extra level of warmth to the city, particularly as the day light hours are so short, generally running from around 9am to 3pm.
In terms of embracing local Swedish traditions, whilst most were optional for us Rosalyn had no choice but to take part in the true kick-off of the Swedish Christmas at her nursery: the festival of Lucia. You simply can’t have a Swedish Christmas without celebrating Santa Lucia first, involving as it does, children of all ages to dressing in white, bearing candles and singing traditional songs. Of more concern, historically the girl chosen to play Lucia would wear actual candles in her hair. More recently these are more likely to be battery operated, because let’s be honest, lit candles in hair is simply asking for trouble.
We decided to mark the arrival of my mum and dad who had agreed to spend Christmas with us by ticking off another Swedish tradition and go for a ‘Julbord’ – if you are familiar with the concept of a Smörgåsbord this is basically the Christmas version. To the uninitiated (like myself) it may appear to be a simply buffet but in actual fact it is a truly authentic Swedish experience. Essentially split into 7 courses, it typically starts with a variety of pickled herring and cured salmon, followed by bread, ham, liver pâté, red beet salad and cheese, through a whole variety of warm dishes (meatballs, sausages, pork ribs and cabbage) – not one for the vegetarians really – before slumping, bloated and exhausted into a host of deserts. Word of advice, if like me you foolishly want to complete every course, stick to the universal rule of all buffets and avoid the bread. It is not your friend – jumping in Rosalyn’s pram and being wheeled home has never looked so appealing.
It’s worth noting that like a lot of European countries, in Sweden they celebrate on Christmas Eve. Nothing especially strange there but in completing our checklist there was one final, rather random, tradition that needed to completed: watching cartoons. Yeap, every year on the 24th at 3 p.m. the 1958 Walt Disney Presents Christmas special, ‘From All of Us to All of You’ is aired. Running at exactly the same time since 1959, and without commercial interruption, it consists of Jiminy Cricket presenting about a dozen Disney cartoons from the 1930s – 1960s – which weirdly only a couple have anything to do with Christmas.
And half of Sweden watch it. Half.
Of course some Christmas traditions are universal. Decorating the tree remains as tedious/enjoyable as it is in any country. As does leaving out food and drink for Father Christmas and eating far too much food. In the spirit of a traditional ‘Irish’ Christmas, my mum (I assume confusing Sweden with Outer Mongolia) played it safe and brought two suitcases full of Christmas Essentials on the off chance she couldn’t buy them in Sweden – food, deserts, condiments, crackers, table decorations, you name it. I mean heaven forbid you can’t lay your hands on a post Christmas dinner Cadbury’s chocolate orange!
This pathological commitment to making sure nothing was left out from the Christmas dinner, shared it should be noted by Alex, extended to the Christmas meal itself. I can only assume the rest of the apartment block had mentioned they might drop in because given we were only 4 adults there was a frankly ridiculous amount of food to get through – it took an extra 4 days of turkey and ham sandwich, bubble and squeak and Turkey Curry (half still in the freezer) to finally finish it all off.
Which leads to perhaps the most surprising fact about the Swedish Christmas’: supermarkets are open throughout the holiday period. Whilst a little miserable for the people working, it did at least allow me to pick up some extra Broccoli on Christmas day, the six varieties of veg we already had apparently not being enough. Mums and Christmas. Completely mental.
Of course one obvious advantage of Christmas in Sweden is that you are pretty much guaranteed that, at some point, it will snow. And when it comes, it comes quickly. So quickly in fact that it did lead to one particularly hairy moment when I underestimated the combination of snow, ice, a cobble stone hill and 2 tonne car.
Basically, I lost control of my car going down the hill below. Thankfully at the time there were only parked cars on the right hand side and we skidded left or it would have not ended well. But it was fairly hairy for a moment as there is a main road at the bottom and by pure chance we came to stop just before it (when I say no control, I mean lap of the Gods). My dad, Brendadio, was in the car at the time and told me repeatedly to ‘turn into the skid, turn into the skid!’.
Well let me tell you dear reader, when a two tonne car is out of control, essentially turning itself into an oddly shaped battering ram, ‘turning into the skid’ is the very last thing on your mind. Besides which I was a bit busy at the time trying to remove the handbreak from its housing whilst simultaneously pushing my foot through the bottom of the car in an effort to bring things to a stop Fred Flintstone style.
And before you knew it Christmas was over and we were faced with the classic dilemma of what to do with the tree. This being Sweden of course it was all taken care of with designated dump spots throughout the city. There is something poignant about these Christmas tree graveyards. First you drag them like a rotting carcasses through the streets before chucking them onto a pile of their fallen brethren who had brought so much pleasure and joy to their owners, only to end up as pulp… not that it stopped Brendadio having a good old chuckle about the whole thing of course.
In the interests of completion, New Years Eve had a slightly different vibe to normal, as I’m sure you can image given Alex was 9 months pregnant and we ended up watching the same fireworks taking place 5 minutes walk from our house on television. Times have indeed changed.
Picture of the week