From Saint Lucia to Nisse, Christmas in Scandinavia is often a magical affair. As Advent is now well underway, we look at how Scandinavians will be celebrating during the festive period
In the final three weeks running up to Christmas, we’ll be exploring the traditions of each of the Scandinavian countries, starting this week with Denmark.
Danes by now will be two episodes in to the popular Christmas television series Julekalender (Advent Calendar), with one episode shown on both on the national broadcasting channel DR and commercial channel TV2 each week of December until Christmas Day. Different versions shown by the two companies, however, although the storylines are normally similar; normally one character tries to ruin Christmas until the others leap in to save it at the last minute. DR and TV2 also create Advent Calendars to accompany the programme, corresponding to the events of each episode.
As in most of Europe, Danes celebrate primarily on Christmas Eve, although Christmas Day is still an important time for families to get together and eat a large lunch, normally of open sandwiches and aquavit.
At 4pm on Christmas Eve church services are held for neighbours to come together, talk and listen to the Christmas sermon, but also to give their pets a chance to talk to one another at home. Families then unite at 6pm for the Christmas feast, usually consisting of roast duck, goose or pork served with boiled or sweet potatoes, beetroot and cranberry sauce. For pudding, in a tradition repeated on New Year’s Eve, Danes eat risalamande (rice pudding with almonds). All but one of the almonds have been ground, so the lucky finder of the whole almond is awarded a marzipan pig and will be blessed with good luck for the next year. After the feast the candles on the Christmas tree (normally decorated with Danish flags) are lit, and the family dances around it singing carols and Christmas songs.
Unlike in the other Scandinavian countries, Father Christmas in Denmark or “Julemanden” is a native, coming from a grotto in Greenland, rather than one in Finland. He is said to like all things Danish, too, particularly risalamande.
Perhaps the most well-known Swedish Christmas tradition abroad is the Saint Lucia festival, held each year on the 13th December. Saint Lucia was a young girl martyred in 304 AD. The most common story told about her is that she would bring food to persecuted Christians in Rome living in the city catacombs by attaching candles to her head so she could have both hands free to carry things. 13th December was chosen as her saint day in Sweden as it coincided with the Winter Solstace, a pagan festival of lights.
Nowadays schools and churches select a “Lucia” to process through the church wearing a crown candles attached to lingonberry branches as a traditional Saint Lucia song is sung. A national Lucia is also chosen, whose role it is to visit hospitals and old people’s homes handing out pepparkakor (ginger biscuits) and singing carols. Lucia buns (made with saffron and dotted with raisins) are eaten in the evening. In some regions of Italy, where the saint day is also celebrated, children leave a sandwich out for Lucia and her donkey that helps carry small presents.
Christmas Eve, as in the other Scandinavian countries and much of Europe, is when Swedes eat their main Christmas feast. Unlike most other countries, however, Swedes eat their “Julbord” buffet at lunchtime. Gravadlax, herring, cold meats (including turkey and julskinka (Christmas ham), meatballs, jellied pigs’ feet and “drop i grytan” (bread dipped in the juices of the roast turkey) are eaten before being washed down with glogg (mulled wine).
Christmas Eve is also when presents are exchanged, with Christmas Day reserved primarily for church services and the king’s address to the nation. More than 50 per cent of the population also tune in to a special episode of Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) entitled Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar god jul (Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Happy Christmas).
Many families also make straw goats to guard their Christmas trees, and in the city of Gävle a 13 metre goat is erected to guard the city tree, although since its incarnation in 1966 it’s been a target for vandals and has only survived being burnt down around twelve times.
But what’s the best thing about Christmas in Sweden? It has to be the fact that unlike everywhere else, the festive period doesn’t officially end until 13th January, one month after Saint Lucia’s Day and twenty days after Christmas.
Christmas wasn’t celebrated in Norway until about 1100 AD when Christianity arrived in the country, Norwegians previously celebrated “Jól” to give thanks for the harvest and look forward to the spring.
Nowadays Christmas in Norway closely resembles Christmas in its Scandinavian neighbours, but some traditions remain uniquely Norwegian. These include the custom of leaving a sheaf of wheat out for the birds during Advent, as well as a bowl of porridge for Nisse, said to guard the farm animals.
Carol singing is very popular, and children often dress up as characters from the Nativity to travel from house to house singing carols and songs such as Musevisa (The Mouse Song). The song was written in 1946 by Alf Prøysen to the tune of a traditional folk song and tells the story of a family of mice getting ready for Christmas, being told by their mother and father to stay away from mouse traps in the New Year. In 2008 it was reported that a previously un-heard verse had been found involving a cat, but it was later found out this was just a hoax conducted by photographer Ivar Kalleberg.
Many different sorts of cakes and biscuits are made over the course of the festive period in Norway, one of the most popular being the Julekake, known in English as a “Hole Cake”, combining raisins, candied peel and cardamom. Porridge is eaten on Christmas Eve at lunchtime served with butter, sugar and cinnamon, with the Danish tradition of the sole whole almond applying.
Dinner on Christmas Eve for Norwegians usually consists of pork or mutton ribs served with surkal (finely chopped white or red cabbage cooked with caraway seeds and vinegar) and potatoes. After dinner presents are exchanged, and the next morning presents are found under the tree given by Father Christmas (Julenissen) or small gnomes known simply as “nissen” (occasionally from both!)
Of course the UK has to be very thankful to Norway each year for providing London’s most famous Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. It’s a small thank you to the British people from all Norwegians for their help during the Second World War to liberate the country and provide shelter for fleeing Norwegians, most prominently their royal family.