Pickled herring, a little gnome-like old man with an unpredictable temper, and Santa knocking on the front door on Christmas Eve. While some of it might sound strange, there are few more serene experiences than Christmas in Scandinavia.
Probably the first thing people think of when they picture Christmas, or Jul, in Scandinavia is an abundance of lights. Thanks to the angle of Earth’s axis and Scandinavia being located so far north, the month of December is dark. Very dark, in fact. So, you can’t blame the Scandinavians for wanting some traditions involving light to brighten things up.
Even the Vikings had their light rituals back in their heyday. During their twelve-day midwinter festival, they burnt huge logs to celebrate the shortest day of the year, and the fact that from then on things would lighten up. They did a bunch of other gruesome stuff to celebrate too, but thankfully today’s Scandinavians haven’t adopted those traditions.
One old tradition involving light that has survived is that of Advent. Basically, it involves lighting a candle each Sunday during the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Children have Advent calendars that they use to count down the days. These calendars have twenty-four windows, and each day one is opened to reveal a clue, or a sweet if you are lucky enough to have a chocolate calendar.
Today many of the old Scandinavian traditions have been blended with Christian traditions from elsewhere. Tomte, or nisse which they are called in Norway and Denmark, are small pint-sized gnome-like creatures which were, according to old traditions, said to live on farms. While they would rarely be seen, these little creatures could be both mischievous and helpful. A lot depended on the bowl of porridge they expected to be put out for them on Christmas, to ensure their good will.
Fast-forward to today, and the Jultomte has grown and taken on a lot of traits that come from St. Nicholaus. But he still shows up on Christmas Eve, and knocks on the front door rather than squeezing his way down the chimney. Some still put a bowl of porridge out, and those of you that are familiar with Skandinavisk Hemslöjd will know that the smaller size tomte is still very much a part of Scandinavian traditions.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences from the way Christmas is celebrated in the UK is that December 24th is the big day, rather than the 25th. On Christmas Eve, Scandinavians will get together with family for their Christmas dinner, or Julbord. On the table, you will find dishes like ham (cooked whole and glazed with egg and then dusted with mustard and crumbs), lutfisk (cod cured in lye), meatballs, glögg (mulled wine), and pickled herring.
While today many of these dishes are considered holiday delicacies, a lot of them have origins of a more utilitarian purpose. The pickled herring, for one, would have been considered a boring everyday meal in the 1800’s, while the spices in the mulled wine were originally in there to hide the poor quality of the wine.
The ham has always been on the table as a delicacy. In the age of subsistence agriculture salted pork was pretty much all that was eaten throughout the rest of the year, but during the autumn one or two animals were usually kept to be slaughtered and eaten fresh at Christmas.
Another key ingredient for a successful Scandinavian Christmas is of course copious amounts of snow. Sledges, pulka’s and skis are brought out of storage, and kids dressed up in their coveralls and let loose in the snow to burn energy so that they are bearable when the anticipation of Santa’s arrival starts reaching catastrophic levels. Otherwise responsible Scandinavians will trudge out through the snow with their axe in hand and “misinterpret” their generous land access rights, assuming it allows them to chop down their Christmas tree from pretty much anywhere. All this is set to the backdrop of snow covered houses, with lit-up windows glowing invitingly.
It may be strange, some of it might not make sense, but if you have had the opportunity to experience it, I am sure you will agree that Scandinavian Christmas is truly wonderful.
Take a look at our range from Skandinavisk Hemslöjd here, for bit of Skandinavian traditions this Christmas!