Swedish Christmas Traditions: Explore the Holiday Magic



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In Sweden, Christmas is more than just a day on the calendar; it’s a season of anticipation and joy that begins with the first advent and continues well into January. From the charming St. Lucia’s Day processions to the bustling Christmas markets, each element of Swedish Christmas traditions holds a story, a slice of history that has been passed down through generations. Whether you’re a cultural enthusiast, a family seeking to explore global holiday traditions, or someone curious about the festive customs around the world, the Swedish Christmas is a delightful tapestry of experiences waiting to be discovered.

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  • Swedish Christmas, or ‘Jul’, blends ancient Norse and Christian traditions into a unique festive celebration.
  • Advent in Sweden is marked by candlelight, Advent stars, and gatherings, setting a reflective tone for the season.
  • The Swedish Christmas tree, or ‘Julgran’, is adorned with a mix of traditional and modern decorations, symbolizing life and joy.
  • The Julbord, a lavish smörgåsbord, is central to Swedish Christmas cuisine, featuring dishes like meatballs, herring, and saffron buns.
  • Julafton, the main event of Swedish Christmas, is a day of family, feasting, and the beloved ‘Kalle Anka’ show.
  • Julklappar, the Swedish tradition of gift-giving, emphasizes thoughtfulness and includes the mystical gift-bringer, Tomten.
  • Swedish Christmas markets and outdoor activities, like ice skating, add communal joy and vibrancy to the festive season.

History and Origin of Swedish Christmas

The story of Christmas in Sweden is a tapestry woven with threads of ancient Norse traditions and Christian beliefs, creating a festive celebration that is both unique and deeply rooted in history. The Swedish Christmas, or ‘Jul’ as it is called in Sweden, is a reflection of the nation’s rich cultural heritage, a heritage that dates back to the Viking era and beyond.

The Norse Influence

Long before the advent of Christianity in the North, the Norse people celebrated the winter solstice, a time when they honored their gods and anticipated the return of the sun. This celebration, known as Yule or ‘Jul’ in Old Norse, was a period of feasting, toasting, and honoring the gods, especially Odin, the chief god who was believed to visit homes during this time. The word ‘Jul’ itself has endured through the centuries, becoming the Swedish word for Christmas.

The Blending of Traditions

With the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia, the ancient Yule traditions gradually merged with the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The church found it practical to adapt and absorb existing pagan customs into the new Christian framework, rather than trying to abolish them. This blending of beliefs created a unique version of Christmas, one that retained the joyous and communal spirit of the Norse festivities, while embracing the Christian message of love and hope.

The Light in Darkness

The significance of light during the Swedish Christmas is a poignant reminder of its ancient origins. The long, dark Scandinavian winter nights were a time when light was more than just a physical necessity; it was a symbol of hope and renewal. The tradition of lighting candles and fires, which was initially a way to combat the darkness and cold of winter, evolved to become a central aspect of Swedish Christmas celebrations, symbolizing the light of Christ and the promise of longer, warmer days ahead.

In this historical context, Swedish Christmas emerges as a celebration deeply intertwined with the country’s past. It is a festive period that honors both its pagan and Christian heritage, creating a warm, inviting atmosphere that lights up the darkest time of the year. As we delve further into the specific traditions and customs, we will discover how these historical influences continue to shape the way Swedes celebrate Christmas today.

The Advent Season

In Sweden, the Christmas season begins with the Advent, a period of anticipation and preparation for the celebration of Christmas. This time, marked by a serene and reflective atmosphere, is where the warmth and charm of Swedish Christmas traditions begin to unfold, lighting up homes and hearts as the winter deepens.

The Advent Calendar and Candles

One of the most cherished traditions during this time is the Advent calendar. Starting from December 1st, these calendars, often beautifully decorated and filled with small surprises, count down the days until Christmas. Each day, a new window or door is opened, revealing a picture, a small gift, or a piece of chocolate, bringing joy and excitement to both children and adults alike.

Equally significant is the tradition of the Advent candlestick or Adventsljusstake. In many Swedish homes, a special candle holder with four candles is displayed, each candle representing one of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Every Sunday, a new candle is lit, with the increasing light symbolizing the approaching birth of Christ and the return of longer days.

The Advent Star

Another iconic symbol of the Swedish Advent season is the Advent star, or Adventsstjärna. These stars, often made of paper or metal, are hung in windows and illuminated from within. They serve as beacons of warmth and hope, shining brightly against the dark winter sky. The tradition of the Advent star is believed to have originated from the Star of Bethlehem, guiding the way and adding a celestial touch to the festive decorations.

The Warmth of Advent Gatherings

The Advent season is also a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s common for Swedes to host or attend ‘glögg parties’, where people come together to enjoy glögg, a Swedish mulled wine, accompanied by traditional treats like gingerbread cookies and saffron buns. These gatherings are not just about indulgence; they are a celebration of togetherness and community, reflecting the true spirit of the season.

Saint Lucia’s Day (Luciadagen)

Saint Lucia’s Day, known as ‘Luciadagen’ in Swedish, is a beloved and picturesque tradition that stands out in the Swedish Christmas calendar. Celebrated on December 13th, this festival of light is a captivating blend of ancient and modern traditions, symbolizing hope and brightness in the heart of the Scandinavian winter.

The Legend of Saint Lucia

The tradition is rooted in the legend of Saint Lucia, a Christian martyr who is said to have brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs, wearing a candle-lit wreath on her head to light her way and keep her hands free. Over time, Saint Lucia has become a symbol of light and hope in the dark Swedish winters, her story intertwining with local traditions and folklore.

The Lucia Procession

The highlight of Luciadagen is the Lucia procession. In towns and cities across Sweden, a young woman is chosen to portray Lucia. Dressed in a white gown, symbolizing purity, and a red sash, representing martyrdom, she wears a crown of candles on her head. Accompanied by other girls and boys dressed in similar attire, some as ‘tärnor’ (maids) with glitter in their hair and candles in their hands, and others as ‘stjärngossar’ (star boys) with star-shaped hats, the Lucia leads a procession. They sing traditional songs, spreading light and warmth through the community.

The Music of Luciadagen

Music is a central part of the celebration. The most iconic song is “Sankta Lucia,” a Neapolitan melody with Swedish lyrics, which is sung during the processions. The song, with its haunting and melodious tune, brings a sense of peace and reverence, echoing through churches, schools, offices, and even in open public spaces.

The Role in Community and Family

Luciadagen is not just a public spectacle; it is also a family affair. It’s common for children to serve their parents breakfast in bed, dressed in Lucia and star boy costumes, bringing saffron buns (lussekatter) and coffee, and singing Lucia songs. This practice strengthens family bonds and brings the magic of the tradition into homes.

Swedish Christmas Traditions: Christmas Tree and Decorations

In Sweden, the Christmas tree is not just a festive decoration; it’s a symbol of life and joy in the heart of winter. This tradition, which has become an integral part of the Swedish Yuletide celebration, is steeped in both history and personal meaning, turning homes into warm, festive sanctuaries.

The Heart of Swedish Christmas: The Julgran

The Swedish Christmas tree, or ‘Julgran’, is typically brought into the home just a few days before Christmas. This timing is a nod to the tradition’s roots, emphasizing the freshness and vitality of the tree. The decorating of the Julgran is a cherished family activity, often accompanied by Christmas music and treats. Each ornament and strand of lights is placed with care, turning the tree into a centerpiece of the household’s Christmas celebrations.

Traditional Decorations

Swedish Christmas tree decorations often blend the old with the new. Handmade straw ornaments, symbolizing the manger of Christ, are a common sight. These may include straw goats (julbockar), stars, and angels, each carrying its own historical and cultural significance. Alongside these traditional elements, you’ll find modern ornaments, twinkling lights, and tinsel, creating a harmonious mix that reflects both the past and present.

The Candlelit Glow

In many Swedish homes, candles play a significant role in Christmas decorations. Candlesticks and candelabras are placed in windows, casting a soft, welcoming light into the winter darkness. This tradition harks back to the ancient need for light during the long Nordic nights and continues as a symbol of warmth and hope.

A Touch of Nature

Swedes also often incorporate elements of nature into their Christmas decorations. Branches of spruce, pine cones, and red berries are commonly used to create wreaths and garlands. These natural decorations not only add to the aesthetic but also bring the essence of the Scandinavian wilderness into the home, creating a connection with the natural world even in the depths of winter.

Traditional Swedish Christmas Foods

Swedish Christmas cuisine is a vital part of the holiday celebrations, offering a delectable array of dishes that are both a feast for the palate and a reflection of Sweden’s rich culinary heritage. From hearty main courses to sweet treats, the traditional Swedish Christmas table, or ‘Julbord’, is a tapestry of flavors that embodies the spirit of the season.

The Christmas Smörgåsbord: Julbord

Central to the Swedish Christmas feast is the Julbord, a lavish smörgåsbord that includes a variety of traditional dishes. This buffet-style meal is a culinary journey through Swedish flavors and traditions, where each dish holds its own story and place in the festive celebrations.

A Symphony of Flavors

Pickled Herring (Sill)Various flavors, often served with crispbread and cheeseTies to Sweden’s fishing heritage
Swedish Meatballs (Köttbullar)Served with lingonberry jamIconic Swedish dish
Christmas Ham (Julskinka)Slow-cooked, mustard-glazed centerpieceMain feature of the Julbord
LutfiskDried whitefish prepared with lyeTraditional Christmas classic
Jansson’s Temptation (Janssons frestelse)Creamy potato casserole with anchoviesBeloved part of the meal
Gingerbread Cookies (Pepparkakor)Spiced, often intricately decoratedEssential Christmas treat
Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)Bright yellow, saffron-flavored bunsPopular especially on Saint Lucia’s Day

Pickled Herring (Sill): A staple on the Julbord, pickled herring comes in various flavors, including mustard, onion, garlic, and dill. It’s a dish that ties back to Sweden’s fishing heritage and is often enjoyed with crispbread and cheese.

Swedish Meatballs (Köttbullar): Perhaps one of the most internationally recognized Swedish dishes, these savory meatballs are a must-have at Christmas. They are traditionally served with lingonberry jam, providing a perfect balance of savory and sweet.

Christmas Ham (Julskinka): The centerpiece of the Julbord is the Christmas ham, slow-cooked and often glazed with mustard and breadcrumbs, radiating a mouthwatering aroma that fills the home.

Lutfisk: This traditional dish made from dried whitefish and lye is a Christmas classic. It’s a unique dish that carries a legacy of the old Swedish Christmas.

Jansson’s Temptation (Janssons frestelse): A creamy potato casserole with anchovies, this dish is a beloved part of the Christmas meal, offering a rich and comforting flavor.

Sweet Delights

Gingerbread Cookies (Pepparkakor): These spiced cookies are a Christmas essential. Often intricately decorated, they are as much a craft as they are a treat.

Saffron Buns (Lussekatter): Bright yellow from the saffron, these sweet buns are a festive treat, especially popular on Saint Lucia’s Day.

The Joy of Sharing

What makes the Swedish Christmas food so special is not just the flavors, but the joy of sharing these meals with family and friends. The Julbord is as much about togetherness as it is about eating, embodying the spirit of generosity and warmth that characterizes the Swedish Christmas.

Christmas Eve Celebrations (Julafton)

In Sweden, Christmas Eve, known as ‘Julafton’, is the pinnacle of the Christmas celebrations, a day filled with joy, anticipation, and family traditions. Unlike many other cultures where Christmas Day is the main event, in Sweden, it is Christmas Eve that takes center stage, enveloping everyone in a magical and heartwarming atmosphere.

The Gathering of Families

Julafton is a time when families come together, often traveling long distances to reunite. Homes are filled with the laughter of children, the chatter of relatives, and the enticing smells of the Christmas feast being prepared. The sense of togetherness is palpable, as family members, from the youngest to the oldest, share in the day’s activities and traditions.

The Christmas Feast

The highlight of Julafton is the Christmas dinner, a grand continuation of the Julbord tradition. Tables overflow with an array of traditional dishes, each carefully prepared and presented. Families gather around the table to enjoy the feast, savoring the flavors and the company of loved ones. The meal is not just about indulgence; it’s a celebration of heritage, a reminder of the bonds that connect each generation.

The Magic of ‘Kalle Anka’

A unique and beloved Swedish Christmas Eve tradition is watching ‘Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul’ (Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas). This Disney Christmas special has been broadcasted in Sweden every Christmas Eve since 1959. Families gather around the television at 3 pm to watch this program, a ritual that has become an integral part of the Swedish Christmas experience.

The Arrival of Tomten

For the children, one of the most eagerly awaited moments of Julafton is the arrival of ‘Tomten’, the Swedish version of Santa Claus. Unlike the more commercialized Santa, Tomten is a more mystical figure, often depicted as a gnome-like character from Nordic folklore. He brings gifts and joy, and in many families, someone dresses up as Tomten to hand out presents, creating a magical experience for the children.

The Peaceful End to the Evening

As the evening winds down, families might attend a late-night church service, or simply enjoy each other’s company, basking in the glow of the Christmas tree. Julafton in Sweden is a time of peace, warmth, and joy, a celebration that beautifully encapsulates the spirit of Swedish Christmas.

Julklappar (Christmas Gifts)

In the heart of Swedish Christmas traditions lies ‘Julklappar’, the practice of exchanging gifts. This cherished custom is much more than the act of giving and receiving; it’s a symbol of love, thoughtfulness, and the joy of sharing during the festive season.

The Tradition of Gift-Giving

The word ‘Julklappar’ literally translates to ‘Christmas knocks’, rooted in an old tradition where individuals would knock on their neighbor’s door, quickly throw in a gift, and then run away before being seen. This playful and mysterious aspect of gift-giving adds a unique charm to the Swedish Christmas experience. Today, while the manner of giving gifts may have evolved, the spirit of surprise and delight continues to be a central aspect of Julklappar.

Thoughtful and Heartfelt Presents

In Sweden, the emphasis of Julklappar is on thoughtfulness rather than extravagance. Gifts are often handmade or carefully chosen to reflect the receiver’s personality and interests. This attention to detail in selecting or creating gifts adds a personal touch to the celebration, making each present more meaningful and cherished.

The Special Moment of Exchange

Gift-giving traditionally takes place on Christmas Eve, adding to the excitement and magic of Julafton. In many families, there is a special moment set aside for Julklappar, often after the Christmas meal. The exchange of gifts is a heartwarming scene, filled with smiles, laughter, and sometimes even tears of joy. It’s a moment that strengthens bonds and creates lasting memories.

The Role of Tomten

In keeping with tradition, it’s often Tomten, the Swedish Christmas elf, who is believed to bring the gifts. In some families, a family member dresses up as Tomten, adding a playful and magical element to the gift-giving. The presence of Tomten, with his sack of gifts, is a delightful experience, especially for children, and brings an element of folklore and tradition to the modern celebrations.

Tomte – The Swedish Christmas Elf

In the enchanting realm of Swedish Christmas folklore, the figure of Tomte stands out as a beloved and mystical character. This traditional Swedish Christmas elf, deeply rooted in Nordic legend, brings a unique and charming dimension to the festive celebrations, embodying the spirit of mystery, kindness, and the magic of the season.

The Legend of Tomte

Tomte is often depicted as a small, elderly man with a long beard, dressed in traditional peasant garb with a pointed cap. According to legend, he acts as a guardian of the household and farm, taking care of the family and animals, especially during the cold and dark winter months. The origins of Tomte lie in ancient Scandinavian folklore, where he was seen as a benevolent spirit associated with ancestral worship and the protection of the homestead.

Tomte in Christmas Traditions

During Christmas, Tomte is believed to deliver gifts, much like Santa Claus, but with a distinctly Swedish twist. Instead of reindeer and a sleigh, Tomte is often depicted as arriving on a goat or walking with a sack over his shoulder. The gifts he brings are not just material objects; they are also symbolic of good fortune and blessings for the household.

The Offering to Tomte

An important tradition associated with Tomte is leaving out a bowl of porridge with butter for him on Christmas Eve. This offering is a gesture of gratitude and a way to ensure his continued protection and favor. It reflects the old belief in the reciprocity between humans and the spirit world, where kindness and respect are rewarded.

The Endearing Appeal of Tomte

Tomte’s appeal lies not just in his role as a gift-bringer but also in his connection to the natural and spiritual world of the Scandinavian landscape. He represents a link to the past, to the ancient beliefs and customs that have shaped Swedish culture. In modern celebrations, Tomte is a reminder of the importance of caring for one another and respecting the traditions that bind communities together.

Christmas Markets and Outdoor Activities

Swedish Christmas markets and outdoor activities add a layer of communal joy and vibrancy to the festive season. These events are not just about shopping or entertainment; they are a celebration of Swedish culture, tradition, and the beauty of winter.

The Enchantment of Christmas Markets

Across Sweden, towns and cities come alive with Christmas markets, known as ‘Julmarknad’. These markets are a feast for the senses, filled with the aroma of mulled wine (glögg) and gingerbread, the sounds of carols and laughter, and the sight of twinkling lights and festive decorations. Stalls brim with a variety of goods, from traditional handicrafts to seasonal treats, offering a perfect opportunity for finding unique gifts and souvenirs.

Stockholm’s Old Town Market: One of the most famous is the market in Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla Stan), where the cobbled streets and historic buildings create a charming backdrop for the festively decorated stalls.

Gothenburg’s Liseberg Amusement Park: This market transforms into a Christmas wonderland, complete with millions of lights and a skating rink, offering a magical experience for families.

Outdoor Activities in the Snow

The Swedish winter landscape offers a playground for a variety of outdoor activities that are enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. The crisp air and snowy scenery provide the perfect setting for embracing the season.

Ice Skating: Many cities and towns set up outdoor ice rinks where families and friends can enjoy ice skating, often accompanied by festive music and lights.

Cross-Country Skiing: For those seeking a more adventurous experience, Sweden’s extensive trails offer excellent opportunities for cross-country skiing, a popular winter sport that combines physical activity with the enjoyment of nature’s tranquility.

Christmas Light Displays: Walking tours to view Christmas light displays are a common activity, where streets, parks, and public spaces are adorned with dazzling lights, creating a magical atmosphere that captures the essence of the holiday spirit.

The End of Christmas Season – St. Knut’s Day

In Sweden, the conclusion of the Christmas season is marked by St. Knut’s Day, a day that not only signifies the end of the festivities but also brings its own unique set of traditions and celebrations. Observed on January 13th, this day is named after the Danish Duke Knut Lavard and has been an integral part of Swedish Yuletide customs for centuries.

The Historical Significance of St. Knut’s Day

St. Knut’s Day has its roots in medieval times and marks the twentieth day after Christmas. Historically, it was the day when the Christmas tree and decorations were taken down, and the remaining treats and sweets were enjoyed. This tradition provided a formal closure to the holiday season, allowing people to start preparing for the year ahead.

‘Julgransplundring’: Dancing Out Christmas

One of the most enjoyable aspects of St. Knut’s Day is the ‘Julgransplundring’, literally meaning ‘Christmas tree plundering’. This tradition involves a festive gathering where families and friends come together for a final celebration. The Christmas tree is ‘plundered’ of its ornaments and sweets, and, in many cases, taken down and disposed of during this event. The occasion is filled with joy and merriment, featuring music, dancing, and games, making it a lively and fun way for children and adults alike to bid farewell to the season.

The Last Feast of the Season

St. Knut’s Day is also an opportunity for one last festive feast. Leftover treats from the Christmas celebrations, such as gingerbread, chocolates, and other sweets, are enjoyed, often accompanied by glögg and other holiday favorites. This final indulgence is a way of savoring the last tastes of the Christmas season before returning to everyday routines.

The Blend of Tradition and Transition

St. Knut’s Day is more than just an ending; it’s a bridge between the old and the new. It’s a day that honors tradition while also symbolizing transition and renewal. As families and communities engage in these age-old customs, they not only celebrate the end of the Christmas season but also the start of a new year filled with possibilities.

Related: New to Sweden: Your Guide to Thriving as a Newcomer in 2024


Sofia is our Relocation Expert, who brings first-hand experience in moving to Sweden from abroad. She moved to Sweden over a decade ago and navigated the complexities of relocation herself.

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