Swedish Mid-Winter Customs—Then and Now
A Swedish Christmas Visit.
It is afternoon, but it has been dark for hours. We push a small sled through the dark woods—yet the snow beneath our feet is so white that we can see easily. The strangely bright darkness coupled with the total silence of the snow makes everything eerily beautiful. In the distance we see tiny spots of light, growing bigger and resolving into lighted candles in all the windows of all the houses. No curtains are drawn shut, during this festival of light. As we enter the village, we are engulfed in magic: flickering candles and bright paper decorations everywhere; it is almost Christmas. We linger in the street, entranced by the wealth of straw figures and carvings of animals, fancy paper Advent stars, tinsel ornaments, and Advent chimes in the shop windows. In one window, the heat of four little candles fixed on a wooden ring causes a circle of angels above them to rotate, hitting little chimes as they go.
We soon reach and are welcomed into our friend’s house and family, with mutual cries of God Jul! As we are helped to doff our boots and wraps, the children run around in great excitement. The Christmas tree is loaded with ornaments woven of straw and little paper tubes or baskets filled with fruit, candy, and pastries, and swathed in strings of little Swedish flags and paper cutout strings of little bears. Pressed into our hands are hot glasses of the traditional Swedish Christmas punch, glögg, cooked up from red wine, vodka, sugar, spices, and more. We go to put our presents under the tree with those already there, but our hosts stop us: Have we written our poems? Poems?? In some parts of Sweden, each gift is traditionally accompanied by a little poem giving clever hints as to the contents and who the receiver should be. We laugh and struggle, while the Grandmother eagerly replaces any guttering candles with freshly lit ones. Light is everything at this darkest time of year. Because it is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the final Sunday before Christmas, the fourth and last Advent candle has been lit in its special candelabra.
In the next room, the Julbord (Christmas smorgasbord) is loaded with every sort of special Christmas dish. We first pile our plates with fish (of several sorts, from smoked or poached salmon to pickled herring) and potatoes; then return for meat and potatoes, pickled vegetables, red cabbage, beet salad, meatballs, sausage, and more. The Christmas delicacy that excites Grandmother most is dipping a bread called limpa into the half-jellied juices under the water-cured Christmas ham, known as dopp i grytan or “dipping in the pot.” Finally come the sweets and pastries, especially the pepparkakor—crisp gingersnaps.
When we are so full we think we can’t move, the children demand an old-fashioned ring dance! We stagger to our feet—but moving is good, the dance is simple, and everyone from oldest to youngest joins in, trotting in a circle around the tree or in a line through the house and around the furniture, obeying the directions in the songs: to clap, wiggle ears, wiggle a tail, hop on one foot, pretend to play a fiddle—or, finally, to mime drinking a toast with a Christmas gnome, called a tomte: “Hej, Tomtegubbar, slån i glassen, och låt oss lustiga vara!”—“Hi, Old Man Gnome, fill the glasses and let’s be merry together!” Because the children believe the tomte will bring their presents, before bedtime they make sure that rice pudding is set out for him to keep him happy. Tomorrow will be Christmas.
The Extended Swedish Christmas.
The Christmas season in Sweden begins with Advent, which starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. (In 2016 it fell on the earliest date possible, Nov. 27.) On that day, Christmas decorations—especially Advent stars, symbolizing the star of Bethlehem—come out and windows are lit, often with pairs of lamps or candles. Special Christmas markets open in the towns, often as stalls in the main square. But the celebration really begins on Dec. 13, the first day of Jul (we have the same word with the same pronunciation in English, in the expressions Yule log and Yuletide).
Dec. 13 is Santa Lucia’s Day. The central participant in the festival is a young girl dressed up in a white dress with a red sash and wearing a crown of lighted candles set in a wreath originally of lingonberry twigs (now sometimes of silver). Like our Christmas trees, lingonberry branches are evergreen and thus symbolize new life, just as the white-clad girl does. First thing in the morning the girl with her flaming crown carries to her parents a tray with a hot beverage and special buns flavored with saffron and topped with raisins, called lussekatter (good recipes exist on the internet). In earlier times, she carried food and light around to each house in the village and to the barns as well, followed by girls as tärnor (“attendants, bridesmaids”—dressed like Lucia but without the candle-crown) and boys dressed up with pointed hats as Stjärngossar “star boys”. Nowadays a procession headed by a village-chosen Lucia typically marches into the church singing “Santa Lucia” (yes, the same song we know!) over and over as they march up and down and all around. After that they might sing more Lucia songs and/or dance the simple ring dances that are also used on Christmas and on the final day of Jul. The story of Santa Lucia’s life is also told and retold, even acted out: how she wore candles on her head to light her way through dark tunnels as she carried food to persecuted Christians who were hiding there, under her native Italian city of Syracuse, in Sicily, and how she was soon persecuted and killed for her faith. Some say she even was blinded, but that God restored her sight, and that she became the one who lights the soul’s path after death. And stories are told of how she has brought food to rescue people dying of famine, in both Italy and Scandinavia.
Next comes Christmas itself, with its Christmas tree, gifts, and special foods, and light, light, light. Much as in the rest of contemporary Europe and the USA, New Years’ Eve is marked with parties and more drink, but this is not really part of the old tradition, since the entire Jul-month really marked the end of the old year and the start of the new. The final traditional spike in festivities is the last day of Jul, the twentieth day after Christmas, Jan 13. On this day the Christmas tree is stripped, any last sweets still on it consumed, and the tree ritually cast out. It is also the final occasion for the ring dances done during Jul. The day is technically St. Knut’s Day, the St. Knut (Canute) in question being a 12th-century Danish prince who had the misfortune of getting assassinated. But it is better known as Twentieth Day (Tjugondag, or Tjugondag Knut), or simply as Casting out the Tree. At that point Christmas-season is over.
Long ago, the Scandinavians and other Germanic peoples divided the year into six sections, each about two months long. The double-month that ran from mid-November to mid-January was called Yule in English, Swedish Jul (pronounced alike). So when the Swedes wish you “God Jul!” they are wishing you a Merry Christmas-season. Swedish Jul, however, now lasts one month, not two. It begins on Dec. 13 with Santa Lucia’s Day and still lasts (like the ancient Yule/Jul) into mid-January, specifically till Jan. 13, St. Knut’s Day. These two saint’s-days along with Christmas itself are the three most important days in the traditional month-long midwinter celebration.
Before Christianity existed, Jul was viewed as a time when the deities needed all the encouragement they could get to bring back the waning light of the sun. Remember that Sweden is so far north that at midwinter daylight hours are at a minimum (7 hours in the south, zero in the north). If the sun doesn’t come back, there will be no crops and no food! So the ancient midwinter rituals consisted primarily of acts analogically showing the divine powers what was needed. Lights were put everywhere possible (bring back the sunlight!), any plants still showing green were brought into the human sphere (make the world green again!), food and alcoholic drink were consumed in abundance (bring us a wealth of food and drink this coming year!).
The missionaries attempting to convert the Scandinavians (and everyone else they met) to Christianity found that it was impossible to abolish such customs. After all, the people quite reasonably viewed their food, their livelihood, as depending upon securing light, warmth, and plant growth. The Church found it more effective to co-opt the customs—to sanitize them a bit (removing such things as blood sacrifices and anything sexual) and then rename the festivals for Christian saints, thus bringing the local people’s wishes and needs into the embrace of the Church.
The first day of Jul, Santa Lucia’s Day, is a good example. In Italian, Lucia means “light”; in fact, Santa Lucia, called St. Lucy in English, actually means simply “Holy Light”, just like Greek Orthodox Hagia Photia—a theological concept, not a human “saint” at all. In late Roman and early Medieval times, however, scribal monks often put together “lives” of saints for the edification of their parishioners, and if a name like Santa Lucia could be interpreted as a saint, but had no biography, s/he was promptly provided with one, as in this case. But because of her name, the bringing of light became one of her principal attributes, a trait highly appealing to northerners. In Scandinavia, her festival has also incorporated customs that once belonged to the ancient life-giving goddesses Freya and Frigg.
Why choose Dec. 13? We employ the Gregorian calendar, which is far more accurate than the old Julian calendar designed in Roman days. When Pope Gregory finally ordered things fixed in 1582, the calendar had slipped a full 11 days out of whack with the sun, so that the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year, just before the sun begins to “return”—fell on Dec. 13. And that is why the Swedish festival of light, St. Lucia’s Day, falls on Dec. 13. Why was it not moved back to the real solstice? Because that day was already taken. When the early Christian organizers chose a day on which to celebrate the birth of Christ, they put it on the winter solstice, precisely to pre-empt for Christianity the time of the most important “pagan” festivals. Note that St. Lucy’s Day was marked in England too, whence an old rhyme, “Lucy-light, Lucy-light, shortest day and longest night!”
Ancient solstice customs are still scattered about the Yuletide season. Like us, the Swedes bring in an evergreen Christmas tree, which they decorate and give a place of honor, originally to encourage the greening again of the plant world. As in the USA, this is also the time for visiting people and giving presents—old Roman midwinter customs, now greatly enlarged, from the Roman Saturnalia festival which fell on Dec. 17. Swedish adults also traditionally consume much alcohol. In ancient times the beverages were ale and mead (fermented from honey), and consumed in such quantity that the sign for this festival was a barrel of ale, in medieval times, and a drinking horn before that. Now the special Christmas drink is hot glögg:
Old-fashioned Recipe for Glögg, Swedish hot spiced wine
2 bottles Burgundy or Bordeaux red wine
1 bottle Vodka
1 ½ cups raisins
½ cup slivered almonds
1 ½ to 2 cups sugar cubes
wrap in 4 layers of cheese cloth:
5 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp peeled cardamom seeds
1 tsp whole cloves
Put red wine, vodka, raisins, almonds, and the cheesecloth bundle in a large covered pan and simmer for 45-60 minutes.
Uncover the pan and bring to just under a boil. Place sugar cubes in large metal strainer. Now ignite the mixture. Hold the strainer above the pan and with a ladle pour the burning mixture through the sugar cubes until all the cubes have dissolved. (This carmelizes the sugar.) You now have Glögg.
Skoal! And to go with it, IKEA sells many Jul foods, including excellent pepparkakor in handsome red tins, if you wish to get a quick taste of Swedish Christmas.
[Written originally for Folk Dance Scene, Dec. 2016. Many thanks to Sharron and Armand Deny for vivid details included here.]