Between a pre-Christmas visit to friends and family in the UK, spending Christmas with Andreas’s family in Tranås, and having friends to stay for New Year’s Eve, it feels like I’ve had a month off from real life.
Coming back to the blog after a long break, I thought I should try to answer one of the questions I was asked most frequently back in the UK: What is a Swedish Christmas like?
2014 was actually the second time I’ve been in Sweden at Christmas – we also spent it with Andreas’s family in 2012 – but I still find the differences fascinating, and at times downright odd. Let me talk you through a few of them:
1. You can never have too many Tomtes
Of course, some families in the UK go a bit overboard on the Christmas decorations too, but I was struck by the sheer number of Tomte (Santa) figures and other bits of Christmas kitsch that covered almost every available surface of the house. In these two photos alone I can count 16 Tomtes. I would be surprised to see that many Father Christmas figures in an English home – but then again, the Swedes’ relationship with Tomte is pretty different to ours anyway… (see point 6 below).
2. The Christmas pig (julgris) is a thing
Pigs are everywhere during Christmas in Sweden. They seem to be almost as much of a Christmas icon as Tomte himself. Marzipan pigs are commonly sold in bakeries and I even spotted one pig made of straw in a shop window display (in a nod to the traditional Christmas straw goat or julbock. No, I am not making this up). Apparently the reason is that traditionally a Christmas dinner would include an entire roast pig with an apple in its mouth. Perhaps the English are missing a trick by not including turkeys on all our Christmas decorations?
3. You don’t have to dream of a white Christmas
Even in Southern Sweden a typical winter is much colder than in the UK, and snow in late December is far from unusual. In fact, this year, despite pessimistic forecasts in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we were surprised by a fairly major snowfall on Christmas Eve (which is the big celebration day for Swedes). It also snowed quite heavily during Christmas 2012 – meaning so far all my Swedish Christmases have been white.
4. Christmas dinner is unrecognisable
Brits know exactly what Christmas dinner means: a huge roast dinner, usually involving a turkey or at a stretch another bird, with a fairly specific selection of seasonal vegetables, gravy, Christmas pudding, etc. In Sweden there is a lot more variety and the kind of food on offer is, well, different. Luckily for me I like Swedish food so I haven’t had too much trouble adapting, but the contents of my plate (including pickled herring, boiled sausage and a Swedish delicacy known as Jansson’s Temptation) might make some foreigners squirm.
They also don’t do crackers. Sacrilege.
5. Watching Donald Duck is non-negotiable
The Swedish tradition of sitting down at 3:00pm on Christmas Eve to watch a Disney cartoon (“Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas“) that has barely changed since 1959 seems strange to outsiders. Indeed, this year the US news outlets Slate and NPR both ran stories on the “bizarre” tradition. However, like all great institutions, the cartoon does seem to be able to adapt to the modern world. This year saw the inclusion of the song Let It Go from Frozen (dubbed into Swedish) plus the trailer for Big Hero 6.
6. Santa Claus actually comes
After Donald Duck ends, the children know to start looking out for Tomte’s arrival. The real Santa (definitely not a family member or family friend) comes to the house with a sack of presents and asks “are there any nice children here?”. Confusingly, most of the presents he gives out are from Mum and Dad or Granny and Grandad, which raises a lot of questions about how he acquired them, but this doesn’t seem to bother young Swedes too much.
…And a scary New Year
Back in Uppsala for New Year’s Eve, we had heard that the castle was the place to be to watch fireworks. Being British, we were expecting some kind of official display to take place that we could enjoy while sipping some Prosecco. Instead, around midnight, dozens of teenagers took great delight in setting off fireworks themselves, in close proximity to passers-by. One memorable chap set off a rocket from a wine bottle – that he was holding in his hand. Feeling genuinely afraid I scarpered almost immediately after the countdown. So instead of the usual pictures capturing firework displays or Auld Lang Syne, the only photographic evidence of the occasion is one photo of me with fear in my eyes. Next year I will be finding a tall building to watch from. Indoors.