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Christmas in Scandinavia

What's Typical for Scandinavian Christmas Holidays?

By Charles Hatch

Christmas Tree in Finland

Christmas Tree in Finland

© M. Kolho / Visit Finland
The celebration of Christmas in Scandinavia incorporates old Christmas traditions with connections that predate Christian influence. As these northern countries become their darkest near the winter solstice, the Christmas holiday also signifies brighter days ahead.

Even in these very modern countries the celebration is rather traditional – the gathering of friends and family for seasonal food and drink, with an assortment of presents for the children. And don't forget about the romantic local Christmas Markets in Scandinavia. In recent decades the holiday has seen a few modern additions, along with the appearance of Santa Claus-like figures, though it strongly retains its distinct Scandinavian flavor.

Photos: Christmas in Scandinavia

Leading up to Juldagen...

The holiday season slowly reveals itself throughout the entire month of December. As the days grow darker approaching the solstice, Lucia candles appear in the windows of many houses and offices as part of the St. Lucia festival of lights, found primarily in Sweden. Celebrated on December 13, this holiday gathers together children, selecting one girl with a crown of candles as the city or neighborhood Lucia. The children proceed in a Lucia train (Luciatåg) singing carols and Christmas songs. This brief holiday can also turn more party-oriented for high school and university students, who gather together before heading home for the Christmas holiday.

Related: Christmas Traditions in each Scandinavian Country

Christmas Eve & Christmas Day

The day before Christmas, Julafton, serves as the primary day when presents are handed out, and a large dinner is served at the Christmas dinner table, the Julbord. Before the meal families will often gather together to watch the Disney broadcast of “From All of Us to All of You”, an hour-long assortment of clips featuring several Disney characters from the 1950s. Though slightly less popular in Norway and Denmark, this program is one of the most watched TV segments of the year in Sweden, with nearly 40% of the entire country’s population tuning in. Later on the family will gather for dinner and the opening of presents.

Children will leave out porridge or milk the night before for Tomte (Sweden) or Nisse (Denmark and Norway), small elves who leave presents underneath the Christmas tree. These small elves will typically live in barns or attics, hiding away and taking care of animals and business about the house, while also helping to distribute gifts during the holiday season. A single Jultomten or Julmannen, similarly dressed to Santa Claus in red and white, might also possibly appear to hand out gifts directly to the children. As the night winds down, the group might sing carols and continue to drink many of the traditional seasonal beverages.

With the main festivities over the night before, Christmas Day is used as a time to relax after the night before. Church services are fairly well attended through Scandinavia, considering the generally secular population.

Typical Food and Drink on Christmas?

The food available in Scandinavia over Christmas varies by country, but is generally based on various types of seasonally available meat, fish and vegetables. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, there’s plenty of pepparkakor (gingerbread) to be seen at local grocery stores and bakeries. At the julbord on Christmas Day, Finns and Swedes will often serve some type of Christmas ham, along with pickled herring, cod, potato casseroles, and vegetables. In Denmark and Norway it’s not uncommon to see pork and lamb rib along with cod and herring. For dessert, rice pudding is often served with a single almond hidden in a bowl – the receiver of which can make a wish for the following year.

In terms of drink, the Scandinavian countries have a few seasonal specialties for the occasion. Non-alcoholic julmust is heavily consumed during the weeks before and after the holiday season, a wintery cola similar to root beer. Schnapps are commonly drunk during the main Christmas meal, as they are at Midsummer, with even the possible appearance of homemade varieties. Glögg, a type of warm mulled wine, is often drunk at Christmas and throughout the winter. Scandinavians will often brew and spice their own glögg, through it is commercially available via the alcoholic monopoly stores in Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

After the Holidays:

In Norway and Sweden, the typical Scandinavian Christmas season continues until January 13 (Hilarymas), when all decorations are taken down. Before this, many families will take a winter holiday heading someplace warmer for what can often be the harshest part of winter in Scandinavia.

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