With Christmas fast approaching, Sandra Marklund offers a thorough guide on how to craft a cozy Norrland festive home. Photographs by Donna Richmond.
As December is one of our bleakest months, sun-wise that is, it’s always nice to have candles alight. In time for the first Sunday of Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), most Swedes gradually start working on their decorations and preparing for Christmas. On this special Advent Sunday we light one candle and then, over the next weeks, continue adding candles until all our candles are lit and Christmas time has finally come. The candleholder may look slightly different in every house but it’s usually decorated with things from nature such as moss, lingonberry sprigs, pine cones and maybe also a Santa, a pig or a goat (not real ones!), and red ribbons.
Candles (fake or real) are something we can’t get enough of during Christmas. The candle holders might be red, gold, brass, white or green. We also light torches or candles outside to welcome guests.
Make a wreath
Traditionally, one of the things we first make is a wreath to put on our front door. It can be bought or homemade. The base is usually made of pine, fir or juniper branches. The decorations differ but might consist of cinnamon sticks, slices of oranges, pine cones, tree ball or red ribbons.
Also our porches are sometimes decorated with green branches and lights made into a garland. Oranges are also decorated with cloves and are popular to hang up on door frames.
In time for the first of Advent we also make sure the light bulbs for our Christmas candelabras or starshaped lamps are working properly.
Here it is VERY important not to light them before the first of Advent. One can say that all of December is a preparation and a long wait for the December 24, Christmas Eve, which
is the day we celebrate here.
At Lucia, on December 13, we want to watch a Lucia parade, where schoolchildren lead a warm, sparkling concert. Schools usually invite parents and grandparents for the occasion. Sometimes companies invite their workers for a Lucia parade and some traditional fika with Luciabullar, gingerbread and something to drink. If there are none being held locally, we watch the SVT (the Swedish TV network) broadcast.
I think perhaps pepparkakor is one of the oldest traditional Swedish cookies. Around Christmas we eat a lot of them! Some enthusiasts actually make the dough in October to let it age and ripen before baking the precious pepparkakor. But don’t worry, supermarkets also sell dough, or if you prefer you can buy the gingerbread already done and just decorate them. However, baking pepparkakor is a beloved activity in most households, especially for children. It really is something special to use different moulds and shapes and later decorate the cookies and eat them together with glögg. A decorated gingerbread house will be displayed during the entire season and at the very end possibly be eaten by children. Or possibly before! A Swedish saying is that pepparkakor makes a person kind. This might have something to do with Swedish nuns back in the 14th century. At that time pepparkakor were baked primarily for more medicinal purposes, since ingredients like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves were thought to help with digestion, and they also have a soothing effect. But if pepparkakor actually makes you kinder, is up to you to decide.
It was always customary that seven cookies were to be served for a proper fika and not just during Christmas time. Around this festive season we invite, and are invited, for fika more often than usual. The fika usually has some kind of Christmas flavour such as cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, raisin, almonds, and of course chocolate. Drinks are coffee, hot chocolate, glögg, tea or julmust, but never Coca Cola!
If you get the opportunity to taste or buy traditionally wood fired baked flatbread, indulge!
Jul food and drink
Julmust/Christmas root beer
Blue cheese spread to go with the gingerbread
Luciabunns (almost like cinnamonbunns but with saffron, raisins and sometimes almond paste)
Polkagrisar/candy cane candy
Oranges and clementines
Angel chimes are of Germanic origin. I remember as a child being taught to light the candles and then watch the angels going round. Now I find it quite peaceful to watch the children doing the same thing as I used to do.
Families who have access to a forest of their own usually have a Christmas tree hunting tradition. Everyone is out searching for the perfect tree a week or so before Christmas Eve.
A day before Christmas Eve the tree is taken inside and decorated with different decorations and lights. To write about why we Swedes have goats and pigs in our tree or as straw figures would take too much space since it goes back to the aesir faith.
The Christmas tree is of Germanic origin, just like many of our other Christmas symbols. The tree and all other Christmas decorations are traditionally around until Saint Knut’s Day (January 13). If you decide to have a real tree inside the house, be aware that after a while the tree will start to lose its needles if not being watered or taken care of properly. Here is a challenge for you – can you make your Christmas tree last until the January 13 without losing too many needles? If you are allergic to trees (or cleaning!) you can also buy a plastic one.
Don’t forget to feed the wild birds, perhaps offer them a Christmas sheaf. Old traditional Christmas cards quite often show a picture of wild birds and a sheaf. Leaving a sheaf is common in many parts of Scandinavia.
Very good to know!
Allemansrätten only allows you to pick fallen branches from the ground. To collect anything else, you’ll need the land owner’s permission, so you really ought not to creep on to some desolate forest single-track road in the middle of the night and start hacking down a lovely, tall, fir tree. That is not how it’s done! Be a good Swede and buy your Christmas tree.
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