I’ve been thinking about what makes Swedish Christmas different from American Christmas. After emailing with a friend back home in America, I realized there’s so many Swedish traditions not found in America and vice versa.
I put together a list of questions and answers on how Christmas is celebrated in each of the countries. This is thanks to my friend EC who bombarded me with similar ones by email and chat.
When is Christmas celebrated?
United States – 25th – Christmas Day. In the morning families enjoy sticky/cinnamon buns for breakfast. After breakfast they open presents, starting with the stocking. Stockings are the large “socks” hung over a fireplace. They have small goodies, especially candies and favorite snack in there.
Christmas dinner is similar to the Thanksgiving dinner. There is mashed potatoes, stuffing, bread, pies, cookies, but instead of turkey most families have a honey baked ham.
Sweden – 24th – Christmas Eve. Families start the festivities by watching Kalle Anka Önskar God Jul, a Disney collection of songs from the last sixty years. During the show, they eat pepparkakor and drink glögg (Swedish mulled wine). Then for dinner, Swedes partake in the famous Christmas smörgåsbord called Julbord; which is a collection of different foods.
On Christmas Day Swedes rest and enjoy a smaller meal.
Do you go caroling?
United States – Yes, it is common in neighborhoods with children that kids and parents go door to door singing Christmas songs. At the end of the evening, the group gathers at a home for hot chocolate and cookies.
Sweden – It’s very uncommon. But, in church, families gather to sing songs.
When do you put up the Christmas tree?
United States – The weekend after Thanksgiving which falls on the first Advent.
Sweden – On the third Advent or after. It is not uncommon to put up the tree just a few days before Christmas Eve.
What are the most popular decorations?
United States – Wreaths, Christmas lights, and stockings. And when it snows, there’s always Mr. Snowman.
Sweden – Christmas stars to represent the town of Bethlehem and candle lights. Both are displayed in the windows.
What kinds of sweets do you eat?
United States – Cookies are most popular during the holidays. Everything from traditional chocolate chip to peppermint bark to decorated sugar cookies. Candy canes are well known to hang on the tree and of course eat.
Sweden - Swedes are not big on cookies but they enjoy other treats. The only cookie exception is gingerbread cookies called pepparkakor. The Swedish version are thin and crispy and more spicy and flavorful than the American counterparts, which are chewy-soft and sweeter.
Saffron buns, or lussebullar, are soft rolls made with saffron, kesella (quark), and touch of sugar. Swedes also enjoy a hard candy called knäck, literally meaning crack. It is hard toffee candy and can be flavored with almonds or exotic spices.
What kind of drinks do you have?
United States – Eggnog is a classic love-hate Christmas drink. Made with eggs and cream and flavored with anything from rum to cinnamon, eggnog is one of those drinks you imagine Auntie Georgia getting smashed on.
Similar to Swedish glögg, there is mulled wine and mulled cider. They are flavored with the traditional Christmas spices: cinnamon, clove, cardamon, star anise. For children there is hot chocolate with whipped cream and/or marshmallows. I’m a total kid; I love a dollop of whipped cream with dark hot chocolate.
Sweden – Glögg is the ubiquitous choice of drink to have on any cold afternoon or evening. Drop a few raisins and blanched almonds and you have the perfect strong drink to survive the Swedish winter. For toasting and Christmas dinners, there is aquavit or snaps. Children and non-drinkers can enjoy julmust, a Christmas cola soda, or a non alcoholic version of glögg.
What food do you leave out for Santa (Jultomten)?
United States – Cookies and milk. Any sort of cookie will do but most popular are sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and gingerbread cookies.
Sweden – Risgynsgröt. It is a rice pudding with cinnamon and brown sugar. Some tales call for a pat of butter on top of the pudding to ensure Jultomte does not break out in a rage.
What does Santa (Jultomten) look like?
United States – The American version of Santa can be credited to the Dutch’s Sinterklaas, cartoonist Thomas Nast, and folklore from other countries.
The modern version of Santa we know today is based on Coke-Cola’s creation by Haddon Sundblom in 1931. He based the modern day St. Nick on Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) and Nast’s work from 1862.
Santa Claus is seen as jolly, fat, well tempered and with a large white beard and red outfit.
Sweden – Santa is known as Jultomten in Sweden and julnisse in Norway. Jultomten derives his name from tomte, a small man living in a farm who worked using magic. The tomte could be very kind and bestow gifts but also very moody and sometimes borderline sociopath. In folktales he’s known to kill a cow out of anger for not receiving his pat of butter on risgrysgröt and beating those who do not keep the house/farm well.
Jultomten however has a better temperament than the tomte. The name Jultomten came into use somewhere around the 1500-1600s. He rides on a giant goat, like Thor, and hands out presents.
Today’s Jultomten are similar to the American Santa Claus who is a fat, jovial, old man riding a sleigh. But you can still find the traditional jultomtar statues in the store; big hat, lots of hair, little nose, and faceless.
Note: Anyone who has more knowledge about how Jultomte derived his name from tomte and what he looked like in Sweden let me know. It’s tricky finding good information about jultomte in Sweden.
You can guess that our home is an amalgamation of both cultures with a dash of Indian (lots of color!) and Jewish (rugelachs, latkes and when younger, dreidels).
More reading on Christmas