Q&A on American and Swedish Christmas Traditions

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.
christmas stockings
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.

sticky buns for christmas

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).

christmas in north carolina
More reading on Christmas

9 thoughts on “Q&A on American and Swedish Christmas Traditions”

  1. It gets a little confused when you have two very different kinds of tomtar merging together. Why would you leave things out for jultomten when he shows up in person?

  2. Hi
    It’s interesting to see, thata the swedish traditions is different around the country. For example, our ham is baked with a mix of rough (?!) mustard (grov senap), breadcrumbs (ströbröd) and egg. And our ris alá malta is just risgrynsgröt (felix på korv is the best) and som vanilla flavoured whipped cream.

    I love to read your stories about the differencies in our countries, esspecially since I’ve always wanted to move to the us. but I don’t see that happening anytime soon (not in this lifetime) so I’ll just keep on reading :-)

    God jul och gott nytt år på er!

  3. Being from the US, I’d like to share my different way of doing things, if I may… It’s somewhat different from your list :)
    My family has never eaten breakfast before opening presents. It’s always the opening of presents first, clean up, then make breakfast.

    Most families I know never put up their decorations until a week or so before Christmas (unless, of course, they’re a Christmas “fanatic” and love decorating!) Most people are too busy/aren’t that into it.

    We’ve never done Christmas caroling either! In fact, only one family I’ve met still does it annually.

    Last but not least – Eggnog is absolutely disgusting to me! Hot chocolate is always welcome though ;)

    I’ve noticed an evolving general disinterest in the “traditional Christmas” here in the past few years (unless you have young children).

  4. Hi
    When hanging stockings in Sweden; when do you actually open the stockings? On the 24th or 25th?



  5. I wouldn’t say that christmas eve starts with Kalle Anka. I have a lot of friends wo doesn’t watch it at all. Julotta is a tradition where people gather in church early in the morning, six o’clock or earlier. My family always goes to mass at eleven and I used to sing at the night mass, around midnight. Gifts are opened after dinner and the arrival of the jultomte and we have never left any risgrynsgröt for him. It’s dad, anyway, and we keep the tradition of him getting dressed up because of my fiv year old little sister, who always is very intimidated by him:)

  6. to Niklas

    i would say that, at least in norway, most people dont hang stockings. we have all the gifts under the tree and open them on the evening 24th, after dinner. i can also say that many norwegians (and sweedish i think) bake 7 kinds of christmas cookies before christmas.
    In norway we also have something we call Julebukk. it is simmilar to carolling but you also wear a mask and your neighbors guess who you are, and they give you christmass cookies or candy.

    here is a smal fact about norwegian “nisser” who is the same as sweedish “tomter”. they live normaly in the barns and around christmas they pull pranks on the farmers.

  7. I am born and raised in the US, and my Christmas is much more like the one Courtney describes. Also, I have never heard of having cinnamon buns for breakfast on Christmas morning. We have a regular breakfast.

  8. Like Thora said, stockings aren’t that common, but they would likely be opened/ emptied 24th in that case. When me and my sister were younger, we occasionally has stockings for some smaller gifts to keep us occupied until the main package opening (also, to reduce the time of it, probably).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *