Min Jul Enfaranhet!

I was lucky enough to spend Jul (Christmas) in Sweden this year, and I'd like to share my experiences of a culture slightly different to the one I'm used to at this festive end of the year.

The most striking difference between a traditional Swedish Christmas and a traditional English (or British) one is that the focus in Sweden is on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas Day in England. On Christmas Eve, the day was spent preparing the house and food. In the afternoon, Mats's family arrived*, introductions were made, and the stilted conversation that accompanies a meeting of people from different cultures who speak different languages began. This was aided by the serving of glögg, which is essentially the same as our mulled wine but sweeter, served in much smaller glasses or cups with a spoonful of raisins and nuts.

I have to say at this point that Mats's family were really, really lovely to us. They put us to shame with their ability to speak English**, and were nothing but welcoming and friendly from the minute they came through the door.

Swedish Christmas Eve, round 1.
Then the food started. It was explained to me that a traditional Swedish Christmas meal consists of seven courses served as a buffet, starting off with cold foods (potatoes, eggs with caviar, pates, and the well-known multiple varieties of pickled herring) moving through to hot foods (and larger plates) such as pork ribs, ham and meatballs, and finishing off with a selection of sweet stuff (much of this was fairly recognisable, and variations on a theme of what we might eat for dessert over here. They don't have Christmas pud, though.) The food was a nice variety of things I was familiar with and things I hadn't tried before, which offers a nice opportunity for having new experiences whilst staying near to your comfort zone!

The meal was interjected with the occasional outburst of song followed by a chorus of "skål!" and the knocking back of whichever alcoholic beverage you have to hand. We enjoyed including an English equivalent in which we sang a verse from an English Christmas song, shouted "cheers!" and gulped down a drink. We also imposed our own traditions in the form of Christmas crackers. We'd smuggled these dangerous explosive devices through customs in order that our hosts wouldn't miss out on the paper hats, pathetic bits of plastic and appalling jokes that we Brits hold so dear.

As for the drink... Mats's brothers-out-law had made their own snaps (think of the German schnaps, and it's essentially the same thing- a highly alcoholic drink served as shots), which I was encouraged to try. Numerous times. It was strongly flavoured with saffron, a flavour that either grows on you or that I just don't like (I haven't worked out which).

Swedish Christmas Eve meals go on for hours. Unlike our tradition of mounding everything on to one plate and wolfing it down as if the world is ending, the Swedish affair was a lot more laid back, at least when it came to the food. During the meal a neighbour in a tomte outfit (Santa Claus, Saint Nick, Father Christmas: take your pick) called round and had a chat with the youngest member of our bunch, Jolina (I think I've spelt that correctly, and she's three), after which she opened her Christmas presents (remember this is still Christmas eve).

After we'd eaten, we charged our drinks and the family got together and opened their presents. This really was an unusual aspect for me, having grown up with the night before Christmas an agonising torment as we watched the clock and waited for Christmas day to arrive so that we could start filling the living room with torn paper.

Beyond this (I won't dwell as I didn't have much to open given RyanAir's modest baggage allowance and immodest extra-baggage fees), we settled down to a surprisingly successful bilingual (and mixed teams) game of Pictionary. Again, I won't dwell, other than to say it was massively entertaining and my team (of which I was the only English member) trounced the opposition to an almost obscene degree.

Christmas morning sees, as I understand it, a breakfast as hearty as the previous night's meal (with some of the leftovers making an appearance) and just as many people joining in. I really liked a porridge-y like addition, which was actually more like rice pudding with bits of mandarin orange in it.

On the afternoon of Christmas day we went to visit Nikki and @OhCrazy1's uncle where we ate a traditional English Christmas meal and opened some more presents*****.

Boxing day saw a visit to some more of Mats's relatives, who were similarly welcoming and bestowed similar amounts of food and drink upon us.

In all, Sweden appears to be a typical modern foreign country to the UK, in that They Do Things Largely The Same There. But it's the little differences that make things interesting.

* Mats is Nikki's boyfriend. Nikki is @OhCrazy1's sister. We were staying with them for the four days we spent in Sweden.
** From not knowing a word of Swedish a week ago I can now count to twenty with a fair amount of confidence*** and construct higher higher numbers with a bit of concentration, and utter a few monosyllables with something approaching childish conviction. Most of the Swedish contingent, however, were speaking English with varying levels of what can only be described as fluency. Honestly, it's embarrassing how lax we are over here with regards to putting the mileage in towards learning to speak other languages. For a Swedish kid, being bilingual is far from unusual, and many Swedes**** can speak 3 or 4 languages with some degree of proficiency.
*** My, erm, cousin-out-law, I suppose, was kindly helping me to practise counting to ten in Swedish only yesterday afternoon. She's three years old.
**** The swede (as in the vegetable) is not, incidentally, known as a swede in Sweden. It's a kålrot over there. Apparently our name for it comes from it being referred to as a "swedish turnip."
***** Which I cleverly avoided having to pay extra to take home by drinking it all.


  1. A nice experience! How did your parents feel about you spending Christmas away from home this year? Or was it not the first time?

    Sounds like a lot more alcohol was involved than a Christmas in Chennai, although we went to the British council carol concert where there were a lot of Christians and there was wine and whiskey for everyone :-) I don't like either so had water!

  2. This is not the first year I spent Christmas away from home: I've been living in my own place for 5 years or so now. My parents split up a couple of years ago, and my mum lives in Reading (with me in the midlands), so it hasn't been possible to spend it with both of them for a few years now. We have a similar situation on my girlfriend's side, plus my grandparents demand a certain amount of attention too, so we have something like a 5- way split with regards to people who are clamouring to spend Christmas day with one, other or both of us! 6, if you include the Swedish contingent. Last year we did 3 out of the 6 on Christmas day itself, which was interesting to say the least. The previous two years we held Christmas at our house and opened an invitation to all and sundry so as not to upset anyone. Some people denied our invitation, but our consciences were clear!

    This was the first year we've actually left the country, though!

  3. That sounds like a completely brilliant Christmas experience. Are you tempted to include elements of the Swedish way of doing things next time you host your own festivities.

    I too have family all over the place; parents in Lincolnshire, brother and his family in Birmingham and step-sons in Kent, Reading and London respectively but somehow managed to have all of them rammed into my living room on Boxing Day. It was great.

  4. Hi Liz,

    I don't really do a lot of festivity hosting, but if I did I'd quite like to hijack the idea of bringing Christmas Eve into things in a bigger way. I'm always a bit disappointed by Christmas - it tends to fly past me in a disorganised flurry and is over and done with before I've managed to work out what's going on - so making it a bit more active over a longer period might help that a bit.

    I always want to include my friends in my Christmas celebrations: as people I choose to spend my free time with, it seems silly to leave them out. Unfortunately, they're all off with family too...


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