Sweden’s 20th day of Christmas – it’s officially over!

Today is the official last day of Christmas in Sweden. Known as ‘Tjugondedag jul’ (twentieth day of Christmas) or ‘tjugodag Knut’ (twentieth day Knut), it marks the twentieth, and final, day of the festive season.

The name ‘Knut’ comes from the fact that today is St Knut’s Day in Sweden – commemorating the Danish king who was assassinated in 1131. One of laws Knut introduced was that nobody should fast during twenty days of Christmas, and that January 13 was the official end of the period.

In Sweden, today is the day when Christmas should be ‘danced out’. Traditionally, the Christmas tree is removed in a process called ‘julgransplundring’ (Christmas tree plundering), in which Swedes remove decorations, eat the edible ones, dance around the tree and throw it out. This is known as the St Knut’s Party and originated in the mid 1800’s.

On a more practical note, the discarded Christmas trees are gathered by the local councils and burned to provide heating or used on the traditional bonfires in April.

Sweden’s 3 wisest men

Today is Twelfth Night, called ‘Trettondagsafton’ in Swedish. Tomorrow is Epiphany and in Sweden, like many places around the world, it is a National Holiday – ‘Trettondagen’. (6 January)

In Sweden, not a lot happens on this day. Unlike the southern parts of Europe where it is the beginning of the carnival season, in the frozen north it is just another day off.

The day celebrates the arrival of the three wise men to Bethlehem to visit the savior in his cradle. These three wise men are said to represent the three continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.

This got me thinking about Sweden’s three wisest living men. Here is my triad – a highly subjective list of names! Who would you add to this list?

Wise man number 1 – Jan Eliasson. A Swedish diplomat who has been Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Sweden’s Foreign Minister and the Chairman of the International Peace Research Institute. He has worked to resolve conflict in Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Kongo, Sudan, Israel – amongst others. Since 2017, there is a Global Leadership Prize named after him.

Wise man number 2 – Anders Hansen. A Swedish psychiatrist, doctor and brain expert. He has written numerous books on how our brain works and led several tv programs on the subject. He has been given several awards, amongst them the Mensa Prize. He is an ambassador for Generation Pep – a non profit organisation that focuses on the mental health and well-being of young people.

Wise man number 3 – Micael Dahlen. A Swedish economist, and Professor at Stockholm School of Economics. His most popular books are Kaosologi, Nextopia and Monster. Kaosologi is about how to change habits, Nextopia is about what he calls ‘expectation society’ and Monster is about his research and interviews with 5 serial killers. He is the only Swede to have interviewed Charles Manson. He is on the board of numerous organisations and has won many awards. He is a popular lecturer, and advisor.

While these three wise men wouldn’t bring gold, frankincense and myrrh, they would bring peace-keeping, mental health and mind-boggling theories.

Swedish New Year’s pizza – with cabbage! 


Today, January 1st, is the most popular day to eat take-away pizza in Sweden. Partly it’s easy to order but also its greasiness acts as a great remedy for sore heads and tired bodies.

The Vesuvio and the Capricciosa are very popular pizzas in Sweden. However, the number 1 ‘national pizza’ is the Kebab pizza – a greasy pizza with kebab meat dumped on the top.

When you order a pizza in Sweden, you will also experience a very strange bedfellow.

In Sweden, pizza is served with complimentary salad, in both restaurants and take aways. This salad is called creatively –  ‘pizza salad’ and is made of cabbage. It is a kind of coleslaw with white wine vinegar, salt, pepper and oil. It’s fresh, crispy and a bit weird. 

This odd combination is as far as I know only offered in the Nordic countries and its origin is a bit unclear.

One theory is that when the first pizzerias opened in Sweden, the traditional tomato salad wasn’t an option due to the climate in the winter. So, subsequently the pizza baker decided to use a more available, local vegetable – the cabbage – inspired by the Croatian salad ‘kupus salata’. 

Whatever it’s origin, the pizza salad is so ingrained in the Swedish mentality, it’s become a cultural ‘classic’.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine a pizza without cabbage salad in Sweden. Especially on New Year’s Day!

A literal Swedish Christmas

Swedish is often a very literal language. Today, the 26th December, is a good example of that.

In the UK, the 26th December is known as ‘Boxing Day’. In many countries it’s St Stephen’s day – in Finland, it’s ‘Stefani Day’. In Ireland it’s ‘Wren’s Day’. In South Africa, it’s the ‘Day of Goodwill’.

And in Sweden? Well, here comes the literalness.

It’s called ‘Second Christmas Day’.

5 ways that the Vikings impact Christmas

Long before the Christianity swept over Europe, the Norse people celebrated the Midwinter Solstice in a festival called Yòl. (Yule/jul). Eventually this festival blended with Christmas and gave us many of the traditions we have today.

So, what are 5 ways in which the Norse traditions impacted Christmas?

1) Father Christmas – Odin, King of the Norse Gods, was a bearded old man in a hat and cloak. He rode Sleipnir – an 8-legged horse – across the night sky and delivered gifts to those below. This morphed into the Christian St Nicholas, and 8 reindeer to complete the saga of Santa.

2) The Twelve Days of Christmas – the ancient Norse celebrated their midwinter festival for twelve days, beginning on the day of the winter solstice. It was believed that Odin rode the sky for these 12 days so it was forbidden to hang out laundry in case he got entangled. This was known as ‘the Great Hunt’.

3) Christmas Tree – many of us know that the indoor Christmas tree originates in Germany and was made popular in the Victorian era. However, it in fact pre-dates this. The Norse people believed that evergreens were the divine plant of their sun God Balder (the son of Odin) because they remained green though-out the winter. They took this as a sign that spring was advancing. To encourage the oncoming season, they would decorate the branches of the trees with ornaments, runes and offerings of food. With Christianity, these decorations became stars, and other biblical symbols.

4) Christmas Elf – no story of Santa’s workshop is complete without his little helpers. In Norse mythology, there is the ‘nisse’ or ‘tomte’. These little creatures were small, bearded and wore little pointy hats. They were believed to live in the barns in the farmstead and they would guard the property and the inhabitants, and even fix broken things. They were loyal and industrious but you had to treat them with respect, otherwise their vengeance would be swift and angry. They also loved playing practical jokes and mischief, rather like the elves in Santa’s workshop. The word ‘elf’ comes from the Norse word álfar, which means ‘concealed people’.

5) Mistletoe – ever kissed somebody under the mistletoe? In doing so, you have fulfilled a Norse legend. In the legend, the God Balder had been prophesied to die. His mother, Frigg, in desperation, secured an oath from everything that they would not hurt him. However, she forgot to ask the mistletoe. The envious God Loki carved an arrow out of mistletoe and killed Balder. Frigg’s tears of sorrow fell onto the mistletoe turning the red berries white, and resurrected her son. She then vowed to kiss anybody who passed underneath it, and the plant came to represent love and renewal.

Another Norse influence on our Christmas celebrations is the Christmas Goat. The goat has lost its significance in most countries, but is still a symbol in Scandinavia, where it is a decoration made of straw. The goat originates in Norse tradition from the kid goat that was sacrificed in honour of Njord, the God of the Sea, the Weather and Prosperity. Later on, in Sweden, the Yule goat was believed to be an invisible spirit that would appear before Christmas to make sure that the holiday preparations were done correctly. Eventually, the goat took on the role of the gift giver, instead of or together with Santa Claus (called Jultomten in Swedish).

Other traditions that originate from the Norse jòl are the Christmas Ham, the Yule Log, the Yule Wreath, and Christmas caroling, or ‘wassailing’.

So, while the message of Christmas is the Christian story, many of the surrounding symbols and traditions are in fact from another source altogether.

Why is Christmas called ‘Jul’ in Swedish?

While the English word Christmas (Christ’s mass), and the German Weihnachen (Holy Night) are clearly connected to the celebrated Christian birth, the Swedish word ‘Jul’ has a much more vague origin.

Like with the English word ‘yule’, experts do not fully agree on where it originates. However, it is deemed likely that it comes from the Proto-Germanic word ‘jehwla’ which could have meant ‘party’ or ‘celebration’.

The word was taken early into the Nordics via the Old Finnish language in the form of ‘juhla’ meaning ‘festival’, and then again as ‘joulu’ meaning ‘jul’. There was already a big celebration of the winter solstice and the winter hunt around this time that was given the name ‘jol’ in Old Norse.

After the surge of Christianity through Europe in the 900’s, England and Germany aligned their word for Christmas, but in the Nordics they kept word ‘jul’. Instead they scheduled their pagan celebrations to occur at the same time as the Christian one, and eventually the two melted together. In the Nordic countries, we still see elements of the pagan ‘jol’ at Christmas time with the ‘Christmas goat’ for example.

In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Christmas is called ‘jul’. In Finland, it is called ‘joulou’. In Iceland it is called ‘Jol’ and in Estonia, ‘joulud’.

Sweden’s Lucia Celebration

At the darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning on December 13th. Lucia has candles in her hair and is surrounded by her handmaidens and boys, and shines light into the dark depths of our spirits. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

Santa Lucia is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a martyr’s death in Syracuse, Sicily around AD 310. She was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes, in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result of this, Lucia became a devout Christian and refused to compromise her virginity in marriage.

Officials threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her, even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her instead and set light to it, but she would not stop speaking.

One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop her, but to no effect. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. Lucia was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrement.

The tradition of Santa Lucia is said to have been brought to Sweden via Italian merchants and the idea of lighting up the dark appealed so much that the tradition remained. The current tradition of having a white-dressed woman with candles in her hair appearing on the morning of the Lucia day started in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 19th century.

The modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. The initiative was then followed around the country through the local press. Today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread.

Not only does Lucia represent tradition, but there is also a symbolic meaning. Never more important than this year when the world is in turmoil. So remember, it might be cold and dark right now, but after the darkness comes the light.

50 Swedish words for snow

A massive amount of snow has landed on Stockholm over the weekend – and it is still tumbling down. So, I thought it’s worth sharing this list again.

Not surprisingly when living in a country where it snows a lot, people start to see differences and nuances in the type of snow, whereas in English the word might just be an unsatisfactory ‘snow’.

The Swedish language makes it easy to join words together to describe these nuances.

Here is a list of 50 Swedish words related to snow.

1) Blötsnö – wet, slushy snow
2) Drivsnö – snow that is blown into troublesome snow drifts
3) Aprilsnö – snow in April, according to superstition, signifies plenty of food for the coming season
4) Hårdsnö – compacted hard snow
5) Konstsnö – artificial snow
6) Kramsnö – squeezy snow, perfect for making snowballs
7) Julesnö – snow at Christmas
8) Klabbsnö – wet, warm snow for building snowmen
9) Kolsyresnö – frozen carbondioxide
10) Kornsnö – small white snow breadcrumbs
11) Lappvante – thick, falling snow
12) Lössnö – snow that can loosen and be dangerous
13) Majsnö – surprising and unwelcome snow in May
14) Modd – snow that has partly melted due to salt
15) Natursnö – real snow (as opposed to artificial)
16) Nysnö – fresh snow, crisp and white
17) Pudersnö – powder snow
18) Rekordsnö – an unusual amount of snow, breaking previous snow records
19) Slask – slushy snow mixed with rain and dirt on the ground
20) Snö – snow
21) Snöblandat regn – snow mixed with rain
22) Muohta – the Sami word for snow (it is said the Sami actually have 200 words for snow!)
23) Snörök – faint particles of snow that look like smoke
24) Yrsnö – snow being whipped around by the wind in all directions
25) Åsksnö – snow that pours down during a thunder storm

26) Snökanon – the word for the snow canon that creates artificial snow on ski slopes has also come to mean a sudden blast of snow that suddenly hits a place, and feels like snow has been dumped on you.

27) Jungfrusnö – virgin snow

28) Snösmocka – a huge amount of snow

29) Snötäcke – snow on the ground

30) Sjösnö – snow over the sea that can roll in over land

31) Snöfall – snow in the air

32) Flingsnö – snow with larger crystals

33) Skarsnö – a crispy surface on a blanket of snow

34) Packsnö – thickly packed snow

35) Pärlsnö – snow like small pearls that hurts when it hits your face

36) Snöglopp – wet snow mixed with rain

37) Spårsnö – snow that allows footprints to be formed

38) Fjöcksnö – a light, fluffy snow

39) Flister – snow the consistency of salt that stings the face when it falls

40) Flaksnö – a sheet of snow

41) Upplega – snow on the upper side of a tree branch

42) Firn – liquid-like snow that can initiate an avalanche

43) Fimmel – sandy snow that falls at low temperatures

44) Själja – a thin layer of ice on top of the snow that resembles glass

45) Knarrsnö – crispy snow that creaks when you walk on it

46) Snöfyk – wet snow

47) Torrsnö – dry snow

48) Månsilver – a poetic word to describe the dusting of snow

49) Snöis – snow on cold water that forms an icy solid surface

50) Stöp – a mixture of snow and ice resembling porridge that forms on top of cold water

So, let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

Spectacular Swedish serenity on All Saints’ Day

I remember walking around Stockholm when I had recently moved here. It was a pitch black Saturday evening in November, cold and crisp. As I approached a majestic church, I noticed that it was shimmering from the graveyard.

This yellow and white light slowly flickered and cast shadows on the gravestones and the church wall. As if drawn by a magic spell, I walked up to the church and looked over the wall. The sight that met my eyes was spectacular and serene at the same time. Hundreds of candles were spread around the cemetery, decorating each of the graves. In the memory grove a bright blazing blanket of candles lit up the area. It was as if the spirits of the dead had come out to play.

In Sweden, the first Saturday in November is All Saints’ Day (the following Sunday is called All Souls’ Day to separate between the saints and the dead).

Since the 1800’s Swedes have, during this weekend, made pilgrimage to graveyards up and down the country to decorate the graves with candle light and to pay respect to the dead. It is a much more elegant and atmospheric tradition than the typical Halloween parties that otherwise have become very popular in Sweden.

It is a truly beautiful experience to walk through the churchyards this weekend. In the pitch black November Nordic darkness, it is a peaceful reminder of those who have gone before us. So head for your nearest cemetery this evening and, if you happen to be in Stockholm, go to the Forest graveyard (Skogskyrkogården) for a specifically spectacular experience (pictured below).

The Swedish Armed Forces at Pride

Several advertisements appeared in today’s newspapers in Sweden. The ads, from the Swedish Armed Forces, show how they support equal rights and will be participating in Stockholm Pride which starts tomorrow. This is one of the reasons I am proud to have Swedish citizenship.

The advert reads:

”MORE IMPORTANT NOW THAN EVER. Uncertain times do not mean we stop defending human rights, everyone’s equal value and your right to live as who you are. That’s why we’re participating in Pride, this year again.”