Advent Calendar – Dec 22: Tomten

Window 22. Today’s word is ‘Tomten‘ – who is the Swedish equivalent of Santa Claus.

Around the world, Santa is based on the mythology of St Nikolas – the Greek/Turkish patron saint who’s legend morphed in the USA from the Dutch immigrants’ Sinterklaas to the jolly figure who rewards good children that we see today.

The Swedish symbol of Tomten is partially based on St Niklas and the American depiction of Santa Claus. However, he is also based on a goat and a mythical sprite.

Let’s travel back to rural Sweden hundreds of years ago. Here, in the countryside, Tomten was a kind of sprite (hob, gnome, pixie) who lived on the farm and made sure that the farm had good luck.

Tomten was described as a little man, dressed in sackcloth and with a beard. He usually lived in the barn and was shy, mischievous, and irritable – and also vengeful. To keep Tomten happy, the farmer would leave out rice porridge for him to eat – a food that became known as ‘tomtegröt’ and that is still eaten for Christmas breakfast in Sweden today.

With industrialization in the late 1800’s, Sweden started to become inspired by the German St Nicholas, and in modern minds he merged with the rural sprite to become ‘jultomte’ – the gift-bearing sprite.

Popular Christmas cards by Swedish artist Jenny Nyström depicted this new version of Tomten in 1874 and strongly influenced the Swedish way of seeing jultomte. He was dressed in red hat, with a fluffy white beard. He is also seen to have many little helpers – known as ‘tomtenissar’ (a kind of elf).

And in 1881, a poem by Viktor Rydberg called Tomten strongly cemented his transformation and associated the figure with mid-winter and Christmas time.

Prior to this concept of Jultomte/Tomten, gifts were brought in Sweden by the Christmas goat. Straw goats are still a part of Christmas decorations in Sweden and can be found hanging in Christmas trees or standing at the foot of the tree.

In Sweden today, Tomten arrives on Christmas Eve, usually in the late afternoon. He delivers gifts to families, usually with the introduction of ‘Ho, Ho, Ho are there any good children here?’

Strangely, he always seems to arrive just when a member of the family (often dad) has gone out to the shops or gone for a walk.

Advent Calendar – Dec 22: Tomten

Window 23. Today’s word is ‘Tomten‘ – who is the Swedish equivalent of Santa Claus.

Around the world, Santa is based on the mythology of St Nikolas – the Greek/Turkish patron saint who’s legend morphed in the USA from the Dutch immigrants’ Sinterklaas to the jolly figure who rewards good children that we see today.

The Swedish symbol of Tomten is partially based on St Niklas and the American depiction of Santa Claus. However, he is also based on a goat and a mythical sprite.

Let’s travel back to rural Sweden hundreds of years ago. Here, in the countryside, Tomten was a kind of sprite (hob, gnome, pixie) who lived on the farm and made sure that the farm had good luck.

Tomten was described as a little man, dressed in sackcloth and with a beard. He usually lived in the barn and was shy, mischievous, and irritable – and also vengeful. To keep Tomten happy, the farmer would leave out rice porridge for him to eat – a food that became known as ‘tomtegröt’ and that is still eaten for Christmas breakfast in Sweden today.

With industrialization in the late 1800’s, Sweden started to become inspired by the German St Nicholas, and in modern minds he merged with the rural sprite to become ‘jultomte’ – the gift-bearing sprite.

Popular Christmas cards by Swedish artist Jenny Nyström depicted this new version of Tomten in 1874 and strongly influenced the Swedish way of seeing jultomte. He was dressed in red hat, with a fluffy white beard. He is also seen to have many little helpers – known as ‘tomtenissar’ (a kind of elf).

And in 1881, a poem by Viktor Rydberg called Tomten strongly cemented his transformation and associated the figure with mid-winter and Christmas time.

Prior to this concept of Jultomte/Tomten, gifts were brought in Sweden by the Christmas goat. Straw goats are still a part of Christmas decorations in Sweden and can be found hanging in Christmas trees or standing at the foot of the tree.

In Sweden today, Tomten arrives on Christmas Eve, usually in the late afternoon. He delivers gifts to families, usually with the introduction of ‘Ho, Ho, Ho are there any good children here?’

Strangely, he always seems to arrive just when a member of the family (often dad) has gone out to the shops or gone for a walk.

Advent Calendar – Dec 21: Julvärd

Window 21. Today’s word is ‘Julvärd‘ which translates as Christmas host.

The term Christmas host is not referring to the religious bread that represents the body of Christ. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking so at this time of the year.

No, the Christmas host is a personality on tv who guides the viewers through the proceedings on Christmas Eve.

For 27 years the ‘julvärd’ was the same person – a man called Arne Weise – and he is, for many Swedes, eternally associated with Christmas Eve.

But since 2003, a new host is announced every year and it is considered a great honour to be given the role. This year the ‘julvärd’ is popular tv chef Tareq Taylor.

While the role of ‘julvärd’ might seem trivial, it is actually very important. The Christmas host is present throughout the whole day and introduces the programs. He or she also talks about the value of Christmas and what it means. And not least, the ‘julvärd’ keeps lonely people company by inviting themselves into living rooms up and down the country.

The ‘Julvärd’ can be seen on SVT – Sweden’s Public Service Television – and is usually broadcast live.

Advent Calendar – Dec 20: Jullåt

Window 20. Today’s word is ‘Jullåt‘ which translates as ‘Christmas song’. The ‘å’ letter in Swedish is pronounced something like ‘or’.

Obviously, the Christmas song is not unique to a Swedish Christmas. Like many other countries around the world, the playing of Christmas music starts in shops sometime in November and probably gives the shop assistants PTSD by the time Christmas has actually arrived.

The big international songs are popular in Sweden. According to the top list released by STIM (Sweden’s Music Copyright Protection Organisation), the most played international songs on Swedish radio are Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ by Mariah Carey and Band Aid’s ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’.

However, there is also a plethora of Christmas music in Swedish to torment us – classic, carols, hymns, psalms and pop. Many of the songs have predictable titles about Christmas time and lighting candles. The top three most-played Swedish songs are called ‘Tänd ett ljus’ (Light a candle), ‘Jul, jul, strålande jul’ (Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas) and ‘Mer jul’ (More Christmas).

But there are also some songs with rather strange titles. Here are just a few of them:

  • Hello (Christmas) goblins
  • The fox rushes over the ice
  • Our Christmas ham has escaped
  • Three gingerbread men
  • The Christmas goat
  • Staffan was a stable boy
  • Drunk again at Christmas
  • The gnomes’ Christmas night

A popular tradition at Christmas is to go to one of the many Christmas concerts that take place up and down the country. These concerts can be for example choir concerts, church concerts or school concerts.

There are also many professional concerts and shows and some Swedish artists have carved out a living from performing at Christmas time and singing all the expected traditional songs.

This year for example you can see the Christmas tour ‘Min Sanna Jul’ with popular singer Sanna Nielsen. Or why not listen to the Royal Philharmonic’s Christmas concert with country singer Jill Johnson and Eurovision profile John Lundvik?

If you’d like to listen to some Swedish Christmas music, check it out here

Advent Calendar – Dec 19: Julklappsrim

Window 19. Today’s word is ‘Julklappsrim‘ which translates as ‘Christmas present rhyme’

If you receive a gift at Christmas time,

You’ll find in Sweden that it comes with a rhyme.

The packets are wrapped, the present to hide

And a poem describes all the contents inside.

You see, Swedes write poems on the label

Sometimes direct, sometimes a fable.

They sit in a workshop creating their verse,

It needs to be brief, but not at all terse.

The poem is read, the packet ripped open

And you see what you got, still leaves you hopin’

For a phone or a trip or a book about crime,

Wrapped up with a Swedish Christmas rhyme.

Advent Calendar – Dec 18: Skumtomte

Window 18. Today’s word is ‘Skumtomte‘ which translates as ‘Marshmallow Santa’.

January is a month when it is often jam-packed at gyms up and down Sweden, at least pre-Corona.

This is usually due to the amount of food, snacks, and alcohol consumed over the Christmas and New Year period. The festive season is also one of the times of year when a lot of sugar and sweets are consumed.

One of the most popular sweets in yuletide Sweden is the ‘skumtomte’ – the marshmallow Santa. The traditional skumtomte is traditionally pink and white and strawberry flavoured.

Thanks to the wonders of product development, new limited flavours have appeared in recent years: apple and cinnamon, blueberry, mint and gingerbread being some examples.

They have been manufactured since 1934, and every year over 194,000,000 are consumed in Sweden and Finland. It seems like it wouldn’t be Christmas without a jultomte.

Other sweet things that Swedes eat around Christmas are:

  • Ischoklad – ‘ice chocolate’ – chocolate with coconut fat in tiny cupcake forms
  • Ris a la Malta – a cold rice dessert with cream, vanilla and mandarines
  • Risgrynsgröt – rice porridge with sugar, cinnamon and milk
  • Knäck – butterscotch
  • Kola – toffee
  • Fudge – fudge
  • Marsipangris – marzipan pig
  • Lussekatt – saffron bun
  • Polkagris – Candy cane
  • Chokladtryffel – chocolate truffle
  • Dadlar – dates
  • Fikon – figs
  • Pepparkaka – ginger biscuits
  • Gröna kulor – marmalade balls
  • Aladdin and/or Paradis – popular boxes of chocolates

So, get eating – the gym can wait until 2022!

Advent Calendar – Dec 17: Årets Julklapp

Window 17. Today’s word is ‘Årets julklapp‘ which translates as ‘Christmas present of the year.’

Every year, Sweden’s trade research institute nominates an item that is the ‘Christmas present of the year’. This item should have sold in large quantities and/or represent current trends in Swedish society. 

The first item to be granted this status was in 1988 and it was the baking machine. Since then, various items have been the CD player, VR glasses, the tablet, the spike mat, the book, the food home delivery service, the robot hoover, the woolly hat and the wok.

In 2019, it was a mobile phone storage box. Last year’s was the mess kit – enabling people to go outdoors and socialise.

So this year, what is it? 

Given the current state of the world, one might hope that it is a charitable contribution. But no it’s not. It’s a ticket to an event, which is rather controversial and provocative given we are still in the midst of a pandemic.

Advent Calendar – Dec 16: Julbord

Window 16. Today’s word is ‘Julbord‘ which literally translates as Christmas table.

The word ‘smörgåsbord’ (buffet) is one of the words from the Swedish language to have the biggest international reach. The ‘julbord’ or Christmas table is the ‘smörgåsbord’ that is traditionally eaten in homes and restaurants on Christmas Eve – the day Swedes celebrate Christmas.

In the lead up to Christmas, companies often take their employees out somewhere for a ‘julbord’.

The ‘julbord’ is an interesting concept – a potpourri of dishes, hot and cold. Not all Swedes enjoy everything on the table, but the dishes still have to be present in the name of tradition.

So, what’s on the Swedish ‘julbord’? Here are some common savoury dishes:

  • Julskinka – Christmas ham
  • Inlagd sill – pickled herring of various sorts
  • Köttbullar – Swedish meatballs
  • Prinskorvar – cocktail sausages
  • Janssons frestelse – potato and anchovy gratin called Jansson’s temptation
  • Gravad lax – cured spiced salmon
  • Kallrökt lax – cold-smoked salmon
  • Varmrökt lax – warm-smoked salmon
  • Kalvsylta – jellied veal
  • Knäckebröd och ost – crispbread and cheese
  • Sillsallad – herring salad
  • Lutfisk – whitefish in lye
  • Dopp i grytan – ‘dip in the pot’ – bread dipped in the broth that the meat is cooked in
  • Cabbage of various colours – most commonly red
  • Vörtbröd – Christmas bread flavoured with wort
  • Revbensspjäll – spare ribs
  • Ägghalvor – halved boiled eggs topped with shrimp or caviar

The ‘julbord’ is a banquet, and its history dates back hundreds of years. Around the country there are regional variants to the standard dishes. For example, in county Skåne, they often add eel, and in Bohuslän they add ‘äggost’ – egg cheese! Many regions around Sweden have brown beans and different local sausages on the their Christmas buffet.

All of this food is traditionally washed down with beer, julmust, and snaps.

You have to be careful not to overindulge, if possible because afterwards comes coffee and dessert. A traditional dessert is called Ris a la Malta, which is fluffy rice in whipped cream and tangerines. At Christmas tables organised in restaurants, they normally have a ‘gottebord’ which is another smörgåsbord consisting solely of sweets and desserts. Common contents are toffee, fudge, gingerbread biscuits, marzipan, ‘lussekatter’, dried fruits, cheese, and chocolates.

Advent Calendar – Dec 15: Musikhjälpen

Window 15. Today’s word is ‘Musikhjälpen‘ which translates as Music Aid.

For the last 14 years, the radio/tv program ‘Musikhjälpen’ has become a traditional part of the lead up to Christmas.

In this program, 3 presenters are locked into a glass ‘cage’ on a city square somewhere in small town Sweden. They are sleep deprived and only allowed to eat liquids.

From the cage, they broadcast radio and tv round the clock for 6 days until they are released.

The program is a fund raising event and people up and down the country request songs and make donations, or carry out fund raising activities. At most, the event has raised a staggering 74,410,363 SEK in 2017.

Every year the theme is different; this year the theme is ‘a world without child labour’.

Throughout the years, many of Sweden’s music and media celebrities have taken on the challenge of incarceration, such as singers Sara Dawn Finer, Daniel Adams-Ray and Linnea Henriksson, and rappers Petter and Timbuktu. This year, singers Oscar Zia and Anis Don Demina are locked in together with tv celebrity Brita Zackari.

The event attracts large crowds, and this year people are encouraged to practice social distance. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, the glass cube was moved inside a warehouse with no general public audience.

The program is based on an original format called Serious Request from Holland and is an amazing display of charity just a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Advent Calendar – Dec 14: Lussekatt

Window 14. Today’s word is ‘Lussekatt‘ which is a traditional saffron bun.

Generally, I love Swedish pastries but the lussekatt is not one of my favourites I’m sorry to say. However, the sight and smell of them screams Advent and Christmas in Sweden. The lussekatt, is a rich, spiced yeast-leavened sweet bun that is flavoured with saffron and contains raisins.

The buns are baked into many shapes, of which the most common is a reversed S-shape. They are traditionally eaten during Advent, and especially on Saint Lucy’s Day, December 13. This could be the reason why it is called ‘lusse’ – a derivative of Lucy. However, there is a more sinister explanation.

In one theory, the lussekatt has its origins in Germany in the 1600’s. According to legend at that time, the devil used to appear as a cat, to torment children. To counteract this, people baked buns and colored them bright yellow to mimic the sun and scare away the devil. In West Sweden, the saffron buns were referred to as Devil’s buns (‘döbelskatt’) and the theory is that the name Lussekatt, comes from the word Lucifer. And the shape? Could it reflect a cat’s tail, or even the devil’s tongue?

Whatever the origin, the lussekatt remains a clear favourite in Sweden to eat at Christmas with pepparkaka and washed down with glögg.

If you’d like to bake your own lussekatt, you can find a recipe here