Advent Calendar – Dec 24: Kalle Anka

Window 24. As I am following the Swedish system of advent calendars, today is the last window, not the 25th as in the UK. So here is the final word: Kalle Anka. This is the Swedish name for Donald Duck – a Disney character with a strong, and unexpected, connection to Swedish Christmas.

Traditional Christmas celebrations on Christmas Eve in Sweden get off to a slow start usually. It all begins with a Christmas breakfast, consisting of rice porridge, wort bread, ham and Christmas cheese, amongst other things. After breakfast, some people go for a walk, some go to church, others begin the preparation for the Christmas julbord.

When to eat julbord differs from family to family. For some, it’s at lunch time, for others it more towards late afternoon. One surprising time marker is Kalle Anka (Donald Duck).

Every Christmas Eve since 1960, the Disney show ‘From All of Us to All of You’ featuring Donald Duck and his friends has been broadcasted on Swedish television at 3pm. Every single year. A very weird tradition for someone like me who grew up listening to the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day at 3pm. In the UK we have the Queen. In Sweden, Donald Duck.

So the discussion in Swedish homes is ‘should we eat before or after Kalle?’.

Today, Kalle Anka is watched as a sentimental tradition, or as background noise on Christmas Eve. But in the 1960’s when it began, it was the only time of the year that cartoons were shown on tv, so it was a Christmas treat. Since it’s been broadcast for almost 60 years, it is an integral part of what many Swedes associate with Christmas.

After Kalle Anka och julbord, it’s time for a visit from Tomten with gift-giving. This is followed usually by more food and drink. Some people conclude the day with a Midnight service at their local church.

Christmas is, like many places around the world, a time of overconsumption. Enormous amounts of food are left over and eaten during the following days.

In Sweden, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are both Public holidays – and the official end of Christmas is January 13th. Then it is time to traditionally throw out the Christmas tree. The lights in the windows have usually disappeared by February.

And as the daylight slowly returns to Sweden, people start planning for the lighter and warmer time of the year. And Christmas fades into memory…until next December.

Advent Calendar – Dec 23: Dan före dopparedan

Window 23. Today’s words are ‘Dan före dopparedan‘ – which translate somewhat curiously as ‘the day before dipping day’. Or, the day before Christmas.

I always thought that the name ‘dopparedan’ (dipping day) for Christmas Eve was somehow a reference to John the Baptist.

But I was wrong.

It actually comes from the Medieval Swedish tradition of dipping and drenching bread in the stock juices in which the Christmas ham has cooked, and eating it.

This traditional practice is called ‘dopp i grytan’ and originated in agricultural communities. People dipped their bread as a little snack while they made final preparations for the celebrations later in the evening. Some people still do this today.

Because Christmas Eve was called ‘dopparedagen’, the 23rd Dec became known as ‘dan före dopparedan’ – the day before the day of dipping bread.

Today’s ‘dan före dopparedan’ is more to do with making the final stressful arrangements for tomorrow. Final baking is done, last-minute Christmas presents are bought, a visit to Systembolaget (alcohol shop) is made. Long queues are to be expected.

And then, darkness and calmness descends over houses and homes all around the country. The evening before Christmas Eve is called ‘uppersittarkväll’ and Swedish families traditionally gather to wrap presents, play tv bingo, play games and write Christmas present rhymes.

It is also the evening when traditionally people put up final decorations and dress the Christmas tree, although this happens earlier for many families.

Once everything is finalized, hopefully there is a moment of relaxation to be had with a glass of warm glögg and a pepparkaka.

And then, it’s time to head off to bed in anticipation for the big day tomorrow – dipping day!

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 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 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

Advent Calendar – Dec 11: Nubbe

Window 11. Today’s word is ‘Nubbe‘ which is the colloquial word for an alcoholic shot known as snaps.

Nubbe, or snaps, is a really popular drink that Swedes enjoy at Christmas time. At its base, it is a strong spirit (30-38% alcohol content) called ‘brännvin’ which is distilled from potatoes or grain.

It can be plain and colourless, or flavoured with herbs and spices. Sometimes it can be sweet and infused with, for example blackcurrant, elderflower or raspberry. Others can be so bitter they make your toes curl – flavoured with for example aniseed, wort or wormwood. If it includes caraway or dill, it can according to EU patent protection be called akvavit.

A mouthful-size of ‘brännvin’ is called a snaps or a nubbe and it is drunk out of small glasses. Usually it is consumed when eating traditional food, and may also be accompanied by a ‘snapsvisa’ – a drinking song.

One popular drinking song at Christmas is called ‘Hej Tomtegubbar‘ which translates roughly as:

‘Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

Our time is brief upon the earth, with many troubles and little mirth

Hello goblins, fill your glasses and let’s be jolly together.

After a few snapses, the party atmosphere usually begins – with more singing, speeches and maybe even some dancing. For Swedes, snaps is such an important tradition that it is drunk not only at Christmas but at most festive times – such as Easter, Midsummer and autumn’s crayfish party.

According to The Swedish alcohol monopoly, Swedes have been flavouring their ‘brännvin’ since the 1500’s and the word ‘Nubbe’ as a slang word for snaps turned up first in 1892.

Advent Calendar – Dec 9: Julbelysning

Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and the festive season.

Today’s word is ‘Julbelysning‘ which translates as ‘Christmas lights’.

Like others around the world, Sweden’s cities and towns install public Christmas lights this time of the year. These decorations illuminate the dark December days and are an important part of building up the Christmas cheer at an otherwise miserable time of the year.

Currently Stockholm is populated with twinkling elk, reindeer, pine cones, angels, stars and fir trees. The same applies to Gothenburg, where there is also a giant red love heart on Lejontrappan. In Malmö, 1000,000 lights have been switched on and a festival called Vinter i City (Winter in the City) lasts for a month up to Christmas. More information on http://www.ilovegoteborg.se and http://www.malmo.se

Since 1996, on Skeppsbron in Stockholm, the city’s largest Christmas tree has been positioned. An enormous, impressive tree that towers over the buildings of the Old Town and spreads its light over the harbour. The tree in actual fact isn’t a real tree – it is constructed over a central pole with branches attached to it. In doing so, the tree is pleasingly symmetrical.

If you’d like to walk around and see the lights in Stockholm, the city has produced a map which you can find on http://www.stockholmsjul.se

This week is also Nobel week in Stockholm and a light festival called Nobel Lights is taking place. Monuments and buildings around the city are decorated and transformed with projected light shows. More information on http://www.nobelweeklights.se

Advent Calendar – Dec 8: Ernst

December 8th window: ‘Ernst‘ which translates as, well… Ernst.

What on earth is an Ernst you might wonder? Well, the question should rather be ‘who’ is Ernst.

Ernst Kirschsteiger is a person who, by many, is considered to be Mr Christmas in Sweden. He is a very popular interior designer who currently has a TV program called Ernst’s Christmas.

In his program he simply explodes festive spirit. He decorates and bakes and creates. He wallpapers and chisels and hammers. He sews and paints and he crafts. I would describe his design ethic as a nature-oriented retro scandi chic. He has a poetic, philosophical attitude to interior design coupled with practical solutions.

One week he made, for example, Christmas decorations out of mandarin peel and wire and inspired us with a wreath of dried garden flowers, moss and brussel sprouts.

Some people find him very cheesy and goofy but he has definitely cornered the market on Christmas coziness. Many viewers see him as the idea of male perfection – a sensitive man who cooks, builds and decorates the home – all wrapped up in one sweet Christmas treat.

Since his tv debut in 2000, Ernst Kirschsteiger has grown to be a phenomena who only needs referring to by his first name, like Cher, Madonna and Prince. So popular is he that a book of his quotes and poetic wisdoms called ‘Ernstologi’ was released in 2006 and became a popular Christmas present that year.

If you want to witness the phenomena (in Swedish however), watch this YouTube clip and enjoy!

Advent Calendar – Dec 7: Julskinka

Window 7: Today’s word is ‘Julskinka‘ which translates as ‘Christmas ham’ and is pronounced yule-hwinka (ish).

In the UK, I grew up eating roast turkey at Christmas. But in Sweden, it’s the ham that counts!

Swedes have been eating Christmas ham during the festive season since the 1600’s and many people consider it an obligatory part of the Christmas meal.

Originally it was a dish eaten only by the upper classes and rich farmers, but somewhere in the 1800’s in made it onto the tables of the general public.

The tradition of eating ham is thought to have evolved from the German pagan ritual of sacrificing a wild boar known as a sonargöltr to Frey, the Norse god of fertility, during the harvest festival. This was later adapted by the Christians and aligned with St Stephen’s Day which falls on December 26th.

Traditionally the cured ham is oven baked or boiled before it is coated in mustard and breadcrumbs and grill roasted. Here is a recipe.

The ham is mostly eaten with mustard and apple sauce. And the cold leftovers are eaten for days afterwards, often on crisp bread.

The Christmas ham is traditional in many other Northern European countries such as Finland, Estonia and Poland and even some parts of the USA and Australia.

Many people these days don’t eat meat, and therefore reject ham. However, to mimic the Christmas tradition, there are plenty of veggie centerpieces available including roasts made of soya, Quorn and other plant-based ingredients.

Advent Calender Dec 6: Julmarknad

Window 6: Today’s word is ‘Julmarknad‘ which translates as ‘Christmas Market’

A popular recurring event during the weeks leading up to Christmas in Sweden is the Julmarknad – the Christmas Market.

Christmas markets are a very cosy affair. Here you can walk around and enjoy the smell of glögg and roasted chestnuts. You can listen to the sound of Christmas carols echoing through the air. You can bathe in the lights and decorations strewn around the marketplace. And you can see traditional handicrafts and locally produced goods on sale, such as scarves, hats, festive food and decorations. If you’re lucky, snow is tumbling down and crunching under foot. The whole thing feels like being momentarily caught in a giant snow globe.

Christmas markets have been around in Sweden since the 1800’s and take place up and down the country on town squares, in gardens, in museums, farms, barns, greenhouses, castles, garden centers and stately homes.

This year, Christmas markets are back with a vengeance after last year’s Covid restrictions. But remember, even if you are outdoors and even if it’s cold – keep your distance.

In Stockholm, the most popular markets are in Skansen and on the main square in the Old Town. The Royal Palace of Drottningholm and Taxinge Castle outside Stockholm are also popular, as is the small picture-postcard town of Sigtuna about an hour north of the capital.

In Gothenburg, the market at Liseberg is a popular experience and in Malmö head to the market on Gustav Adolf Square.

For information in Swedish about Christmas markets, check http://www.julmarknad.nu