Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 22: Tomten

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

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 bearded 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.

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.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 21: Julvärd

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

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 actor, comedian and singer Marianne Mörck.

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.

This year’s host says in the trailer – ‘no matter who you are, where you live, or how old you are, I hope you will let me spend Christmas with you.’

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 20: Jullåt

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

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
  • Shine over sea and shore
  • Three gingerbread men
  • The Christmas goat
  • Staffan was a stable boy
  • Drunk again at Christmas
  • The gnomes’ Christmas night

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

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 19: Julklappsrim

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

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.

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 17: årets julklapp

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

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. Last year’s was the recycled item of clothing – a reflection of today’s environmental awareness.

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 the mobile phone storage box. A kind of parking lot for mobiles.

What does this say about Sweden today?

25 years ago the mobile phone was the present of the year.

This year, is the mobile phone storage box reflecting the stressful nature of today’s society in which people seem to feel that they are wasting too much time on their smart phones?

So Happy Christmas and a mobile-minimized New Year! 

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 14: Lussekatt

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

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 traditional 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 and the theory is that the name Lussekatt, comes from the word Lucifer.

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

Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar – Dec 13: Lucia

Welcome to the Watching the Swedes Advent Calendar. Every day, I will open a window containing a Swedish word that has something to do with Christmas and its approaching weeks.

Today’s word is ‘Lucia‘ – a Swedish saint who is commemorated today.

At the darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning. 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.

So, it might be cold and dark outside, but remember – after darkness comes the light.