Christmas is our major winter celebration, an evolution of the pagan winter solstice celebration, and is a time when people get together with their families, eat together, exchange gifts and relax.
In the north of Europe, we take a traditional approach to the event, with classic fir trees as Christmas trees, and an emphasis on having just the right amount of beautiful white Christmas lights and the perfect table display to complete that cosy feeling.
Here are six of the key components to a magical Scandinavian Christmas:
The Christmas Tree
The tree is an essential part of any Scandinavian Christmas. Not just any tree: it should be a fir tree, and it’s traditional to go to the forest and chop down your own. In Copenhagen, it’s not uncommon to see people cycling around the city with a Christmas tree they have just picked up; you can even take a special train from the city to a wood where you can chop them down yourself.
In Denmark, there’s a tradition of holding hands in a long line, as a family, singing traditional songs and dancing around the tree. All over Scandinavia, it’s also normal to see Christmas trees decorated with real candles.
The tradition has spread beyond Scandinavia to influence the rest of the world: the enormous Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, London, is a gift from Norway as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War, and has been given every year since 1947.
A tradition of celebrating the light
Particularly popular in Sweden, Saint Lucia’s Day is celebrated with a candlelit procession of boys and girls in full length white gowns singing traditional songs together on December 13th. Lucia, the lead in the procession, wears a crown of candles and Christmas elves follow at the rear. It’s a celebration of light in the darkness of December, and is one of Scandinavia’s most enduring traditions.
A Sunday ritual
Lighting the advent candle every Sunday in December is a warmly-embrace ritual in Scandinavia. In Denmark, it’s typical to have a candle holder with four candles just for December, one for each Sunday. It’s also a tradition to have a single advent candle marked with the days of December, which you burn for an hour a day from the start of the month until Christmas Day.
Gifts from a magical source
The man in red goes by many names, and he’s present in Scandinavia through the Christmas period to deliver presents to boys and girls who have been good. But that’s about where the similarities end. There are a wealth of stories about the big man, and where he lives here in Northern Europe.
Norwegians believe the ‘Julenisse’, or Christmas Elf, lives in Lapland. Danes know that the ‘Julemand’, or Christmas Man, lives in Greenland. Swedes think he lives in Tomteland near the town of Mora. Icelanders know there’s no one single Santa Claus, just nine naughty goblins who live with a witch and bring presents or tricks through the pre-Christmas period. It’s just not as simple as thinking he lives at the North Pole...
Whichever way you look at it, Christmas is a time for gift giving throughout Scandinavia, from many and varied sources.
Scandinavian Christmas food
One thing all the Nordic nations definitely agree on is that food is central to a Scandinavian Christmas. They all have their version of gløgg, a hot spiced wine drunk from around November onwards, and they all eat a hearty Christmas meal at lunchtime on 24th December. That’s right: 24th December. Christmas is celebrated a day earlier than in the UK and US. Christmas dinners don’t feature turkey: instead expect pork, lamb, herring, lutefisk and all kinds of other unusual delights, plus desserts and sweets featuring cinnamon.
A Happy Christmas to all!
So how do you say ‘Happy Christmas’ in Scandinavia? It’s easy: God Jul. Pronounce the ‘Jul’ part like ‘yule’ and you’ve got it. While it’s a little old-fashioned to call Christmas ‘yule’ in the English-speaking world, the word has endured here in Scandinavia. We’re wishing you a wonderful one, from all of us at Skandinavisk.