Christmas in Sweden
Updated: Dec 15, 2019
A Brief History
One of the more iconic images that come to mind when one thinks of Scandinavia is that of Vikings and their longboats. The Viking Age began in 800 and lasted until 1066. The Vikings settled in the present day countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Although Vikings were fierce warriors who raided and pillaged much of northern Europe, they were also farmers and fishermen. Despite Hollywood portrayals of Vikings as huge men, the average Viking was much smaller than the average man of today. At about 5' 7", they were not very tall. It is surmised that the main reason for the end of the Viking Age was the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.
Christianity first reached Sweden when a missionary named Ansgar visited in the 9th century, but he had little success in converting the Swedes. Although a Swedish king, Olof Skötkonung, became a Christian in 1008, it was a long time before all Swedes were converted. Paganism lingered on in Sweden until the end of the 11th century. Nevertheless, by the middle of the 12th century Sweden had become a firmly Christian country. In the 12th century Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland united to create the Kalmar Union, with Queen Margaret of Denmark as its head. Sweden eventually left the union and also the Catholic church, choosing to join the Reformation. In the 17th century the Kingdom of Sweden reached its pinnacle of power. It controlled parts of northern Germany, Russia, Denmark, and Finland. The latter three countries rebelled, leading to the Great Northern War. Sweden lost much of its power after this war. In 1809 Sweden lost Finland to Russia after the Napoleonic wars. However, in 1814, after the sixth of seven conflicts during the Napoleonic wars, Sweden gained Norway. Norway remained a part of Sweden until 1905 when Norway became an independent country. From the late 1800s until 1930, more than 1.5 million Swedes emigrated to North America due to economic stagnation caused by the Napoleonic Wars. Sweden had a total population of 3.5 million in 1850 and 6 million in 1930. During this period, 90 percent of Sweden was agrarian.The economy rebounded during World War I, through which Sweden remained neutral.They have pursued a policy of neutrality ever since. Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, but voted against adopting the Euro, therefore the Swedish krona is still the currency of the realm.
Today, Sweden is a very secular country and the Christian churches that still remain are in decline. However, the Swiss still joyously celebrate Christmas. Jul, the Swedish Christmas holiday, is observed throughout December and traditionally until St. Knut's Day on January 13.The beginning of the Christmas season is celebrated with Saint Lucia Day (Sankta Lucia in Sweden). Many people in Scandinavian countries celebrate this feast day on December 13th, which also marked the beginning of the Winter Solstice in Swedish folklore.
According to legends the story of St. Lucia comes from the time of the Roman Empire. Lucia was a courageous young woman from Italy. When she heard of Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians, she bestowed her entire dowry on one Christian family. Her betrothed husband in resentment told authorities that Lucia secretly practiced Christianity. She was then killed, dying a martyr's death. She was greatly admired for her courage, generosity and faith. Vikings who were moved by the story brought it home with them. They imagined her to be a shining figure, surrounded by light and of course light played a vital part in many northern winter celebrations.
The theme of light is present during all activities, including parades in her honor. Customarily, the eldest daughter rises early on the 13th and wakes each of her family members. Wearing a white robe, red ribbon sash and a crown of candles, she serves them breakfast and pastries, known as Lussekatter (Lucia Buns). This ritual pays tribute to the legend of St Lucia bringing food during a famine.
According to folklore, unmarried girls believed that on this day Sankta Lucia would tell them who their future husband would be. The crown is made of Lingonberry branches which are evergreen and symbolize new life in winter. Schools normally have their own St. Lucia. Many towns and villages also choose a girl to play St. Lucia in a procession where carols are sung. Boys will participate in the tradition too. Some will dress in the same kind of white robe, but with a cone-shaped hat decorated with golden stars, and are called stjärngossar, or star boys.
Christmas trees are often set up about two days before Christmas. Trees and homes are decorated with gingerbread biscuits, Christmas decorations and flowers such as the Julstjärna (Poinsettias), red tulips, and red or white Amaryllis.
A common Christmas decoration is the julbock, or the ‘Yule goat.’ Usually made out of straw, they may be seen sitting on a table, hanging on a tree, depicted on Christmas cards or table clothes, and even as a candle holder — goats are strongly associated with Christmas in Sweden.There is even a famously gigantic Julbock made of straw that has been built in a town called Gävle every year since 1966, which measures 13 meters tall (43 feet). The Gävle Goat even has its own Twitter (@gavlebocken)
One of the most interesting and amusing things about the Gävle Goat is that it is burnt down year after year, despite all efforts to protect it from pranksters. Although this is not the intention of the Julbock, nor is it legal, it is an expected fate for the giant straw goat. Over its 53 year history only 16 goats have survived the holiday! Most recently the 2017 & 2018 goats survived. As in previous years, the 2019 goat was erected on the first day of Advent. As of this writing, the 2019 goat, which is under high security (double fence, 24 hour CCTV surveillance, K9 unit, and two security guards) is still standing!
In Sweden, the main celebration and exchange of gifts takes place on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is known as Julafton in Sweden. Traditionally, julbord, a special Christmas smorgasbord is served on Christmas Eve. The julbord usually consists of cold fish. Other meats may include ham, turkey, roast beef, meatballs, sausages, and meat stuffed cabbage rolls. Popular sides include red cabbage and potato dishes such as Janssons Frestelse (Jansson’s Temptation). Homemade sweets and pastries are part of the dessert menu. No julbord is complete without glogg, which is a sweet mulled wine.
After Christmas Eve dinner, a family member or a friend dresses up as "Tomte,” the Christmas gnome. Wearing a white beard and red robes, “Tomte” gives out gifts from his sack, many of which have a funny rhyme attached on them that hints at their contents.
Another popular tradition in Sweden is to watch Donald Duck on Christmas Eve! Every year, since 1959, at 3:00pm on Christmas Eve, the TV station TV1 shows the Disney special From All of Us to All of You or in Swedish it's Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul meaning "Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas." About 40 to 50% of the Swedish population stop to watch it!
Following Christmas, there is Epiphany on January 6, and later Hilarymas on January 13, which ends the Christmas season in Sweden."God jul" means Merry Christmas in Swedish.
The Church of Sweden originated as a state church during the Protestant Reformation. In 2000 the church and state were separated. Over the decades, the nation has become increasingly secular. Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, Christians are encountering more opposition by other religions for publicly acknowledging God. The current generation is growing up believing that the Church and God are not relevant to life, and is pursuing materialism, hedonism, and individualism instead.
A positive outcome of the decline of the Church in Sweden is that Christians are becoming more united. Evangelical groups from across theological and denominational spectrums increasingly work, pray and worship together as they see themselves as a minority in a secular society. Each year at Pentecost, around 20,000 from around the country gather in Stockholm for “Jesus Manifestation”.
Pray that the church will reawaken out of its spiritual slumber and shine brightly for God once more in a secular world.
Pray for true freedom of religion for all Swedes.
Pray for a God-planted curiosity among secular, humanistic Swedish youth.
Pray for Christian leaders and educators to be strong apologists for the Biblical worldview.
Pray for continued unity within the Church as well as a compulsion to tell Jesus’ story.