SCANDINAVIAN CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
In much of Northern Europe Christmas is celebrated on December 24th and
is referred to as Yule, while December 25th is a relaxed day for visiting relatives.
Denmark celebrates on December 24th, which is referred to as Yule evening. An evening meal with the family consists of roast pork, roast duck or roast goose and eaten with potatoes, plenty of gravy, and red cabbage or finely chopped kale boiled in butter. Also caramelized potatoes are an important part of the Danish Christmas dinner. For dessert rice pudding is traditionally served – composed largely of whipped cream and accompanied by lashings of black cherry sauce. The rice pudding also contains chopped peeled almonds, and a single whole peeled almond. Whoever finds the whole almond will have good luck for the coming year, and the lucky finder is entitled to a small gift. After the meal is complete, the family gathers around the Christmas tree and sings Christmas songs and hymns while holding hands and dancing in circles, and may even tour the house, still holding hands and singing. When the singing is complete, traditions vary. In some traditions, the family will select one child to hand out the presents. All children take turns handing out presents in other traditions. Alternatively “Santa Claus”, appears at the door in full costume with a large sack of presents over his shoulder. He will then distribute the presents, with the assistance of any children present, to their recipients. He should be offered suitable drink to keep him warm and cheerful on his onward journey, but do not expect loquacity – utterances are normally limited to loud and hearty laughs. Meanwhile the presents are opened and this is followed by more snacks, candy, chips and, sometimes, a traditional Christmas drink called Glogg. Danes are famous for their Julefrokost, literally meaning “Christmas lunch”, which includes various traditional Danish dishes, potentially accompanied by beer and Snaps. These Julefrokoster are popular and held within families, as well as by companies and other social groups. They would traditionally have taken place leading up to Christmas, but due to time constraints and stress during the Christmas month they are commonly held during November and January as well. The family Julefrokoster however is normally held on Christmas Day and/or The Second day of Christmas (December 26th).
Another more recent Danish tradition is the concept of television Julekalendere, special Christmas-themed, advent calendar-type television programmes with a daily episode shown on each of the first 24 days of December, thus culminating on Juleaften. Several television stations produce their own, most, but not all of which are targeted at child viewers. Some of the television advent calendars become extremely popular and go on to be reprised in subsequent years.
In Denmark, Santa Claus is known as “the Yule Man” and is said to arrive in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, with presents for the children. He is assisted with his Yuletide chores by elves known as julenisser (or simply nisser/nissie), who are traditionally believed to live in attics, barns or similar places. In some traditions, to maintain the favor and protection of these nisser, children leave out saucers of milk or rice pudding or other treats for them and are delighted to find the food gone on Christmas morning.
Christmas is an extensively prepared celebration centering on the family and home, although it has a religious dimension also. The Christmas season starts from December or even in late November, when shops began advertising potential Christmas gifts. Christmas decorations and songs become more prominent as Christmas nears, and children count days to Christmas with Advent calendars. Schools and some other places have the day before Christmas Eve as a holiday, but at the latest on Christmas Eve shops close early. The main Christmas festivities are held on Christmas Eve on December 24th, while Christmas Day and the following day (“St. Stephen’s Day”) are mandatory public holidays in Finland. Schools continue holidays up to the New Year. The Declaration of Christmas Peace has been a tradition in Finland every year, except in 1939 due to the Winter War. It is a custom in many towns and cities. The most famous one of these declarations is on the Old Great Square of Turku, the former capital of Finland, at noon on Christmas Eve. It is broadcast on Finnish radio (since 1935) and television, and nowadays also in some foreign countries. The declaration ceremony begins with the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, and continues with the Declaration of Christmas Peace read from a parchment roll:
“Tomorrow, God willing, is the most gracious feast of the birth of our Lord and Savior, and therefore a general Christmas peace is hereby declared, and all persons are directed to observe this holiday with due reverence and otherwise quietly and peacefully to conduct themselves, for whosoever breaks this peace and disturbs the Christmas holiday by any unlawful or improper conduct shall be liable, under aggravating circumstances, to whatever penalty is prescribed by law and decree for each particular offence or misdemeanor. Finally, all citizens are wished a joyous Christmas holiday.”
The Ceremony ends with trumpets playing the Finnish national anthem Maamme and Porilaisten marssi, with the crowd usually singing when the band plays Maamme. Recently, there is also a declaration of Christmas peace for forest animals in many cities and municipalities, so there is no hunting during Christmas.
Finnish people clean their homes well before Christmas and prepare special treats for the festive season. A sheaf of grain, nuts and seeds are tied on a pole, which is placed in the garden for the birds to feed on. Spruce trees are cut or bought from a market and taken to homes on or a few days before Christmas Eve and are decorated. Candles are lit on the Christmas tree, which is traditionally decorated using apples and other fruit, candies, paper flags, cotton and tinsel, in addition to Christmas ornaments such as stars or baubles. Actual candles are no longer used, being replaced by incandescent or LED lamps. A star symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem is placed at the top of the tree. Just before the Christmas festivities begin, people usually take a Christmas sauna. The tradition is very old; unlike on normal days, when one would go to the sauna in the evening, on Christmas Eve it is done before sunset. This tradition is based on a pre-20th century belief that the spirits of the dead return and have a sauna at the usual sauna hours. Afterwards, they dress up in clean clothes for the Christmas dinner, which is usually served between 5pm and 7pm, or traditionally with the appearance of the first star in the sky. The most traditional dish of the Finnish Christmas dinner is Christmas Ham, roast suckling pig or a roasted fresh ham, but some may prefer alternatives like turkey. Several sorts of casseroles, like rutabaga, carrot and potato casserole are traditional, and are almost always exclusively served on Christmas. Other traditional Christmas dishes include boiled codfish (soaked beforehand in a lye solution for a week to soften it) served snowy white and fluffy, pickled herring and vegetables. Prune jam pastries, plum or mixed fruit soup, rice porridge with cinnamon, sugar and cold milk, and sweets like chocolate are popular desserts. Christmas gifts are usually exchanged after Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Day services begin early at six in the morning and people visit families and reunions are arranged on this day.
Christmas or Yule (Iceland) is a celebration starting four Sundays before the 24th (advent) and ending thirteen days later or on January 6th. Traditionally Icelanders will light four candles one each Sunday until the 24th. At 6:00 pm Church bells ring at that time and people either sit down for holiday dinner or attend mass at a church (If so they either eat before or after mass). After that they open gifts and spend the evening together. Thirteen days before December 24th, the Yule lads start arriving into the towns to give children that have behaved well small gifts in a shoe that has been placed by the window. They are told to be the sons of two trolls living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). Traditionally they wear wool clothing much like Icelanders did in earlier centuries but are now known for the more recognizable red and white suit.
Each home typically setup a Christmas tree indoors in the living room and many decorate it on December 23rd, but that varies. Presents are put underneath the tree. It is also a tradition in many homes to boil skate on the 23rd. The day is called Saint Thorlak Mass. During the holiday season it is traditional to bake small cookies to serve or give to guests. Most common is making thin gingerbread cookies and painting them with a different color glaze. It is also a tradition to make Leafbread which is flat thin bread that is cut out using a special tool and folding technique. These traditions are most often a family event where everyone pitches in.
The end of year is divided between two days the Old year day and the New Year’s Day. At the night of the former and morning of the latter Icelanders shoot up fireworks blowing the old year away and welcoming the new one. Thirteen days after the 24th Icelanders say goodbye to the Yule lads and other mystical creatures such as elves and trolls. There are bonfires held throughout and the elves, yule lads and Icelanders and dance together before saying goodbye for the year.
The major day of celebration in Norway is December 24th. Although it is legally a regular workday until 16:00, most stores close early. Church bells toll in the Christmas festival between 17:00 and 18:00, and many people attend the church service thereafter. In some families the Christmas story from Luke 2 will be read from the old family Bible. The main Christmas meal is served in the evening. Common main dishes include pork rib; pieces of lamb rib steamed over birch branches, and in some western areas burned sheep’s head. Many people also eat fresh, poached cod. Rice porridge is also popular (but most commonly served the day after rather than for the main Christmas dinner), an almond is often hidden in the porridge, and the person who finds it wins a treat or small gift. In some parts of Norway it is common to place porridge outside (in a barn, outhouse or even in the forest) to please “Nissen”. In many families, where the parents grew up with different traditions, two different main dishes are served to please everyone. If children are present (and they have behaved well the last year), Santa Claus pays a visit, otherwise gifts are stored under the Christmas tree. December 25th is a very quiet and relaxed day. Church services are well attended. The old tradition of a very early morning service before breakfast has been replaced in most areas by a service in the later morning. Afterward many families get together for a large festive meal. December 26th is also a day of many festivities. Cinemas, night clubs and bars are full, and there are lots of private gatherings and parties, where all kinds of traditional Christmas Cookies and sweets are enjoyed. Fatty, tasty dinners are also part of it. The time between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve is called romjul. During this time children in some parts of Norway dress up as “nisser” and go in their neighborhoods and sing Christmas carols to receive treats, much the same way as on the American Halloween. January 6th (13th day of Christmas) is the official end of Christmas.
Swedish Christmas celebrations begin with the first of Advent. Saint Lucy’s Day is the first major Christmas celebration before Christmas itself. Electric candles and glowing stars are placed in almost every window in December month in Sweden. Although December 25th is a Swedish Public holiday, December 24th is the day when Santa Clause brings the presents. Although not a public holiday, Christmas Eve is a holiday in the sense that most workplaces are closed, and those who work, for instance in shops or care homes, get extra wages as compensation. The Jultomte was originally a small invisible Christmas house gnome or dwarf from the Nordic mythology, who watched over the house and its inhabitants. An old superstition still calls for feeding the Tomte on Christmas Eve with a small bowl of porridge. If a bowl of porridge is not laid out for him somewhere in or outside the house, he will bring bad luck to everyone in the house the next year. The modern “Tomten”, nowadays is a version of Santa Claus in red cloth and white beard, except that he doesn’t enter the house through the chimney, but knocks on the door and asks “are there any nice children here?”
Christmas is an occasion celebrated with food. All Swedish families celebrate on December 24th with a Christmas table, called Christmas smorgasbord, a display of several Christmas food items. Almost all smorgasbord has Christmas ham, accompanied by other Christmas dishes, such as small meatballs, pickled herring, spareribs, small hot dogs, pork sausage, salmon, potato casserole with anchovy, and rice pudding. The Christmas smorgasbord is served with julmust and beverage like mulled wine, Christmas beer or snaps. A Scandinavian specialty is glogg (mulled and spiced wine with almonds and raisins), which is served hot in small cups. The different dishes of smorgasbord may vary throughout Sweden, from South to North. Businesses traditionally invite their employees to a smorgasbord dinner or lunch the weeks before Christmas, and people go out privately to restaurants which also customarily offer smorgasbord during December. Examples of candies and treats associated with Christmas are marzipan, toffee, knack (quite similar to butterscotch), nuts and fruits: figs, chocolate, dates and oranges decorated with cloves.
After the smorgasbord on December 24th, the presents are distributed, either by Jultomten or a family member, and usually from a sack or from under the Christmas tree where they have been lying all day or for several days. Many Swedes still adhere to the tradition that each present should have a rhyme written on the wrapping paper, to hint at the contents without revealing them. In older days a yule goat was an alternative to Jultomten, nowadays it is used as an ornament, ranging from sizes of 10 cm to huge constructions like the giant straw Christmas goat, famous for frequently being vandalized or burnt down. If one has two families to celebrate Christmas with, it is common that one of the families move their celebrations to Christmas Day or the day before Christmas Eve.
After December 24thm the Christmas celebrations have more or less come to an end. Some people attend an early morning church service on December 25th. This particular service was the main service of Christmas historically—Midnight Mass has become increasingly popular. Others attend a simpler service called Christmas Prayer in the afternoon of Christmas Eve; however, many Swedes do not attend church at all during Christmas as the country is very secular. Even so, most families do set up a Christmas Crib. On January 13th (locally known as knutdagen or tjugondag knut, English = twentieth day Christmas), 20 days after Christmas, the Christmas celebrations come to an end and all Christmas decorations are removed.
Christmas traditions in the Netherlands are almost the same as the ones in Dutch speaking parts of Belgium. The Dutch recognize two days of Christmas as public holidays in the Netherlands, calling December 25th, first Christmas day and December 26th second Christmas day. In families, it is customary to spend these days with either side of the family. In the Catholic part of the country, it used to be common to attend Christmas Eve midnight mass; this custom is still upheld, but by fewer people every year. Christmas Eve is these days a rather normal evening without any special gatherings or meals. However, the gourmetten on Christmas Day is the most celebrated Christmas tradition. People grill meat, fish or omelettes on a big pan. Some parts of the country also bake pancakes on it. The week before Christmas is important to the retail trade, because this is the biggest sales week in the country. Christmas songs are heard everywhere. People in the southern region of the Netherlands are known for their religious observance, and churches are always full on Christmas Day. The cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Eindhoven are the busiest cities in terms of entertainment on Christmas Day. The Christmas season wraps up after the New Year with Epiphany on January 6th. Children dress up as the Three Wise Men and travel in groups of three carrying lanterns, re-enacting the Epiphany and singing traditional songs for their hosts. In return they are rewarded with cakes and sweets