The land of ice and snow, of warm-huddle-fires and reindeer, Scandinavia is as close to the Christmas idyll as one can get, and certainly more approachable and cuddly than the North Pole itself.
In fact a surprising number of general Western Christmas habits owe their origins to Scandinavian Christmas traditions, some of which are actually of pagan origin.
Western Christmas and Scandinavian Christmas traditions
Early Christians chose their holidays in line with the pre-existing pre-Christian holidays, or holy days, which made it an easier transition to this new religion. Few pragmatists actually believed that Jesus was born exactly on December 25 (the Bible makes no reference as to the date), but rather it was chosen as a symbolic date of birth because it coincides with the pagan Winter Solstice.
The idea that candles and a lively hearth should be part of the Christmas tradition is likewise a hand-me-down from the Winter Solstice, as Stephen Nissenbaum explains in his Pulitzer Prize finalist book, The Battle for Christmas. The ancients sent the darkness scattering by filling their homes with fire-light.
For early Christians, the birth of Jesus was not a big holiday to celebrate—Easter was the main event. It was not until the 4th century AD that the papacy made the birth of Christ an official holiday. As Nissenbaum said in an interview with Livescience, “It never occurred to [the Church] that they needed to celebrate his birthday.”
The Western focus on Christmas is more of a modern, and quite capitalistic tradition, where the focus is on gifts and Santa. The Christmas Tree is a tradition that comes from a northern European tradition of bringing outdoor greenery indoors in the middle of winter. It was popularized in 17th century Germany, but has been practiced since the ancient times throughout northern Europe and certainly pre-dates the establishment of Christianity.
A look at the Scandinavian Christmas traditions of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland offers a hint at how the classic idea of Christmas came to be, and offer a selection of wonders to add to your own holiday, or to visit when looking to spend the most magical time of year abroad.
Norwegians like their Christmases to begin nice and early. Unencumbered by Thanksgiving decorations (which, in the US, hold sway until after the last Thursday of November), Norwegian deck their halls with boughs of holly in late November, with the streets of Oslo lines with illuminated Christmas trees. That warm and fuzzy Christmas feeling does wonders to lighten up the atmosphere in nations so near the Arctic Circle that winters feature only a few hours of sunlight per day. During the period of Advent, locals will be invited to julebord, pre-Christmas parties organized either privately or by companies and societies.
December 23 is its own special holiday, sometimes referred to as “Little Christmas Eve” which is the time for families to decorate their Christmas trees, bake gingerbread and eat a warming rice pudding, risengrynsgrøt, flavored with cinnamon, sugar and butter. One portion will contain an almond and, if you find it, you win…a pig made of marzipan!
On Christmas Eve, five bells ring from the churches, and gifts are opened at night, not on Christmas morning, as is the tradition elsewhere. Christmas Day itself does not have particular traditions, but in the week leading to New Year’s, time is taken to visit family members who you’ve not had time to see during the year.
The table for the Christmas Eve meal is often set with pinnekjøtt (dry-cured lamb ribs), ribbe (bone-in pork belly), and the acquired taste of lutefisk (cod that has been cured in lye) are local specialties, with the risengrynsgrøt for dessert, perhaps with toasted almonds. The drink of choice is gløgg, a mulled wine that is often used to dip pepperkake, Norway’s answer to gingerbread cookies, but which features many more spices than ginger alone.
Here's a funny video about Americans eating Norwegian Christmas food for the first time
The traditions of Christmas in Sweden are similar to those of Norway, down to visiting family between Christmas and New Year, or perhaps setting off for a ski holiday. Burning candles may be seen in most homes, and Christmas trees must be as straight as possible. This becomes an adventure for folks who live outside the cities, who fell their own trees.
According to the Swedish tourist board’s website, “Many Swedes believe—mistakenly—that their legal right of access to the countryside allows them to fetch a tree from the woods wherever they like, with an axe, a bucksaw or, as in western Värmland, with a shotgun.” Blasting away at your Christmas tree actually sounds like good fun, but one can see how it might disturb the local wildlife. There is some overlap in the food department, too, such as the vivacious consumption of gløgg, called glögg in Swedish.
The Christmas table will bring with jellied pig’s feet, sausage, lutfisk (note the slightly different spelling), ham (boiled, glazed with egg and dusted with mustard and crumbs), homemade pate, an anchovy dish called gubbröra, and pickled herring. In olden days, a plate of porridge was left out for mythical gnome-like creatures called brownies, who lived in the farmyard, and Christmas gifts were given anonymously, much like the popular Secret Santa game played at schools and workplaces, in which each participant is secretly given the name of someone for whom they must buy a gift, and the recipients have to guess who the giver is.
Twelfth Night also features a typically Swedish tradition, in which stjärngossar, star boys, went from farm to farm singing songs and carrying paper stars, represented of the star followed by the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem, in exchange for schnapps and other goodies. Let’s just hope that the stjärngossar of western Värmland don’t combine too much schnapps with shotgunning down a Christmas tree.
The Danish Christmas begins with the Advent wreath of spruce and red berries, with four candles atop it, one lit every Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve, which is the main festive day. A similar role is given to the calendar candle, which has twenty-four marks on it, and is often decorated with fir trees and little fairies in red hats and yellow clogs. The candle is lit once a day, from December 1 to the 24th, and allowed to burn down one mark until Christmas Eve arrives, and the candle is no more.
For children, Advent calendars offer a candy per day of December leading up to Christmas, and television networks broadcast 24-episode series for children to countdown the days before the big event. Danish Christmas seals are world-renowned, produce by the Julemaerkefonden charity every year since 1904. These decorations are sold to raise money for charity and often decorate letters and stamps.
The Christmas tree is decked with a silver or gold star at its peak, and Danish flags around it, as well as strips of tin foil to bounce back the light of flickering candles and the fireplace. In the olden days, it was believed that animals could speak on Christmas Eve, and so as not to have anything bad said about you by the family dog or the mule in the barnyard, animals were given special treats to eat.
A Danish spread on Christmas Eve would likely contain stuffed duck or goose with apples and prunes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sliced beets and red cabbage—a bit of a parallel to the American Thanksgiving, but with a twist. Rice puddings rule dessert here, too, with two variations: risengrød, hot rice pudding or ris a l’amande (a French tradition of rice pudding mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, almonds and cherry sauce.
As in Norway, whoever finds a whole peel almond in their pudding gets a special gift.
Finland looks as we imagine Santa Claus’ workshop in the North Pole, and Fins like to joke that “everyone knows Santa Claus comes from Finland.” He would certainly be happy with Christmas dinner, which usually features roast pork and a variety of fish and casseroles to flank it.
The rice pudding, popular throughout Scandinavia as dessert, is eaten for breakfast here. Dessert includes ginger biscuits, chocolates and the Finnish version of mulled wine, called glögi. Perhaps the most Finnish of traditions is to decorate your log cabin with candles, inside and out, and alternate between the sauna (a feature of many Finnish households) and the snowy outdoors. Nothing is quite so invigorating to keep the blood flowing!