Christmas time in Sweden is celebrated a little differently to the rest of Europe. Instead of having the 25th of December or the Feast of the Epiphany as the main holiday, the biggest celebration is St. Lucia’s Day (or St. Lucy’s Day) on December 13th. The celebration comes from stories that were told by Monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden.
St Lucia was a young Christian girl who was martyred, killed for her faith, in 304. The most common story told about St Lucia is that she would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head so she had both her hands free to carry things.
In the now-disused Julian calendar, December 13th was also the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and a pagan festival of lights in Sweden was turned into St. Lucia’s Day.
St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated in Sweden by girls dressing up in white with red sashes, and crowns of candles on their heads; small children use electric candles, older children are daring enough to use real ones! The crown is made of Lingonberry branches which are evergreen and symbolise new life in winter.
Schools normally have their own St. Lucias and some town and villages also choose a girl to play St. Lucia in a procession where carols are sung. These Lucias visit public places like hospitals and nursing homes to sing songs about St Lucia and hand out special ginger snap biscuits.
The popular food to eat for St. Lucia’s Day is ‘Lussekatts’, a bun flavoured with saffron and raisins which are eaten at breakfast.
Not all of the festive period revolves around St. Lucia’s Day, however, and Christmas Eve is also very important. This is when the main meal is eaten, and it usually comprises of a ‘julbord’, which is a buffet eaten for lunch. Cold fish such as herring, gravlax (salmon which has been cured in sugar, salt and dill) and smoked salmon are central to the buffet, while the desert could be a selection of sweet pastries, some more ginger biscuits, and home made sweets.
Presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve, and people often go to Church early on Christmas morning.A popular cultural tradition for many Swedes on Christmas Eve is to watch Donald Duck in the afternoon. Every year, since 1959, at 3.00pm on Christmas Eve, the main TV station TV1 shows the Disney special “From All of Us to All of You”, or “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.” Sometimes half of the Swedish population watches it!
Straw is used as a decoration in many Swedish homes, to remind Swedes that Jesus was born in a manger. Families sometimes have goats made of straw in the house to guard the Christmas Tree, and decorations made of straw are also very popular. In the city of Gävle, a huge straw goat is built every year to mark the start of Advent.
The end of Christmas in Sweden finally happens on January 13th, a week after the Epiphany, on a day called ‘Tjugondag Knut’ (Twentieth Day Knut). This is named after the Danish prince Canute Lavard, and on Tjugondag Knut, it’s traditional that the Christmas Tree is taken down and all leftovers are finally eaten.