Christmas is the pinnacle of the Swedish year. In late December, walking the streets in the towns and villages of Sweden is like being transported to some old-world fairy tale. Every public surface is ablaze with lights, decorated with trees and wreaths to ward off the compact midwinter darkness.
Here Christmas season starts the first of Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, when candles are put in the windows and children begin opening advent calendars to count down. The holidays come to a definitive end on January 13, or Tjugondedag Knut, when Christmas trees are thrown out during “tree-plundering parties.”
A seasonal highlight is the feast of St. Lucia. Concerts are a great way to experience the traditional procession of singers in white robes, lead by a Lucia wearing a crown of light. The annual Lucia crowning in the Vasa Church in Gothenburg is one of the grander examples.
In the old days farmers brought their goods to sell at market before Christmas. These days Christmas markets still abound with arts, crafts and artisanal local food; a great way to get in the spirit and do some yuletide sightseeing. Liseberg, the beautiful old amusement park in Gothenburg, is famous for its market and decorations. If you want to explore the small towns and villages of West Sweden, there are plenty more markets scattered throughout the countryside.
The main event in Sweden is Christmas Eve on December 24th when Swedes gather to dance around the Christmas tree, exchange gifts, and eat Christmas ham, accompanied by a traditional julbord. If you’re not in Sweden on Christmas Eve, don’t despair. Julbord is served all December at many restaurants. For a beautiful experience off the beaten track, try the all-inclusive package at Klädesholmen.
December 25, Christmas Day, takes second place, this is a day to eat leftovers and visit family and friends. It kicks off with Julotta, Christmas mass at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning. (Actually before dawn, as the sun doesn’t rise until 9 am this time of year.) To celebrate like a real Swede, visit Gustavi Cathedral in Gothenburg for Christmas mass. It’s one of the few holidays that brings the otherwise secular Swedes to church.
By Sarah Clyne Sundberg