To most Swedes Christmas Eve is sacred (in a non-religious way) and most of us do exactly the same things. There are small exceptions, perhaps especially when it comes to order, but in principal Christmas Eve looks as follows in most Swedish homes:
- Early in the morning the children wake up screaming with joy because it’s Christmas Eve. When they at last succeed to wake their parents up, they scream of desperation when they realise how many hours it will be before Santa arrives.
- The children are put in front of the telly, a DVD or a computer to keep calm and then the real stress kicks in. There is another clean-up, the setting of the table, the decorations, the final coating of the ham, the tasting of the glögg, the taking out of food, the making of Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s Temtation, a course with potatoes, onions and anchovies), the baking of more ginger cookies, the singing of some Christmas carols, the tasting of the glögg, the boiling of eggs and potatoes, the tasting of the schnapps and so on. The Swede normally sees to it that there is so much to do on Christmas Eve that it is impossible to make it however much you stress. This, of course, goes for the adults stupid enough to invite their relatives. The rest of the Swedes stress anyway, as it is a nice tradition.
- By two o’clock the guests arrive, dragging along huge sacs filled with Christmas gifts, which everyone, including the children, knows are to be dealt out later. Why a Santa is to come there to handle this distribution of gifts that are already there when he has so many other children to deal with is not questioned by anyone. Maybe the children are just stupid. Or they don’t want to disappoint the grown-ups. Considering how much they have stressed, they deserve to meet Santa.
- When all presents are hidden and locked up in a room where the children are not allowed to go, it’s time for the one thing that gathers the most Swedes during the year, namely Donald Duck’s Christmas. Although the show has looked the same for 58 years, the Swedes sit loyally in front of the TV. And they are all overwhelmed when the non-commercial Swedish television allows Disney free commercial time during the very best airtime to show trailers from their latest movies. Honestly most of us are quite sick of Donald Duck’s Christmas, but as the children are bribed with ginger cookies and the grown-ups with glögg, it all works out fine and the stressed host and hostess can stress for another hour.
- As soon as Sten Feldreich has sung “Ser du stjärnan I det blå” (“When you wish upon a star”) everyone rushes to the table and the great gluttony feast starts. There are some geographical and cultural differences. On some Christmas smorgasbords there is Christmas ham, on others there is turkey, on some there is stock fish, on others meatballs and chipolata. Sometimes there is a leg of mutton, sometimes a saddle of venison. Brown beans, långkål (a Halland speciality), red cabbage and browned cabbage, Jansson’s Temptation, herring salad, liver pâté and brawn in different varieties are other things you usually find there. And with today’s erased geographical differences and the will to erase cultural differences it’s not uncommon to find it all and more on the smorgasbord. Three things, however, you can be certain of when it comes to the Swedish Christmas Gluttony Party:
- There is so much food that it could feed an entire village for a week. Although they have all put on oversized clothes and they do their uttermost to press down as much food as possible, there is no chance to make “tabberas” (meaning you finish off everything).
- If you are a vegetarian or a vegan you will have to settle with cabbage and possibly potatoes.
- There is always herring and schnapps.
- The children often leave the table
quite early and eventually the grown-ups can’t cope with the children’s
screaming; it’s time to go back to the agenda. So the food is stuffed away and
the Christmas tree is carried to the centre of the room and everyone (except
for Granny whose knees are too weak and Uncle Sven who is too drunk) takes each
other’s hands and forms a ring around the tree. Then we start to dance whilst
chanting. There is an excessive amount of Swedish Christmas carols, many of
them with religious contents. These are, however, not sung now, they are saved
for later. This occasion requires more of a high jinks kind of tunes of which
here are four examples:
- Skära, skära havre (Cut, Cut the Oat), where the most important part is to appoint a troll among the dancers and then tease and point finger at him or her.
- Hej tomtegubbar (Hello Elves),which is basically a song about elves getting drunk.
- Räven raskar över isen (The Fox Trudges Over the Ice), in which we perform a number of very prejudiced and stereotypical dances dealing with gender and trades.
- Små grodorna (Small Frogs), in which the participants pretend to be frogs and jump around the tree croaking.
- In some homes they then gather around the piano, singing tranquil religious hymns whose contents no one believes in. In other homes they leave the singing to Christer Sjögren, a Swedish Viking.
- After the dancing and the singing the children are normally very exhausted, which means everybody can sit down to eat candy and drink some more glögg for a while before the nagging about Santa starts again. Now the adults can’t resist anymore, why the father (in most families) or the mother (in more modern families) says that he or she has to go out and buy a newspaper, something no one questions, oddly enough.
- After a while this father (or mother) comes back covered entirely by a bright red Santa costume filled with pillows, as Santa evidently has to be really fat. To cover his or her face he or she wears an impersonal stiff masque with a full white beard. The stiff masque gives an impression not unlike a zombie’s face. The teenagers of the family usually find the whole thing utterly ridiculous, but they keep their faces (which has nothing to do with zombies), because a) they don’t want to make their stressed-out parents disappointed, b) they don’t want to make the younger children disappointed, although most of those are petrified in front of the scary zombie Santa and often enough burst into tears, and c) they don’t want to risk not getting any presents.
During more than an hour Santa then thoroughly read all the cards on all the gifts to make sure the receivers will know exactly who gave them what (destroying the entire illusion of Santa being the sole giver), but as the amount of gifts nowadays has increased into a grotesque number, no one has the stamina to listen, especially to the cunning rhymes authored by Uncle Frans, and for most of us it is impossible to keep track of who gave you what. Often it is impossible to keep track of which presents belonging to whom.
- Now, when the children are all occupied with their new gadgets, the stressed-out grown-ups can finally relax. The rest of the evening is spent on getting yourself as drunk as possible before it’s time to scrape off the sleeping children from the floor and return home.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day
Traditionally Christmas Day and Boxing Day have been used for meeting relatives you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get into the house on Christmas Eve and for eating the left-overs from the Christmas smorgasbord. Nowadays, with the more and more common situation with non-nuclear family relations, it is normal that the Christmas Eve procedure is repeated on both days. With the help of SVT Play, you don’t even have to miss Donald Duck’s Christmas.
The evening of Boxing Day is spent on regretting the whole holiday and deciding it will never happen again. By November, however, all such thoughts are forgotten. Often they are forgotten already by Easter, but that’s another story.