Sweden's Christmas traditions closely align with Scandinavian Christmas traditions in general but are very different from those celebrated in other parts of the world. When planning your holiday travel to Sweden, it can be a good idea to get acquainted with the Swedish customs during the holidays.
Before you get a handle on the customs, it might make the best sense to know how to say, "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" in Swedish. For "Christmas," you would say, God Jul, which if you are a native English speaker, you might recognize "good yule." English and Swedish are related languages, both are descended from the Germanic branch of the language tree. For "Happy New Year," you would say, Och Ett Gott Nytt Ar.
Start of the Christmas Season
In Sweden, Christmas begins with the annual Saint Lucia Day on December 13. The date commemorates Saint Lucy (or Lucia in Scandinavian countries). The saint was a 3rd century martyr who brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the catacombs using a candle-lit wreath to light her way. Her feast once coincided with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, it is why her feast day has become known as the Christmas festival of light.
Usually, the eldest girl in the family portrays St Lucia. She puts on a white robe in the morning and is allowed to wear a crown full of candles. Personifying St. Lucia, she serves her parents buns, cookies, coffee, or mulled wine.
Usually, Christmas trees are set up at the latest, two days before Christmas. Common dressings on the tree include baubles, candles, apples, Swedish flags, small gnomes, tasseled caps, and straw ornaments. The homes are decorated in seasonal spirit with gingerbread biscuits, flowers such as the julstjärna (poinsettia), red tulips, and red or white amaryllis.
December 24, or Christmas Eve, is known as Julafton in Swedish. Christmas Eve is the main day that Swedes celebrate Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Swedish locals form processions to the church with lit candles. For some, traditional Christmas Eve dinner usually includes a smorgasbord, or a Swedish Christmas buffet, with ham, pork, or fish, as well as a variety of sweets.
A popular Christmas tradition in Sweden is to serve risgryngrot, a special rice porridge with one almond in it. Traditionally, the person who finds the almond gets to make a wish or is believed to get married the coming year.
Tomte or Santa Claus?
After the festive Christmas Eve dinner, someone dresses up as Tomte. Tomte is a Christmas gnome, who according to Swedish myth, lives on a farm or in the forest. Tomte looks a little like Santa Claus and hands out gifts to the family while saying funny rhymes. Nowadays, the westernized version of Christmas is quickly catching up to Sweden, and Tomte is beginning to lose his original identity and beginning to look a lot like commercial Santa Claus figures.
End of the Christmas Season
Christmastime does not end in December for Swedes—it goes until January. The date of the Epiphany on January 6, is recognized as a religious holiday in Sweden. It is also called trettondedag jul, or "13th-day yule," as January 6 is the 13th day after Christmas Eve.
Rounding out the end of the Christmas season is Hilarymas, also called Knut's Day or Tjugondag jul on January 13. Christmas trees are taken down on this day, which is the "20th-day yule," the 20th day after Christmas Eve. Candies and cookies that decorated the tree are eaten. The feast held during this event is called Knut's party. Knut, spelled Canute in Danish, was the patron saint of Denmark who was assassinated and canonized for his efforts to secure Denmark from usurpers.