There are many wonderful Scandinavian Christmas traditions that make a December visit to the Nordic region worth braving the cold weather. While they may share some seasonal customs, Scandinavian countries have individual beliefs and their own unique ways of celebrating the holidays.
If you are planning a trip to the Nordic region, including the countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland, brush up on local folklore.
The Swedish Christmas begins with Saint Lucia Day on December 13. Lucia was a third-century martyr who brought food to persecuted Christians in hiding. Usually, the eldest girl in the family portrays St. Lucia, putting on a white robe in the morning and wearing a crown of candles (or a safer substitute). She serves her parents buns and coffee or mulled wine.
Christmas trees are set up usually a couple of days before Christmas and decorated with flowers such as poinsettia, called julstjärna in Swedish, red tulips, and red or white amaryllis.
On Christmas Eve, or Julafton, Swedes celebrating Christmas attend church services. They return home to a traditional family dinner including a buffet dinner (smörgåsbord) with ham, pork, or fish, and a variety of sweets.
After the festive Christmas Eve dinner, someone dresses up as Tomte. According to Swedish folklore, Tomte is the Christmas gnome who lives in the forest. Tomte is the Swedish equivalent to Santa Claus and hands out gifts. The "Merry Christmas" greeting in Swedish is God Jul.
Cities across Sweden offer all types of holiday events to take part in. In the capital and biggest city, Stockholm, there is a live version of the popular Swedish holiday show Christmas Calendar series, with a different performance happening on each day of December leading up to Christmas. In Uppsala, check out the Christmas concert held in the Helga Trefaldighets church—a building that dates back to the 1300s.
Children help decorate their family Christmas trees in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday in Denmark, which formally begins on December 23. The celebration kicks off with a meal that includes a traditional cinnamon rice pudding called grod.
Santa Claus is known as Julemanden, which translates to "the Yule Man." He is said to arrive on a sleigh drawn by reindeer with presents for the children. Julemanden is assisted with his Yuletide chores by elves known as julenisser, who are traditionally believed to live in places like attics and barns. The mischievous Danish elves play pranks on people during Christmastime. On Christmas Eve, many Danish families leave some rice pudding or porridge for the elves, so they do not play any pranks on them. In the morning, the children are delighted to find that the porridge has been consumed while they slept.
The meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are quite elaborate. On Christmas Eve, Danes have a Christmas dinner usually consisting of duck or goose, red cabbage, and caramelized potatoes. The traditional dessert is a light rice pudding with whipped cream and chopped almonds. This rice pudding usually contains one whole almond, and whoever finds it wins a treat of chocolate or marzipan.
On Christmas morning, Danish cupcakes called ableskiver are traditionally served. For Christmas Day lunch, cold cuts and different types of fish usually make up the meal. On Christmas night, families gather around Christmas tree, exchange presents, and sing carols. To say, "Merry Christmas," in Danish greet others by saying Glaedelig Jul.
Christmas markets pop up all over the country during the winter, and the best are in major cities like Copenhagen, Aarhus, Fyn, and Ribe. Tivoli Gardens, the famous Copenhagen theme park, is completely remade during the holiday season. Except to see snow-covered trees, twinkling lights, and a sprawling Christmas market set-up across the park.
Christmas Eve is the main event in Norway. For many, it includes church services and last-minute shopping for gifts. At 5 p.m., the churches ring their Christmas bells. Most people have a dinner of ribbe (pork ribs) or lutefisk (a cod dish) at home, so restaurants are usually closed. Christmas Eve dessert usually includes gingerbread or risengrynsgrot, a hot rice pudding, and mulled wine, glogg, for the grownups. Then Christmas gifts are opened after dinner.
Norway has a mischievous Christmas elf called Nisse. This folkloric creature is personified as a white-bearded, red wearing spirit of the winter solstice. Today, he has been integrated with the figure of Sinterklass, modern-day Santa Claus. Like the cookies traditionally left for Santa Claus today, it was customary to leave a bowl of rice porridge for the Nisse.
Paying homage to their Viking heritage, Norweigians recognize the tradition of the Julebukk, in Norwegian which translates to "Yule Goat." Today it is symbolized by a goat figurine made out of straw, created at the beginning of December, and often used as a Christmas ornament. The Yule Goat's oldest representation is that of Thor's magical goats, which would lead him through the night sky. The Yule Goat would protect the house during Yuletide. It had been Norse tradition to sacrifice a goat to the gods and the accompanying spirits during the time span between the Winter Solstice and the New Year. The Yule Goat was a good luck charm for the new year to come.
As with other Scandinavian countries, Christmas markets and concerts can be found in most cities across Norway during the winter months. One extra special event is the world's largest gingerbread town, located in Bergen, Norway's second-largest city. Pepperkakebyen, as the delicious town is called, is open to visitors each year from mid-November through the end of December.
"Merry Christmas" in Norwegian is Gledelig Jul or God Jul.
Finland shares some of its Scandinavian Christmas traditions with its neighbor Sweden, such as the celebration of St. Lucia's Day, but has many of its own holiday traditions as well.
On Christmas Eve most Finns who celebrate Christmas attend mass and pay a visit to a sauna to get purified. Many Finnish families also visit cemeteries to remember their lost loved ones.
Between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Christmas dinner is usually served. The feast may include oven-baked ham, rutabaga casserole, beetroot salad, and similar Scandinavian holiday foods. Santa Claus usually visits houses on Christmas Eve to give presents to those who have been good.
Christmas in Finland is not just a one or two-day affair. Finns start wishing each other Hyvää Joulua, or "Merry Christmas," weeks before Christmas Day and continue to do so for nearly two weeks after the official holiday.
If you are in Helsinki, then Aleksanterinkatu is the principal street for holiday festivities. The entire lane is lit up with bright Christmas lights, and the many shops invite people to come in and escape the cold. The Stockmann department store located on the same street unveils their much-anticipated holiday window display each year also, attracting Finns from across Helsinki and neighboring suburbs to come and see it.
The Icelandic Christmas season lasts 26 days. It's during the darkest time of year for that part of the world with not much daylight at all, but the Northern Lights may be visible in the north of the country.
Iceland has many age-old traditions during Christmastime, including the arrival of 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses. The origin of these Santas is centuries old, and each has a name, character, and role.
Known as jolasveinar, or the "Yuletide Lads," the Santas are the children of Gryla, a mean old woman who drags off naughty children and supposedly boils them alive. Her husband, Leppaluoi, is not quite as mean. In the modern era, these characters have been softened a bit to be less frightening.
Children in Iceland put shoes in their windows from December 12 until Christmas Eve. If they have been good, one of the jolasveinar leaves a gift. Bad children can expect to receive a potato.
Shops are open until 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and many Icelanders attend midnight mass. The main Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, including the gift exchange. To express "Merry Christmas" in Icelandic, greet others by saying Gleoileg jol.
If you're looking for holiday activities in Iceland, the Christmas market in Hafnarfjörður is one of the largest and most popular, and is about a 20-minute drive outside of the capital city, Reykjavík. Apart from shopping, there are also hot food and drinks, horse-drawn carriage rides, and live music to keep you entertained.