In Sweden, the celebration begins on December 13, St. Lucia’s day. The foreigner in Stockholm on the morning of that day might be surprised to see as his fellow passengers on an early streetcar young men and women in long white robes, the women carrying candles, the young men carrying silver stars and wearing tall hats of silver paper. These are the “Lucia brides” and “Star boys” who on St. Lucia’s day serenade their friends with a “Lucia” song and offer them refreshments. Since December 13 was earlier supposed to be the darkest day of the year, the many lights were intended to drive away the darkness.
The Lucia celebration has become quite generally a community affair in the cities of Sweden today, but originally it was a family festival and is still so observed in many Swedish homes. The eldest daughter is the Lucia bride. Early in the morning, she clothes herself in white and places on her head a wreath of whortleberries on which burn seven candles. Thus attired she visits the bedrooms of all the family, serving coffee and Lucia buns (or Lucia “cats,” as they are called because they are shaped like a cat’s head), and gingerbread cakes made in the shape of goats, in honor of the sacred goats of the pagan god Thor.
The next event of importance is “Dipping Day,” which comes on Christmas Eve. This custom is unique among Christmas customs of the world, stemming from a famine winter many years ago in Sweden when on Christmas Eve the only food available was black bread and thin broth. Today as “Dipping Day” is observed, the whole family-servants and all-gather in the kitchen with its rows of bright copper utensils and its gaycolored friezes on the walls. On the stove stands a large kettle in which simmer the Christmas korv or sausages, traditional fare for a Swedish Christmas. Each person solemnly dips his slice of vort bread into the steaming broth and eats it to insure good luck in the coming year.
The Swedish household seems to specialize in fancy breads for Christmas-saffron bread, Vortlimpor, fennel bread, caraway bread. One loaf is to be shaped like a boar’s head, decorated, and allowed to remain on the dining room table throughout the holiday. This is regarded as a prayer for next year’s harvest. The vort bread seems the most important of these many varieties. (For a Vort Bread recipe, Click Here.)
Christmas Eve is the family day. In the evening the household gathers in the living room in holiday attire. There stands the Christmas tree-the real symbol of Christmas in Scandinavia. Prominent among the trimmings are dozens of tiny gaily wrapped parcels. All through the year one saves pretty bits of paper in colors, in gold and silver. These are used to wrap homemade caramels, an essential for a Swedish Christmas. The wrapping is done in all sorts of novel ways, but there must always be ruffled fringes at either end. The Juletomte, first cousin to the Nisse, brings the Christmas gifts, deposits them on the floor, and departs. When they have been distributed and opened, the family join hands and weave in and out of every room in the house singing the Christmas welcome.
The Christmas Eve supper is always very elaborate. Itbegins with as fancy a smorgasbord as the family purse will allow. For the main meal, lutefisk is the piece de resistance. This is served with boiled potatoes and white sauce. Rice porridge is also included, served usually before the fish. Before anyone may eat his rice, he must make up a rhyme or a jingle. The rice contains a single blanched almond or sometimes a gold ring instead. If an unwed member of the family gets the prize, he will be the first to be married during the next year.
The family needs to get to rest at a reasonable hour on Christmas Eve, for by four the next morning it must again be stirring. Candles are lighted in every window, to “light the Christ-child on his way.” Coffee is served, and then the family is off to church. Services are held at five o’clock in all churches. People in earlier days always carried lighted torches with them to church on that morning or attached them to their sleighs. The church is a sea of light, with candles on the altar, at the end of the pews, and in the wide arches of the windows. No other light is used for that early service.
Christmas Day is a quiet day in Sweden-or has been traditionally. On that day it was not considered in good taste to make visits. But beginning with “Second Christmas Day” the social life of the community swells to great proportions and continues until St. Knut’s Day, January 13:
“Tjugonde dag Knut kor julen ut”
And so ends Christmas in Sweden.