On December 26th you have to dash out to that big Christmas clearance sale at the mall. That activity might make you feel like Christmas is over. In Europe, the Christmas season traditionally lingers until February 2, a Christian observance called Candlemas day which is a celebration of light. The Christmas season also incorporates another celebration on January 6, the feast of the Three Kings, which is also called ‘Twelfth Night’. It is only in the U.S.A that you will find Christmas trees tossed out on the curb on December 26th. In Europe, the ambiance of this warm, convivial season abides over the remaining winter days. And so I have an excuse to share one more story about Christmas traditions to help you stay grounded in the spirit of the season.
We were in Stockholm this year, where Christmas is officially celebrated on December 24th, a familiar thread for this Polish girl who has always celebrated Christmas on the 24th. In Sweden, as in Poland, after an evening of feasting and bestowing presents on Christmas Eve, there is singing, dancing and a visit to church.
In Sweden, the entire month of December is important as a kickoff for the season. The four weeks that precede Christmas day are called Advent, the important onset and anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child. There is also a very special celebration of Light on December 13, the Feast of St Lucia, as well as the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. The Swedes have a richly defined cultural sense of Christmas that is unique and beguiling. Gastronomical delights and feasting come in the guise of the Julbord or Christmas Smörgåsbord. The Julbord is an archetype of what is known as wassailing, a festive bash for employers, employees, friends, family, stragglers and side-liners, too.
Julbord originated in the Middle Ages as a tradition during Advent and through Christmas so that less privileged people and the poor could have access to the bounty of available fresh food. Food and public buffets were made available to the less fortunate in the spirit of Christian community. Christmas trees were incorporated and a man in the guise of St. Nicholas, who looked more like a bishop than a jolly old elf, would arrive on the night of December 24th to distribute presents after an all-out festival of eating, drinking, and making merry. The Julbord on Christmas Eve is a time for the family to observe and celebrate the holiday together.
This year in Stockholm for Christmas eve, we were lucky to be in a wonderful hotel called the Hotel Skeppsholmen. The place radiated the glitter, glamour, and generosity of the season. Anticipating our first Julbord, we were going to hang in there with the Swedes and eat, drink and be merry. Harry, a staff member at the hotel, gave us the down-low on the customs and foods of the Julbord and prepped us on what to expect of the fabulous buffet laid out at the Hotel. A tent attached to the hotel’s main dining room, was beautifully prepared and decorated as a set for the exquisite buffet dinner
First course was herring, a very important fishie, presented in at least a dozen different ways. Herring is an integral part of Nordic culture and cuisine. Herring is not relegated to side dish here; that would be a grievious dishonor. There was also a smoked kipper akin to herring called böckling. Pickled, smoked, salted, fried, broiled, marinated, sautéed or baked are some of the ways to sample and prepare the delectable herring. There was mustard herring, onion herring, dill herring, herring in wine sauce, herring with beets and some preparations I did not recognize but sampled anyway.
And there was more to the fish course. The chef at the Skeppsholmen had prepared the most delicious and beautiful cured cold salmon called gravlax. The salmon was cut generously thick and it was sweet, oily and supremely tender with a side of mustard sauce which was unlike any mustard vinaigrette I have ever had. A potato salad is a traditional accompaniment to the fish course. This one was simply prepared with small, new, white potatoes, halved and tossed in a lovely clear dilled-vinegar sauce; attractive as well as delicious.
In the salad area, there were eggs deviled, dilled, dressed and crowned with a generous amount of tiny winter shrimp. A beet salad made an appearance as well as pickled mushrooms; which were sliced strips of chanterelles – kantareller in Swedish – and so delicious.
Next course: cured hams, boiled hams and a variety of different interesting pâtés. While we were filling up our plates with fish and salads, a basket of home-made bread and a hot plate of freshly prepared warm potatoes was placed on our candle-lit table. I was definitely getting into the spirit of the season.
The hot dishes stood in covered casseroles waiting their turn after the herring, salmon, cold meats and salads. Under the lids, there was sweet red cabbage and braised white cabbage, braised spare ribs, meatballs, sausages, and more ham.
Finally, dessert if you still could. A cacophony of custards, puddings, candies, cookies and deep fried Swedish rosette cookies called struva. There was also a beautiful board of luscious cheeses.
During the feast, Swedes drink a lot of beer and end the meal with schnapps and, from what I understand, a traditional singing of songs and dancing around the tree. Unfortunately, we did not have the pleasure of witnessing the song and dance fest.
Holiday leave in Sweden over Christmas and the New Year holidays is fairly long usually extending into January. Once Christmas Eve is over, a series of visits to friends and relatives ensues over the week or so following Christmas. Swedes travel many miles during the holiday period to spend time with different branches of the family. So, the aftermath of Christmas here, as it is in most of Europe, is a continuing celebration of family and friends. And absent, but not missed, are the big holiday sales in the malls which mark the end of Christmas in the U.S.A on December 26.
This year, I discovered a thoroughly unusual and unique Swedish tradition. At 3 pm on December 24, on TV, Swedes watch something called “Kalle Anka” or Donald Duck. It is a collection of short films and cartoons hosted by Jiminy Cricket featuring Disney characters rollicking through Christmas scenes and themes circa 1930’s through the 1960’s. I understand that this tradition evolved at a time when Sweden only had two TV channels. For some reason, this was the only time of year when people could watch Disney animation or American cartoons on television. Somehow this evolved to a Christmas tradition.
I’m not going to giggle too hard because Poles also have a strange, modern tradition at Christmas. On Christmas Eve or Day, Poles watch the movie ‘Home Alone’. Little Kevin left home alone with his misadventures and the cozy film-closure of Christmas family warmth and reconciliation has become a cult Christmas classic in Poland.
On Christmas Eve, after dinner, presents are exchanged in the aura of the lighted tree. Candles shine brightly all over the house while mythical creatures like trolls and nisses (little creatures that look like garden gnomes) roam the forests to seek the leftovers of the Julbord. This is Christmas in Sweden, a fairy-tale time of celebrating and being with family and telling old stories while watching modern ones. Happy New Year, readers and wishes for happy, enchanted moments with your family and friends to take you to the end of the Christmas season.
For more about the Hotel Skeppsholmen, visit the website: https://hotelskeppsholmen.se/en/