Stockholmers are readying for the coming First Advent weekend, when lights go up in windows and glögg is put on the boil. YLC’s Judi Lembke explains the phenomenon that is a Swedish Christmas, one tradition at a time…
Advent to me is those cardboard chocolate Christmas calendars the kids get all excited about because it means they get to eat a little square of chocolate for 24 days straight in the lead up to Christmas. Really, though, Advent is about light and candles and chasing away the winter darkness during the cold, grim days of December as we begin to turn our eyes toward the coming holidays.
Four Sundays before Christmas Swedes pull out the special Advent candelabra, which sports four holders, and light the first candle, allowing it to burn about a quarter of the way down. On the following Sunday the second candle is lit, along with the first and again, it’s allowed to burn down about a quarter of the way. This goes on until the fourth Sunday, when the first candle burns out as the final one is finally lit.
On and around the first Sunday of Advent many Swedes attend Christmas concerts held in local churches – and it’ll be one of the rare occasions on which you’ll see a Swedish church packed to the rafters. It’s well worth your while to attend one of these concerts – Sweden has the highest number of choirs per capita in the world (an astounding 15% of the population belong to choirs, regardless of gender, age or religious affiliation) so it’s a proper treat to sit back and let the well-trained voices soothe your frazzled holiday nerves with traditional holiday songs.
Advent also heralds the arrival of the traditional Glögg parties. Glögg is, shall we say, an acquired taste – it’s a sweet mulled wine stewed with various spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom, and features raisins and almonds.
It’s usually served with lussekatter and pepparkakor, which can be bought at any grocery store or bakery, although making them at home is recommended and very much approved of. If glögg isn’t your style most hosts and hostesses will also have wine or other spirits on hand, so don’t despair. That is if it is a glöggfest, or a glöggmingel – less likely if it is a glöggfika. Whenever the (Swedish) F-word is involved, a general rule of thumb is to think coffee. This is a whole other discussion and we will leave it at that.
The lighting of Advent candles in Sweden goes back to the late 1800s, although it didn’t really take off until the 1920s. The tradition was inspired by the German ‘advent trees’ and in the beginning Swedes would place candles on their own trees, a rather dangerous practice that has long been replaced by electric lights.
The first advent weekend is also the time when lighted stars, representing the Star of Bethlehem, are hung in windows. The original stars were red and were introduced in the 1930s. Today, you’ll see a lot of white paper stars, along with more upscale versions made of straw, wood or metal. You’ll also see graduated candelabra in windows, with five, seven or nine lights. And of course there are garden decorations, which in keeping with traditional Swedish understatement, usually mean a few lights on bushes or in trees – it’s rare you’ll see American-style displays such as this in Sweden.
Now what about those chocolate Advent calendars? Pretty much every kid in Sweden (and plenty of grownups) have their calendar bought and placed in a position of pride while breathlessly awaiting the first of December – because this is when they get to open up the first window and have their first taste of sweet, sweet Christmas chocolate.
The chocolate calendars became popular around the same time as the Christmas star, and after the tie-in programs began to air on radio – and later television – calendar sales went through the roof.
These days kids have the choice of not just chocolate calendars but also a number of other types, including Lego or Haribou calendars. But if you want to go with tradition, grab a ten kronor chocolate calendar at your local Ica or Konsum and each night flip on SVT to watch the Julkalendern program, which is a daily broadcast of 24 episodes featuring some sort of Christmas theme. You can get the program on DVD but, as with the traditional Kalle Anka watching on Christmas Eve (don’t worry, we will get to that later), that’s a bit like cheating.
See below for a trailer of this year’s SVT Julkalender: Barna Hedenhös uppfinner julen
So, what are you waiting for? Time to race down the shops and stock up on Advent-candelabra, calendars and glögg! And don’t worry about Swedish Christmas – YLC is with you every step of the way!
Judi Lembke is an experienced journalist who goes through life with a serene if slightly deranged smile on her face. When she’s not shackled to her computer, she enjoys reading, cooking and sometimes watching embarrassingly bad reality TV. (But don’t tell anyone. She prefers to be seen as far too highbrow for that sort of thing.) Judi also works with communications and thinks coming up with clever ideas is about as much fun as one can have without taking of one’s clothes.