Long, dark nights, twinkling lights and snow-capped, red wooden houses: is there anywhere more inherently Christmassy and cosy than Sweden? We don’t think so. In fact, many of the traditions we know and love today – mistletoe, Christmas trees, elves and perhaps even Father Christmas himself – have roots in Viking celebrations of the winter solstice, Yule (Jul).

Here are six of our favourite traditions, old and new, to experience in Sweden during the festive season. And feel very free to bring some of this cosy bliss into your own home by trying some of these traditions with family and friends.

Celebrating St Lucia Day

Celebrating St Lucia Day
Lucia leading the way / Image: Fredrik Larsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Bringing light to the darkest part of the winter, the Luciatåg procession is led by a white-clad Lucia (with a crown of – often real – candles on her head) accompanied by dozens of singing attendants with yet more candles. You can enjoy Lucia concerts at churches, schools and communities all over the country on December 13 (St Lucia Day). Early risers visiting Gothenburg should check out the atmospheric concerts on Lucia morning from the balcony at Hotel Eggers on Drottningtorget.

And don’t miss traditional Lucia treats of lussekatter (saffron buns), pepparkakor (ginger biscuits) and glögg (mulled wine), which you can enjoy during your fika sessions all season long.

Decorating (and pranking) with the julbok

Decorating (and pranking) with the julbok
The julbok keeping watch for pranksters in Gävle / Image: Alamy

Symbolising the harvest, the julbok (Yule goat) dates back to Viking times. Today, it is a popular decoration made from straw and bound with red ribbon. A giant version has graced the city centre of Gävle (175km north of Stockholm) since the 1960s. There are those who try to burn it down every year in increasingly inventive ways, but there’s also another – somewhat less-anarchic but still traditional – goat-related prank you can try instead: sneak around to a neighbour or family member’s home to hide a straw julbok in their home (please ensure it’s someone’s home you legally have access to – we’re not in the business of glamorising breaking and entering here). When they find it, they’ll then re-hide it in someone else’s home, and so the goat-hiding fun continues on and on.

Shopping at Christmas markets

Shopping at Christmas markets
A neon wonderland / Image: Göran Assner/imagebank.sweden.se

You’ll find traditional Christmas markets, big and small, all across Sweden, but for a truly immersive winter experience, head to Liseberg in Gothenburg. There is quite literally something for everyone here, and it’ll surely convert even the most hardened festive cynics: thousands of trees and even more lights, a snowy winter market, ice skating and a traditional julbord experience, plus tons more. The amusement park is also celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2024.

Spending Christmas Eve with Kalle Anka and Jultomten

Like a number of other European countries, the main day to celebrate Christmas in Sweden is December 24 – AKA Christmas Eve for others. At exactly 3:05pm on December 24 every year, Sweden sits down to watch a vintage Disney compilation: Kalle Anka och Hans Vänner Onskar God Jul (Donald Duck and His Friends Wish you a Merry Christmas), a tradition that’s been running since the show’s first airing in 1960. After Kalle Anka comes a knock on the door: it’s Jultomten! The Swedish Santa doesn’t bother with clambering down dirty chimneys while children sleep, and instead hands out presents in-person. It certainly must save a bit of time when he has to cover the whole planet in just one night.

Dining from the julbord

Dining from the julbord
A Swedish feast / Image: Adobe Stock.

After all the build-up, it’s time for the main event: the julbord. The centrepiece of this Christmas buffet is the ham and its cooking water, dopp i grytan, perfect for dipping bread in. There are dozens of goodies on the table, but must-haves include herring, a potato and herring gratin called ‘Jansson’s Temptation’, meatballs, beetroot salad, and rice pudding for dessert. Wash it all down with snaps (shots), julöl (a dark, Christmas beer) and Julmust (a soft drink a little like cola or root beer). In a similar vein to Christmas set menus in the UK, you can sample a julbord at most restaurants in Sweden from late November and through the Christmas period.

Dancing around the Christmas tree

Dancing around the Christmas tree
Sorry, guys – back in the box until next Christmas / Image: Alamy

On January 13, Swedes hold St Knut’s parties at home and in public. There is dancing around the Christmas tree followed by the julgransplundring (stripping the tree of all its ornaments). Until quite recently, Swedes would then literally throw the tree out the window or off the balcony onto the street, no doubt giving a satisfying sense of finality to the festive season and creating a health and safety nightmare in the process. The practice is now heavily frowned upon, but it’s best to keep your eyes to the sky if you happen to be walking around the streets of Sweden on January 13, just in case. And maybe don’t try and recreate this particular tradition at home, for pretty obvious reasons.

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