The festive season has definitely taken hold and I am familiarising myself with Swedish Christmas, although this is not my first encounter with Swedish Yuletide traditions. Two years ago Nicklas and I spent Christmas on Koh Phi Phi in Thailand and, as I had spent the previous Christmas in Vietnam eating omelette on the beach, then I was keen to make my Thai Christmas a bit more traditional. With this in mind I spent the days preceding Christmas on the lookout for a big turkey dinner being served on the 25th. Given the amount of foreign tourists in Thailand during December I had thought that this would be an easy task – it was not so. What I hadn’t expected was that the majority of people on the island were, in fact, Swedish.
With an average of 253,007 Swedes visiting Thailand this makes about 2% of the Swedish population making the journey from Stockholm to Bangkok every year. This statistic makes Sweden the 7th most common nationality, behind Australia, the UK, the US, India, Germany and France, to visit Thailand http://www.theexpeditioner.com/2010/03/17/you-know-who-loves-thailand-the-swedes. This is pretty impressive for a country of only 9 million. It is not entirely surprising that this is the case however, as Sweden is firmly gripped in the icy claws of winter for 5 months of every year. Who can blame them for wishing to escape to warmer climes? So 2 years ago I was in Thailand looking for a Christmas dinner of Turkey with all the trimmings but all I could find was a Swedish Julbord served on the 24th December. The same happened last year in Cambodia, we ate a lovely Swedish Christmas dinner but couldn’t find a traditional British one on the 25th.
The most obvious difference between the way that the Swedes and the Brits celebrate Christmas is the day itself. Like many parts of Europe Sweden’s celebration takes place on Julafton (Christmas Eve) stemming from Yule, the pagan winter festival of the Germanic peoples which then became absorbed into the Christian celebration of Christmas. On Julafton Swedish families will exchange presents around a traditional Christmas smörgåsbord (Julbord) consisting of ham, pickled herring, meatballs, sausages, cold meats and pates. What might seem strange to the British is that a Swedish Christmas meal is predominantly cold and often there is not a single vegetable to be seen at the table – very strange for those used to a veritable array of fresh vegetables and steaming hot gravy on their Christmas plate.
To wash down the Christmas feast the Swedes will drink Julmust (literally ‘Christmas Juice’), a carbonated soft drink with a taste that has been compared to root-beer. The recipe is said to only be known by one person in the whole country. So popular is this Christmas drink that it outsells Coca-Cola, the sales of which decrease in Sweden by up to 50% every Christmas. The drink is also sold at Easter where it becomes repackaged as påskmust (Easter Juice) just another example of the Swedish tendency to give everything a very specific name (the Swedish for vaccuum cleaner translates as ‘dust sucker’). The festivities continue by watching Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) on the TV: a tradition that I have yet to discover the origin. Such is the Swedish influence in Thailand that many bars have showings of Donald Duck on the evening of the 24th. The evening may well end with a glass or two of Glögg, sweet mulled wine often served with raisins and almonds.
What I’m really enjoying about Christmas this year is that it feels like Christmas. This is mainly because the last 3 Christmases, whilst they have been great fun, haven’t felt like Christmas. It also helps that snow has been on the ground here since the middle of October and so it looks like a traditional Christmas card. The shops are glittering with Christmas lights and the snow glistens on the streets. Next week I’ll be flying back to the UK to spend Christmas UK-style with my family which I’m really looking forward to. As Nicklas is working over Christmas he’ll be celebrating his Christmas back home in Sweden and we don’t have to negotiate how to create a Swenglish Christmas – we’ll save that for next year.
Whilst Christmas in the sun is great fun, this year I’m really looking forward to a huge cooked meal with my family; watching movies on TV, scoffing Roses by the handful and snuggling up in winter woollies.