A Christmas in the Northland (Sweden)

From the tome, Sweden and the Swedes By William Widgery Thomas
1891 (pages 197-210)





LL Sweden gives itself up to the enjoyment of Yule, tide. First comes Christmas eve, next Christmas itself, then second-day Christmas, then third-day ^^ Christmas, and on all four days are the Christmas festivities celebrated. The merry-making then slackens a little, but it does not cease. It bursts forth again in family parties and dinners on the last day of the old year and the first day of the new; and still again on the 6th of January, a legal holiday, called by the Swedes “tretton-dag Jul”— thirteenth-day Yule. This day and the evening before are celebrated with nearly the same brilliancy as Christmas eve and Christmas day themselves, and not till January 13th, or “twentieth-day Yule,” do good old-fashioned families in Sweden consider the celebration of Christmas as fairly over.

Ever since early November everybody has been at work baying and preparing presents and planning and deliberating; all carried on with the greatest secrecy and in a profoundly mysterious manner, for no one must know, or even guess, what is in store for him at Christmas.
As December draws on, the streets and squares of Stockholm are thronged with people making Christmas purchases. The holiday goods are displayed as attractively as possible in the windows, and the shops are all brilliantly lighted, as they needs must be, for now it is dark at three o’clock in the afternoon. On the Sunday before Yule, the rigid Swedish law firmly closing all the shops on the Lord’s day is relaxed. On this one Sunday evening, and this one alone of all the year, the shops are open; and now is the time to walk forth over the crisp, new-fallen snow, with the frosty northern stars shining above your head, and mingle with the crowds of shoppers and sight-seers, and gaze with them into the flaming shop-windows.

You will surge along with the throng up Drottning gatan, through Hamn gatan, down Regerings gatan, across the great square of Gustavus Adolphus, over the North bridge, and then along the narrow Vesterlang gatan, in the city proper; for on this route are the most brilliantly lighted shops, the finest display of goods, and the densest masses of the populace. Not only the sidewalks, but the entire streets from curb to curb, are full of people; but there is no hurrying, no crowding nor hustling, no loud talk nor swearing. Everybody is orderly and good-tempered, and there is nothing for the tall, helmeted policeman to do but to walk imposingly along among the well-behaved citizens.

Ascending Cathedral Hill, and leaving the palace, the cathedral, and the bourse on our left, we pass through the short, narrow street Trangsund, and suddenly emerge into Stor torget, the ancient great market – place of Stockholm. Here the darkness of night is banished. The square is filled with a hundred little booths, all roofed over with white cotton drilling, and all gaily lighted up with lamps and lanterns. Along the lines of booths press the liveliest crowds you have seen, laughing, chatting, and haggling with the buxom women, who, wrapped up and tied about with many shawls, stand behind the narrow counters on which their wares are piled. Here are exposed for sale knickknacks of every sort—toys, confectionery, cheap cutlery, boxes with shell covers, warm winter caps, bandana handkerchiefs, pocket-books, underclothing, accordions, drums, and trumpets, and the indispensable ginger-cakes appropriate for the season.

Everything is cheap, very cheap, for this is the market of the people. Many articles cost but a few cents, and some only a half or a quarter of a cent of our money. It seemed like “playing store,” as the American boys call it; yet it was interesting to see that these good people took the whole matter with perfect seriousness, and they would stand for ten minutes, in absolute good faith and with great earnestness, in the attempt to beat down the price of some trifle one single cent.

Here in this square these open-air markets have been held at Yule-tide for hundreds of years, and formerly they continued until ” twentieth-day Yule.” At the present time the city authorities permit the booths to be erected on December 20th, but they must be taken down on the last day of the year; and the owner of every booth pays six crowns for his privilege. The most popular ginger-cakes sold at the booths are Julbocken, the Yule-goat, and Julgrisen, the Yule-pig. Thousands of them are carried home, hung up on the Christmas-trees, and finally eaten by the children.

In these forms the old religion of the Norseland—the religion that first gave a name to Jul, or Yule, and first celebrated it—still lives or smolders on in Scandinavia. The Yule-goats are nothing less than effigies of the goats of Thor, the thunderer—those mythical coursers that of old drew the chariot of the god of thunder and of war with lightning speed through the skies. And the Yule-pig is but an epitome of the hog of the beloved god Frey, the magical hog that once ran swifter than any horse, on land or sea, and whose golden bristles illumined the thickest darkness. But how low has the old religion sunk when the sacred servants and companions of its gods appear only as gingerbread for unwitting children !

As early as December 17th, I saw Christmas-trees dotting the gray squares of Stockholm with their deep, cheerful green, and every day after that the spruce groves in the market-places grew larger. The trees are brought into the city by every possible conveyance—in carts and sleds, by the cars, and on the tops of steamers. The big, burly sloops sailing down the Malar Lake, piled high with cord-wood, are now piled still higher with a top load of spruces. Countless numbers of these trees are sold and carried away, yet a still larger number is constantly arriving.

On December 24th, all the market-places of Stockholm were filled with ” living green.” Norrmalmstorg was completely covered with a dense spruce forest; some of the trees were fifteen feet high, and as I stood making a note of the fact, one of the proprietors emerged from the woods and laughingly asked, “Can I sell the gentleman a handsome tree?”

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Now the great park Humlegarden is full of children, skimming over the new-fallen snow on skidor, or coasting down through the long allees of giant old linden-trees; and as darkness gathers on Christmas eve, it will cheer your heart, as you stroll homeward, to see St. Jacob’s kyrka standing transfigured in the flood of light that streams from its lofty arched windows and pours across the King’s Park.


But perhaps Yule is enjoyed most heartily in the country. There is so much to be done that dinner is always eaten early on Christmas eve, and in old-fashioned country houses it is frequently partaken of in the kitchen, partly to make as little work as possible, and partly that the family may mingle in a friendly, social way with the servants. It is a g&ende middag, and you walk about the kitchen, plate in hand, among the family and servants, and eat your dinner standing. Boiled ham and pork form the piece de resistance, and in obedience to a time-honored custom, all dip their bread in the sizzling fat in the kettle in which the pork has been boiled. “We must all doppa i grytan (dip in the kettle) on Christmas eve, you know,” say the Swedes. As soon as dinner is over, the Christmas-tree is dressed—by the older members of the family. Presents are not hung upon it, as with us, but it is decorated with bon-bons, ribbons, and little bright glass globes. Prom the end of every branch and twig rise little wax tapers, and when they are all lighted you may well believe the tree grew in some fairy bower. Sometimes cotton wool is laid on the branches; but very thin and white must it be, so that it shall look just like the snow outdoors. When it begins to grow dark, which is very early in Sweden, the tapers are lit, and the tree stands a pyramid of light and color.

Now the children are first admitted into the drawingroom. They press forward with wondering eyes, and eager expressions of delight. Joining hands, they dance about the tree—a jolly Christmas dance, full of mirth and motion; while the old folks sit at a distance and quietly enjoy the brilliant light of the tapers, the woodsy freshness of the tree, and, most of all, the innocent joy of the children. Soon the chandeliers and lamps are lit, and fruit, confects, nuts, and goodies are passed around. Then the young folks join hands again, and forming a long line, go scampering one after the other through parlor and library and hall. Out through the kitchen they rush. They catch the maid-servants and pull them along in the merry chain. Grandmother at the piano plays her liveliest old-time music; and through every room on the floor, round and round again, singing and shouting in glee, the children skip and run in the glad Christmas long dance.

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Soon the family gather about a great round table in the middle of the room, whereupon the father draws forth from capacious baskets the Christmas presents, one by one, and reads the names inscribed thereon. All the presents are done up in papers, and many of them accompanied by verses. These rhymes are always read aloud, and excite much merriment. Then what a wondering and guessing, and peeking in and beholding, go on round the board. How happy are the faces of the children, and how their bright blue eyes gleam! Whole hours are passed in distributing and opening the presents, and it is late in the evening when the happy family sit down to a Christmas supper.

At six o’clock on Christmas morn are matins (Julottan) in the parish church. Outdoors it is dark as midnight, but the stars sparkle brightly as you drive swiftly along in your cutter. Every tree by the road-side is loaded down with a wealth of snow. In every peasant’s cot along the way the Christmas-tree blazes brightly. The great church is full of light, and the bells from the lofty tower chime a merry peal that vibrates far and wide through the clear, frosty northern air.

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In the country the merry-making goes steadily on for a fortnight, or perhaps for three weeks. Friends and neighbors pay and return visits, often stopping for days at each others houses; and throughout this season the time-honored dishes of Yule-tide are eaten.

I shall never forget the first Christmas I passed in Sweden. I was residing then in the city of Gothenburg. When I awoke on the morning of December 24th, and looked out of my windows, the market-place was changed to a forest of spruces, so thickly was it filled with Christmas-trees; but the forest was a dissolving one—all day it kept disappearing in every direction, borne off tree by tree in the arms of stalwart Swedish house-maids.

I was invited to spend the evening at the hospitable home of Herr Hawkes Lyon, a prominent and respected

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dusk, 1 found the streets full of masked figures. These were all house-servants, but they were disguised as kings and queens, sailors, soldiers, and harlequins. They trooped along in little companies, with laugh and shout and song, bearing big baskets of their master’s presents to his friends. Each masked party salutes every other with the utmost respect in passing. Did they not, Christmas law would award them a pair of soundly cuffed ears. The whole scene seemed like a Protestant carnival.

At my host’s were assembled a pretty family party. A large Christmas-tree, ablaze with tapers, stood at the farther end of the salon. Soon five masked figures stalked in—a king, queen, two sailors, and a lady. The sailors were evidently girls in disguise. The masqueraders walked to the middle of the room, under the chandelier. One by



one they took out the Julklappar (Christmas presents) from their capacious baskets and knapsacks, read the name of the lucky recipient, who stepped forward out of the circle of friends standing around, and received his gift with a bow and a ” Tackar sa mycket” — “Thank you so much.”

The distribution over, the maskers were invited to a sidetable and treated to cake and wine. They were pumped with all sorts of questions, too, but they were very cunning in their answers, and gave no clew to the sender of the gifts. I noticed, also, that the knowing ones carried straws, through which they sucked the wine without removing their masks. Then the host gave each one a drickspenning—a small piece of money—and they departed; but hardly were they gone when in came another masked party loaded with presents, and then another and another; and so they came trooping in the whole evening.

The Christmas gifts were all disguised in nondescript bundles and multifarious wrappers. A large box, the size of a seaman’s chest, after being opened with great difficulty, was found to contain something that looked like a leg of beef, and this in turn held the real present, a handsome silk dress, all made and ready to put on.

One young lady, after laboriously undoing a thousand and one papers, found as a kernel a pair of shoe-heels; but half an hour after, untying another bundle, she discovered she was the recipient of a pair of beautiful white satin slippers to which the heels fitted perfectly. Another lady, who had been engaged to be married for seven long years, and whose betrothed was standing at her side, received a wedding-trunk filled with useful but significant articles, such as a single person would hardly need. A merry laugh burst forth at this broad hint, in which the procrastinating pair joined as heartily as any.

The presents were of all sorts, from jumping-jacks and match-boxes to silver sets, oil-paintings, silks, and satins. Their number, too, was something prodigious to my New England eyes. I am sure the daughter of the house, Froken Hannah, received at least one hundred. She sat unwrapping them and nearly covered up with loose paper, which two servants bore away in huge armfuls, until forced to stop from sheer exhaustion; and that, too, when great piles of presents were still unopened.

Supper was served at ten o’clock. The sugar-bowl made a lasting .impression on me. It was a square box of embossed silver. The lid was closed and locked, and I shall never forget the maternal dignity with which our good hostess, Fru Lyon, drew from her girdle a bunch of keys —badge of her housewifely authority — deliberately unlocked the sugar-bowl, and lifted the silver lid. No servant or child, however sweet a tooth they had, could pilfer sugar in that house. This one little act pleased me greatly. It was a brill iant illustration of the care and watchfulness with which the Swedish mother superintends all her household duties. It reminded me of our good New England grandmothers, and how carefully, and conscientiously, and grandly they presided over their households. I sometimes wonder if the girls of the present dayA, will ever make such” grandmothers as we have had.

But to return to our Swedish supper. The first course was lut-fisk. This is a ling or a cod prepared for a Christmas delicacy by being buried for days in wood-ashes. A piece of lut-fisk placed on your plate immediately falls apart into flakes; each




flake is translucent, and trembles like jelly. When eaten alone it is tasteless, but when seasoned with salt, much pepper, and lots of butter-sauce of two kinds, and well mixed with a mealy potato, the lut-fisk is delicious. The next course was rice porridge, with powdered cinnamon and cream; and the third and last, a great fat goose roasted to a turn. These are the three time-honored dishes for Christmas eve; and while we supped, every family in Sweden, from the King to the peasant, was eating just the same sort of supper, with the same courses; and in every home throughout the Northland, from the palace to the backwoods hut, stood the Jul-gran—the Christmas-tree— with ribbons fluttering from its branches, and wax tapers burning brightly from every bough.

One wintry afternoon, at Jul-tide, I had been skating on a pretty lake—Dalsjon—three miles from Gothenburg. On my way home I noticed at every farmer’s house we passed there was erected in the middle of the door-yard a pole, to the top of which was bound a large full sheaf of grain.

” Why is this V I asked my comrade.

“Oh, that’s for the birds, the little wild birds; they must have a merry Christmas, too, you know.”

Yes, so it is; there is not a peasant in all Sweden who will sit down with his children to a Christmas dinner within doors till he has first raised aloft a Christmas dinner for the little birds that live in the cold and snow without.



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