Pick a few, or try them all – just remember that Christmas is a season of joy.
Don’t sweat if you only have time to embrace a few traditions – the important part is getting people together and having fun!
Nisser or tomter
The US has elves. In Scandinavia we have nisser (Denmark and Norway) or tomter (Sweden)! Nisser, like elves, are Santa’s little helpers, but contrary to elves, nisser live amongst us. They are most commonly known to roam around attics and haylofts. They are Santa’s eyes on the ground reporting back if children are misbehaving.
We are obsessed with nisser. You’ll find them everywhere in our homes. Hanging on pictures, taped to kitchen cabinets, standing on the buffet or dressers, sitting on beds… just about anywhere and everywhere. Not to mention the countless Christmas songs that feature the nisse as the main subject.
If you fancy decorating your home with nisser this Christmas, you don’t have to travel abroad to buy them. There are a few online places where you can get your nisse fix. There are Scandinavian stores online like theScandinavianshoppe.com, and of course you can count on IKEA to stock up on nisser as well. Even Etsy.comsells a vast variety of nisser.
Advent calendars are extremely popular in Scandinavia. It’s a fun way for children to count down the days to Christmas.
Some calendars are made of simple cardboard with a Christmas design. In these, you open a window every day behind which you’ll find a small picture or a piece of a story. Other calendars may have chocolate inside, while some include little presents. There are now even scratch-off advent calendars for adults.
The calendar with presents may be every child’s favorite. It comes in many variations, but is always made to hold 24 small gifts – one for each day leading up to Christmas. The one I had growing up was square with an embroidered nisse and 24 little rings sown on to it. Each morning during December I would wake up with great excitement to find out what the nisse had waiting for me that day.
There’s a lesson to be learned though: if children don’t behave, the nisse may not have a present for them. This happened to me once when I was about 7 or 8. I don’t remember what I had done, but it was bad enough that I had to go one day without a little present.
If interested in starting this tradition for your children, you can find advent calendars on Etsy.com.
The Advent Wreath
Scandinavians are pretty adamant about celebrating the four Sundays of Advent and light our Advent wreath with much excitement every Sunday leading up to Christmas—even if we aren’t that religious. Advent is Latin and means “coming”. It represents the coming of Jesus – or for many Scandinavians simply the coming of Christmas and longer days with more light.
The Advent Wreath is one of those items that could be connected our pre-Christian heritage. During winter solstice the Vikings would light a giant sun wheel and roll it down a hill to entice the sun to return.
Today, on each Sunday of Advent we will light a candle in an advent wreath. We don’t roll it down a hill, though. Rather we hang it from the ceiling in our living room, or have one standing on the table. For the first Sunday of Advent, one candle will be lit. For the second Sunday, two candles, and so forth. The wreath is most commonly round and made of pine with four candles in it. Though today you can find a variety of designs and decorations used for the four candles of advent.
Scandinavians are big on family time. These fours Sundays are a great opportunity for some quality family time. We’ll usually light the candles in the wreath during the late afternoon when the sun is setting and gather for coffee, gløg, sweets, and maybe a card game.
By now, you may have noticed that items related to advent are very important in Scandinavian culture. An advent candle is as prominent in the Scandinavian household as the advent calendar. The candle has 24 numbers and comes in a variety of holiday designs. The candle is placed in a Christmas decoration – usually homemade of pine branches and other natural decorative items, and often placed on a wood log.
The wood log that many Scandinavians decorate with candles and fir also dates back to pre-Christianity where the Vikings would decorate a log with fir, holly and yew. A piece of the log was saved to protect the home in the coming year, and burnt at next year’s fire.
Growing up, I remember long walks with my mom and sister in the forest at the end of November to pick out decorative items that we then would spray in gold and silver for our decorations. The candle is lit every day, burning off one number at a time, leading up to Christmas Eve.
Live candles on the christmas tree
Scandinavians put small live candles on their Christmas trees. We must admit, this one is a little bit crazy, and you may not want to do this at your house. In fact, it might be illegal in the US to put live candles on your tree –if you are allowed to have a tree in the first place! However, that doesn’t deter all Scandinavians from lighting candles on their trees. Here at Scandinavian Living, we know quite a few that continue to carry out this tradition in the US.
Somehow, live candles on Christmas trees seem to work better in the Scandinavian countries, where the trees are not as thick and bushy as in the US. The branches are further apart making plenty of room for live candles. We also don’t tend to have our tree decorated for the full month of December, so the tree is not as dry when we reach Christmas Eve. In fact, most trees are not brought into the house and decorated until December 23rd.
In case of emergency, most Scandinavian homes keep a bucket or two of water by the Christmas tree once it’s lit. If you dare to try this tradition, you may want to do the same.
Christmas table or Christmas lunch
The grand Christmas table (julebord) is another way Scandinavians brave the dark cold months of winter. Though this tradition in Denmark is referred to as Christmas lunch (julefrokost), they are so much more than just lunch. Christmas Table – as they are called in Sweden and Norway – may be a more accurate terminology. So, that’s what we’ll use here.
The Christmas table is an all day party arranged by friends, family, or your workplace. They usually start around lunchtime, and can easily run into the wee hours. It’s a full day of eating, drinking… and, well, more drinking and eating. The first Christmas tables will be arranged already by mid-November and the last are held as late as at the end of January.
The food is a grand variety of hot and cold dishes ranging from meatballs to herring eaten with bread. Some very popular items are pate with bacon and red cabbage, smoked salmon (lox), eggs, a variety of cold cuts and sausages, and of course risengrød.
Finally there’s the drinking. Most common are beer and schnapps. In Denmark the tradition is that you take a shot of schnapps after each plate you eat. When eating from noon till midnight, this can turn out a bit dangerous.
Many Americans working in the Scandinavian countries, and who have been invited to a traditional Christmas table, are often concerned about the drinking part with colleagues. However, the Christmas table parties are known to be the one time of year where everyone at work can let their hair loose. Of course there are limits. But, if ever invited to a Christmas table, this is the one place where you want to leave your inhibitions at the door.
The Yule goat
The Yule goat is mostly a Swedish and Norwegian tradition; but has historically played a role throughout all of Scandinavia. In Sweden, the yule goat features in Christmas decorations on par with the nisse.
The yule goat is another one of those traditions that date back to pre-Christian times as it can be connected to the worship of the Nordic God, Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by goats. It’s role in Yule or Christmas celebrations have changed throughout time. During winter solstice, young people would also dress in goatskin and walk from house to house to sing and perform. In return, they would receive food and drinks.
Today it mostly features as ornamental decoration on the tree or around the house. Some families place a Yule goat next to the Christmas tree to protect it. This custom may come from the historic role the goat played during the 18th century. Back then, the Yule goat was seen as an invisible spirit that would appear some time before Christmas to ensure that all of the decorations were done right.
If this is a tradition you would like to continue in the US, or pick up, you can get your Yule goat at IKEA, of course.
Flags on the Christmas tree
It’s no secret that Scandinavians love their flag. This is particularly true at Christmas time, when we decorate our tree with the flag of our nation. It may sound a bit strange at first, but it actually looks quite festive. The flags are connected by a long thread, and are either wrapped around the tree, or draped from the top to bottom.
If you would like to try this tradition yourself, you can easily pick-up scandinavian flags at Ikea – or maybe you would like to try with American flags? The flags should be fairly small, about one or two inches in length. If you can’t find them readily prepared on a string, it makes for a nice little crafts project with kids.
Dancing around the Christmas tree
If you thought putting live candles on the Christmas tree was crazy, just imagine that after they are lit, the entire family will hold hands and walk or dance around the Christmas tree singing Christmas carols. No rocking around the Christmas tree here.
In Denmark, this tradition is still pretty common. Once dinner is over, family and friends who are celebrating Christmas together will form a circle around the Christmas tree and sing anywhere from 10 to 15 Christmas carols. If you think about it, it’s actually not such a bad idea as it helps with digestion. It also gives everyone a chance to admire every bit of the Christmas tree and its decorations.
The almond present
This tradition is most common in Denmark, but some Norwegian and Swedish families also carry it out. The goal is to locate an almond in a bowl of rice porridge. If you find it, you win the almond present. Some families carry out this tradition at noon when they eat rice porridge (risengrød) with cinnamon and butter, while others wait till after dinner to eat “ris à l’amande”—a sweeter and creamier rice porridge served with cherry sauce.
Here’s how it works. Whether you choose the lunch version or the dessert version, the idea is the same. Porridge is poured into a number of bowls, one for each of the people participating. Everyone will leave the room while the oldest member of the family—usually the father—will place the almond in one of the bowls and cover it. Remember to leave no trace of where the almond was placed.
Now the second oldest member—usually the mother—will switch all of the bowls around so that no one knows where the almond is. Everyone returns to the room and selects their bowls one-by-one starting with the youngest member of the family.
Whoever finds the almond wins the almond present, which by default should always be shareable. In our family it was usually chocolate, but it could also be a game. A game is a good idea if the tradition plays out at lunch as the children of the family can play the game after to pass some time before dinner. A marzipan pig very often also features in this game.