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Swedish Christmas


Christmas is the biggest and longest holiday of the year.  Schoolchildren are on holiday for a couple of weeks.  The height of the celebration is Christmas Eve, the 24th of December, followed by the two holidays Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Christmas festivities involve numerous traditional activities and attributes, the most important of which are the Christmas tree, the Christmas meal, and the visit of the Swedish tomte or Christmas gnome.
Introduced into Sweden from Germany, the Christmas tree has been a part of Christmas in Sweden since the 1700s.  It was not until well into the present century that the custom became general, however.  Nearly every Swedish household now brings in a tree one or two days before Christmas and decorates it with sparkling objects, gaily wrapped candies, glass bulbs and other small trinkets, many made of straw.  The tree is also adorned with lights - usually electric these days, although some still use stearin candles.  The tree is kept watered, and many households keep their trees until the very end of the holiday, which falls on the twentieth day after Christmas - Knut's day in the Swedish calendar (more about this day later).  Lighted trees outdoors have become increasingly common, and every town and village decorates a community tree.
Christmas Eve, then, is the height of the festivities.  Traditionally it is a day when no work should be done other than seeing to one's livestock.  This is the day of the Christmas feast, which comprises a smörgåsbord including a few traditional dishes such as ham, jellied pig's feet, lutfisk and rice porridge.  Lutfisk (literally "lye-fish") is most likely a throwback to a period of fasting from pre-Reformation times.  It is a dish prepared of ling that is dried and then boiled.  The Christmas feast also includes a tradition called "dipping in the kettle", in which the assembled family and guests dip bits of bread in the broth left over after boiling the ham.  Both lutfisk and "dipping in the kettle" are actually poor man's fare from olden days, but they live on thanks to their role in holiday festivities.
After the meal, it is time for a visit from the Swedish tomte or Christmas gnome.  He was believed to live under the floorboards of the house or barn.  The Swedish tomte was credited with looking after the family and their livestock.  Toward the turn of the past century a Swedish artist began producing greeting cards illustrated with gnomes.  Her figures were a tremendous success, and soon the tomte had assumed a role comparable to that of the various Santa Claus figures in other countries.  He is believed to come with presents.  In many households nowadays someone disguised as a tomte, a big sack of presents over his or her shoulder, appears on the doorstep sometime toward the evening of Christmas Eve.
By tradition Swedes attend church in the small hours of Christmas morning.  In olden days it was customary to race in sleds or horse-drawn wagons home from the services.  The winner was believed to have the best harvest the coming year.  Otherwise, the day is spent quietly within the family circle, with Christmas parties and get-togethers the following day and on through the holidays until Knut's day a week after Twelfth Night.
Source: "Traditional Festivities in Sweden"; Author: Ingemar Liman; Published by: The Swedish Institute, ISBN 91-520-0113-X
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