Your all-essential guide to Swedish Christmas

As the holidays are approaching, many newcomers are confused, or even amused, by the Swedes' festive traditions. To get up to speed, here is a guide to the most distinctive quirks, must-haves and routines of Christmas in Skellefteå. Try some of them yourself!

Merry Christmas! On December 24, of course.

Merry Christmas! On December 24, of course.

Foto: Tobias Wallström

Guide2023-12-19 16:45
Skyltsöndag in Skellefteå.

Sign Sunday (Sign Sunday or Christmas market day)
A few weeks before Christmas, Sign Sunday is held in the city center. It is a Sunday when people come outside to enjoy a Christmas market with handicrafts and coffee, lotteries, gift shopping and music and choir performances. Children may get their first glimpse of Santa and his reindeer, and everyone should have a go at the dance around the big Christmas tree. This year, Skyltsöndag takes place on November 26, but some villages have their own small-scale versions of the event the week after.

One candle is lit every Sunday of Advent.

The four Sundays leading up to Christmas, Swedes celebrate Advent, usually by lighting a candle in a four-armed candlestick, one every week. Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity. The name was adopted from the Latin word "adventus", meaning coming or arrival, and it is a time for preparing for Christmas. During Advent, Swedes start to decorate their windows with the typical electric Advent candelabras and stars, lightning up the dark December days. On the first Sunday of Advent, churches are usually well attended and typical Advent hymns are sung.

The Advent calender contains a little surprise every day in December up until Christmas.

Adventskalender/Julkalender (Advent calender/Christmas calender)
The Advent or Christmas calender is a cardboard box (or a DIY-project) with 24 flaps that conceal candy, chocolate treats or small toys or gifts. Opening one each day in December up until Christmas Eve is a delight for the little ones. On tv there is a well produced children's show with a continuous story and a flap that is opened after every episode.There are more or less creative versions of adult calenders as well, containing things like liquorice, beauty products, beers or even sex toys – anything to make December a little more fun.

Tried glögg yet?

Glögg (mulled wine)
Gatherings around the Christmas period almost always start with a warm cup of sweet mulled wine, glögg, often enjoyed with raisins and chopped almonds. To go with it: gingerbread with blue cheese! No, really, you read that right - gingerbread with blue cheese. Seasonally flavored glögg is available both with and without alcohol, the latter easily found in every store, and can also be used in cold drinks.

The Christmas market at Nordanå.

Julmarknad på Nordanå (Christmas market at Nordanå)
The traditional Christmas market at the historical culture center Nordanå, is a genuine and much appreciated market with a focus on local craftsmanship and food. In addition there are lots of activities both outside and indoors, for example workshops where you can make your own paper stars, garlands and Christmas cards. This year the market takes place on December 10. 

Lucia is a Swedish tradition celebration the light.

On December 13, don’t be surprised if the lights suddenly go out and Lucia enters the room, dressed in a white gown and a crown with lit candles. Well, you should probably be surprised if Lucia appears in your living room and you don't have any kids. But if you do have children, Lucia and her entourage of maids, as well as ”Staffan stalledräng” – boys with cone-shaped hats carrying the star of Bethlehem – will treat you with some atmospheric songs and if you are lucky – fika! Don't miss the early morning Lucia show on tv, with professional choirs to set the mood for the rest of the day, 

Julfika – warn glögg with saffron buns and gingerbreads.

Julfika (Christmas pastry)
Rich Christmas fruit cakes haven't quite made it to Sweden yet, but there will be no lack of fika during the holidays. You'll probably be up to your neck in pepparkakor (gingerbread) before Christmas is over. It is hard to resist these spicy little thin cookies. Bake them yourself! Ready-made dough can be bought in every grocery store.

Mix it up with the traditional S-shaped saffron bun, known as "lussebulle", which is served during Advent and Lucia. You will also find saffron versions of almost every type of pastry this time of year. 

For some local flavour, be sure to try the sugar coated anisbröd (anise bread), a donut like pastry also known by its more equivocal name Pitepojkar (Piteå boys) due to its three-legged shape ...

Christmas concerts everywhere!

Julkonserter (Christmas concerts)
Christmas time equals cultural events, and mainly music realated ones. Swedes love their holiday tunes and all over town one can attend Christmas concerts with everything from the local church choirs to big shows at Sara kulturhus. Traditional Christmas hymns are mixed with modern classics, newly written music and the artists' own interpretations. Book ahead to secure a place!

Be creative with your gingerbread house!

Pepparkakshus (gingerbread houses)
Building and decorating one's own gingerbread house is a fun activity for many Swedish families. The parts of the house can be bought ready-made and the most effort being put into assembling them with melted sugar and make the house as beautiful as possible with icing and candy. Or, at least put a lot of decoration on it, never mind the refinement. One of the highlights after Christmas it to smash the house and eat the dusty parts. Yummy! Around town, you may see gingerbread house exhibitions made by students, and at Skellefteå museum there will be a whole town made with contributions from the public.

Bingo lottery tickets for uppesittarkväll.

Uppesittarkväll (Christmas watch)
The night before Christmas Eve, many Swedish families have a cosy uppesittarkväll by the tv, playing bingo and watching Christmas shows. Bingo lottery tickets can be bought from many kids raising money for their sports clubs.

Merry Christmas! On December 24, of course.

Julafton (Christmas Eve)
Julafton, December 24, is the main day of celebration in Sweden, when families get together to eat lots and lots of food and treat each other with Christmas gifts. Some meet for lunch and for some it is more of an evening event. Traditions may of course vary and Christmas is not great for everybody, but in general it is the biggest holiday in Sweden and comes with high expectations and a lot of paraphernalia. Celebrations are held at home and you will find the city center empty and calm (except for the last minute shoppers around noon). For those who lack company, alternative Christmas celebrations are usually held by the churches. 

Christmas rice porridge.

Julgröt (Christmas porridge)
Julgröt is a sweet porridge made of white rice and cream. It is traditionally eaten with cinnamon and sugar, as a Christmas breakfast or lunch. One shouldn’t forget to put a plate of porridge out for the house gnom, a predecessor to Santa Claus who watches over the household, and tends to get a bit offended if he doesn’t get treated at Christmas.

Julbord – a buffet of Swedish Christmas food.

Julbord (Christmas food)
Forget the turkey and fried frish. Swedish julbord is served buffet-style, its centerpiece a ham that is cut into thick slices and eaten with mustard, appel sauce or beetroots salad. Raw spiced salmon, an assortment of pickled herring, eggs, liver paste and different kinds of cold cuts are also essentials, alongside herb bread and a creamy and strong Christmas cheese. Hot dishes are small sausages, Swedish meatballs, ribs, and for some Janssons frestelse, an anchovy and potato gratin. Some people eat stock-fish with white sauce, though it is more common in the south. 

The Christmas food is a very heavy and salty affair. The traditional dessert Ris à la Malta isn't on the light side either: a kind of rich rice pudding with fruit sauce. Don't forget do leave room for all the Christmas sweets, like butterscotch, homemade chocolates as well as nuts, dried figs and dates, and the occasional clementine.

The weeks before Christmas, many restaurants serve julbord, which replaces the usual menus. These julbord are commonly attended by companies or groups of friends and must be booked ahead.

Julmust is a must!

Must is a malty soft drink sold in bulks at Christmas and Easter. It is a staple in the Swedish households and consumed both as a dinner beverage and on its own. While Coca-Cola may be the family friendly Christmas drink in other countries, julmust is the obvious choice of the Swedes. 

Is the Christmas tree real or made of plastic?

Julgran (Christmas tree)
A decorated Christmas tree is a must for most Swedes, and it comes in as many versions as there are households. A common, and sometimes a bit heated, debate is whether it is best to have a plastic or a real tree, and exactly when it is time to bring it in and throw it out. Count on endless complains about fir needles as well. They go everywhere.

Santa comes knocking.

Tomten (Santa)
Inspired by the American Santa Claus, the Swedish jultomte has a big white beard, a red hood and usually quite a few extra pounds around the stomach. His appearance on Christmas Eve is usually preceded by someone in the family excusing themselves to go out and buy the newspaper. Santa will come knocking within minutes. He brings a big sack of Christmas gifts and mainly targets the children, not uncommonly requiring a hug in return. Also, don’t be surprised if you see someone with a scary mask and a lantern sneaking around town or even your house the days before Christmas. It is mostly a friendly call.

Watching Kalle at Christmas Eve is a tradition.

Kalla Anka (Donald Duck)
Every since 1960, the Disney show From All of Us to All of You, commonly known as ”Kalle”, has been sent on Swedish television on Christmas Eve. It is a real cornerstone for most Swedes, who know most of the lines by heart and plan their celebration routine after the show. The moment right before Kalle starts, when the annually chosen Christmas tv host shows up on sceeen to light a candle and introduce the show, might as well be peak Christmas.

Julotta is the early morning service on Christmas Day.

Midnattsmässa och julotta (midnight mass and early service)
Swedes aren't much of a churchgoing people, but at Christmas many want to cherish the Christian traditions. Julotta, the old fashioned early morning service on Christmas Day, are held in churches such as Landskyrkan, but others have replaced it with a midnight mass on Christmas Eve instead. Sometimes torchlight procession and horse sleigh rides are arranged.

Lazy days.

Juldagen och Annandagen (Christmas Day and Boxing Day)
The bank holidays Christmas Day and Boxing Day are really lazy day for the Swedes, often spent at home doing absolutely nothing except eating leftovers, playing board games, laying puzzles and watching movies. Most stores are closed or have reduced opening hours.


Mellandagsrea (post Christmas sale)
Known to the Swedes as Mellandagsrea, these big sales are popular to attend on the days between Christmas and New Years. Before Black week was a thing here, this was an even bigger event and people queued outside stores to get the best deals. It is still possible to make a bargain (or if you are a snob, return the Christmas gifts you didn't like).

Fancy food and drinks at New Years Eve.

Nyårsafton (New Years Eve)
New Year celebrations are not at all as much governed by traditions as Christmas, and not as family orientated. It has more of a sparkly party vibe to it, with fancy dinners and champagne toasts at midnight. The Swedes still prefer to celebrate New Years at home, instead of at restaurants or clubs. Watching the New Year poem Nyårsklockan being read on the live tv show from Skansen in Stockholm is a must, as well as the countdown together and the rush outside to watch the fireworks. 

A good day for pizza!

Nyårsdagen (New Years Day)
This bank holiday is the day that most pizzas are ordered in Sweden. That speaks for itself, right?