Our Swedish family Christmas is all about peace, joy and beauty, and just a little sprinkling of family and life drama.
Or at least that’s how I remember it, having relocated across the pond and away from family for just over a decade. Yet the Christmases we spent in a tiny red cottage (a “stuga” as we say in Swedish) on an island in the Stockholm archipelago are as clear in my minds eye now as when I experienced them as a young child.
The setting was as close to Christmas magic as one could come – the snow half a metre deep, fluffy and pulled out over the land like a bright, sparkly carpet. From inside the small red “stuga” gleamed strings of Christmas lights and advent candles lit up all in a row. As you stood on the stoop, the smell of cloves stuck into oranges and gingerbread hanging from red ribbons wafted out.
In the living room, the tree. Oh the tree!
This is by no means an attempt to badmouth North American Christmas trees. I am half-Canadian and I have to admit there is a certain gaudy charm to the bright shiny bobbles and garlands. But a Swedish Christmas tree, a “julgran”, is a spindly little thing of beauty. A small tree, not too bushy, hung with ornaments passed down generations, many made of straw and others painstakingly handmade the nights before Christmas Eve – crackers or threaded paper hearts – hung together with soft white lights.
Traditionally real candles adorned with red satin bows were placed in the tree, frowned upon in the modern era for obvious reasons.
Under the tree were gifts. Grandma’s were perfectly packaged and adorned with whitty rhyming poems that led the reader down a path with carefully laid out clues. Grandpa’s were easy to spot, wrapped hastily in newspaper on the afternoon of. Both equally loved by the children who eyed them hungrily and asked “When, oh when, will we get to open these magical gifts?” “Efter kaffet”, “after the coffee” was always the answer from the adults, who kept our agony going for what felt like an eternity.
We love the tree, and the holiday, so much so that there is a whole separate ritual and celebration when the Christmas tree is eventually thrown out. We sing special songs, dance around the tree and eventually throw it out the door.
And how could I forget the food? The word smorgasbord comes from Swedish, and the Christmas food is laid out in all its smorgasbord-like glory on Christmas eve – ham and meatballs, potatoes in a number of forms, herring pickled a few different ways, hard and soft breads and a tiny sliver of vegetables in the form of beets or green onions.
No time to go into detail on the desserts, suffice to say the treats are also laid out like a smorgasbord with an assortment of chocolates, gingerbread, nuts and even a little treat you could crack a tooth on if you’re not careful.
A small offering of rice pudding is always left out for our little “tomtenisse”, a little santa-looking character who guards the home.
And after dinner, a customary ritual would be held whereby we all gathered completely naked in the downstairs sauna and poured water on hot rocks for hours. In between the heat, the brave among us with hearts that could stand it, would run outside screaming, dive into the snow and do a roll, then dart back inside to the heat of the sauna. Hearts pounding, every inch of skin prickling and alive.
And of course, as any family would, we would have our own little version of the Christmas drama. Amid the present opening and the feasting, someone would inevitably bring up a sore subject or an attempt to sort some long-festering thing out. Drinks would likely have been flowing, allowing the conversation to flow perhaps a little too freely. Heated discussions would ensue and grandma would inevitably rise to do the dishes, finding a calm amidst the storm.
So in this weird pandemic year, what can I glean from those magical Christmases of years gone by?
Being together, despite the drama, was always the most important thing on this night. Although I might have an all-too-rosy view of the past, I don’t recall gifts or buying things being the focus. Rather, it was mostly about the traditions of making handmade ornaments, leaving food out for the tomtenisse, bathing in the sauna and making all of the customary dishes that any proud Swedish Christmas table should have.
This Dec. 24, I will be bringing as much of this childhood Christmas magic as I can to my tiny celebration far from family and far from Sweden.
I will also be bringing the memories of family, as loving and real and imperfect as humans are, gathered together on a cold winter night. Because being together, as this year has made me realize in a more visceral and painful way than ever before, oh what a gift it is.
From my home to yours, I wish you a very happy holidays and a “Riktigt God Jul.”
Emelie Peacock is the Hope Standard’s reporter.