Seven types of herring, gnomes and a tree hunt - how Swedes do Christmas

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A delicious Swedish smorgasbord (Image: Getty Images)
A delicious Swedish smorgasbord (Image: Getty Images)

Stockings, Christmas dinner, the Queen, presents, charades and bed; for the past 30 years this is the festive format I have followed on Christmas day.

This year, for the first time in both mine and my parents' lives, we left this tried and tested formula behind and headed to Sweden for an altogether more Continental Christmas.

Having spent the past five years with a Swedish partner, I knew to expect Christmas day to arrive at least one day early, and for the potatoes to be inexplicably boiled rather than roasted.

Beyond this I was in no means prepared for the delights that our festive sojourn would be filled with, or what a wonderful way Christmas is to get to know a country.

The Christmas tree hunt and dance

Seven types of herring, gnomes and a tree hunt - how Swedes do Christmas eridzriquhikeinvThe fruits of a successful Christmas tree hunt (Getty Images)

December 24 began for our little group of Swedes and Brits heading out into the woods armed with an axe.

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Unlike the non-Scottish parts of the UK - where pine trees are a little hard to come by beyond the local petrol station forecourt - most of Sweden is filled with prime Nordic pines easily accessible thanks to the country's strong right-to-roam laws.

As the 9am morning sun peaked up above the horizon I felled a 2.4 Swedish metre (7.8 British feet) beauty with ten strikes of a small axe.

The seasonal plant was then hauled back through the woods to be erected by the woodburner.

Once the requisite amount of schnapps have been necked, the tree is drawn into the middle of the room and encircled by the merry-makers who begin to dance around it to a series of folk songs.

On January 13, which is known as Julgransplundring or Christmas tree plundering, a second dance takes place before the evergreen is hurled out of the window.

The Julbord

The smorgasbord - literally buttered bread table - is one of the few Swedish words to have made it into the English language.

The julbord (Christmas table) follows a similar etymology and construction, but is much bigger in scope and much more festive.

Our personal feast was the product of two solid days' work and consisted of five courses: cold and hot meats, fish, and a crisp bread dipping station.

Pickled herring in various vinegary sauces dominated the early stage before making way for gravlax, moose balls, reindeer wafers and a European sausage to be fried by the eater to their liking.

Seven types of herring, gnomes and a tree hunt - how Swedes do ChristmasA traditional Christmas ham (Getty Images)

For the veggies among us, aubergine and carrot stood in for the herring and salmon respectively.

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The meal is long and the courses taken one by one, with a selection of songs and drinking games providing little respite from the regular shouts of 'Skål!' that comes with the necking of different regional schnapps.

Although I realise this admission could see me thrown into the North Sea, the julbord is undeniably superior to the Christmas roast.

Its delicately fused variety of flavours, beautiful use of dill and overall lightness don't tip you into an all-evening root veg coma and are designed to be shared with visiting loved-ones until the turn of the new year.

Donald Duck and the King

As much as we may like to think of our Nordic neighbours as being cocooned from the cheap and plasticy side of consumerist Western Christmas by the nation's love of wooden ornaments and democratic socialism, even the Swedes go for a bit of Disney.

Every year since 1959 at 3pm on Christmas Eve the 1958 special Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas is screened on the main public television channel.

Seven types of herring, gnomes and a tree hunt - how Swedes do ChristmasCarl Gustav, here with his wife Silvia, has been making a speech every Christmas for 49 years (Mirrorpix)

Many people, such as my partner's parents, have watched exactly the same selection of shorts from Cinderella, Ferdinand the Bull and Micky Mouse each year for the entirety of their lives.

The following day King Karl Gustav XVI delivers his Christmas address to the people.

We watched the veteran Swedish monarch make his 49th festive speech before King Charles dropped his first, with the former claiming an overall victory in the head of state head-to-head thanks to his superior outfit, content and zeitgeist catching ability.


After tucking away a final snaps and having spun around the Christmas tree, a brief lull descended on our crew as we prepared to open presents late on Christmas Eve.

Just moments after we had noticed we were one member down a puckered and shiny plastic face broke through the darkness and was smushed against the living room window to our collective horror.

"Who is on my naughty list this year?" the smock and tight wearing figure asked us in a thick accent as we laughed (some of us in terror).

This was, of course, Jultomten, a festive version of a tricky rural sprite said to live out of sight on Swedish farms, both causing mischief and helping tend to the cows.

He is the subject of a drinking song which seems to neatly capture something of the Swedish spirit.

"En liten tid vi leva här med mycket möda och stort besvär"(A short time we live here with much toil and great trouble)

"Hej tomtegubbar slå i glasen och låt oss lustiga vara"(Hey Santas, clink glasses and let's be funny)

"Låt oss lustiga vara"(Let's be funny).

Milo Boyd

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