.Smorgasbord of Xmas Traditions

That'll be Christmas with four types of herring, thank you!

Photograph by Brett Ascarelli
Ja! Village Bakery’s Birgitta Schofield helps to explain the elaborate holiday traditions of the far North.

By Brett Ascarelli

In Sweden, Christmas parties generally start on the first Sunday of December with Advent, and the season doesn’t officially end until mid-January. You can’t blame the Swedes for this incessant partying; they’ve got to do something to ward off nights that begin at 2:30 in the afternoon. By the time January rolls around, they can distract themselves through winter’s remaining darkness by trying to reclaim their svelte shapes from all of that Christmas herring and the potato-positive tradition of Jansson’s Temptation.

The season’s central meal is the Christmas Eve smorgasbord, or julbord. In terms of annual cornucopias, this is the equivalent of our Thanksgiving dinner. For women, it can mean a month-long stint on kitchen patrol, and after it’s all done, you roll over–a perfect sphere, just like Violet Beauregard.

This holiday season, we flagrantly use multiculti mania as an excuse to spend hours researching quirky Christmas traditions in the far, far North. Why Sweden? Perhaps the English band the Divine Comedy say it best in their song “Sweden”: “Please don’t ask me why / For if I were to give a reason /It would be a lie.”

Tradition 1: Nobel Alarm Clock The Swedes do many things well: modular furniture, gender equality and being naturally blonde, for instance. But two things they do best are the Nobel Prizes and Christmas. Once a year, these two traditions co-mingle like aquavit and caraway, in a little-known ritual that takes place on nearly the darkest day of the year.

During December’s Nobel festivities, Swedish custom mandates that freshly minted laureates shack up in style at Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. This prize week coincides with a national, pre-Christmas celebration, Santa Lucia Day, when certain young women throughout the country are selected to don white robes and candle wreaths as a reminder that light will once more come to the dark country. On this day, each Nobel award-winner gets a wake-up call from the Grand Hotel’s Santa Lucia, who processes from bedroom to bedroom with her retinue. Singing sweetly, they rouse their luminary charges with coffee and saffron buns, traditional Lucia fare.

Every once in a while, there’s a glitch. In 1930, for example, novelist Sinclair Lewis totally flipped out, screaming and ducking under the bedclothes when the young women arrived. Writers Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck are also rumored to have freaked. Luckily, Santa Lucia Day occurred last Wednesday, and so far, there have been no accounts of anything going awry with this year’s awardees.

Tradition 2: Kitchen Patrol Birgitta Schofield, owner of the Village Bakery–which has two outlets, in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol–was once upon a time voted Santa Lucia of her high school in Sweden. She remembers setting out before 5:30am on Santa Lucia Day to visit retirement homes with a thermos of coffee and spiced buns her mother had baked.

Ginger snaps, saffron buns and cardamom rolls foreground the Swedish Christmas season. Through spice trade with India and China, the Swedes developed a taste for exotic flavors that otherwise weren’t available in their chilly country. “Ginger, cardomom and saffron became a sign of wealth. As Sweden got wealthier, they trickled down to the rest of the people,” says Schofield. She pauses. “We’re crazy about cardamom!”

Tradition 3: Swedish Fish, Swedish Meatballs With more foods than presents on Santa’s list, the julbord on Christmas Eve requires a certain degree of restraint. Revelers don’t help themselves all at once, as we do at Thanksgiving. Instead, they go at it in several passes.

They begin by eating what is essentially a homage to herring. Herring was in such large supply in the waters around Sweden that some think it was wholly responsible for drawing people to settle the city of Stockholm. And even today, people would rather be fishing. Schofield’s marine biologist son brags that “the water is still so clean in Stockholm that you can still go out fishing right by the king’s castle.”

With some thousand years of accumulated cultural capital, herring has been promoted from simply a subsistence meal to a frequent festival edible. Baiting the family with three or four different types of herring on the julbord is typical, and you’ll find it salted, sherried, marinated with vinegar and spices, served with mustard sauce, herbed, pickled, smoked or in a salad. Other goodies, like boiled potatoes, hard-boiled egg, gravlax and boiled eel often accompany this course.

Landlubbers look forward to the second course: cold cuts. Among the paté, sausage salad, beet salad, cheese and cucumbers, the shining star is the Christmas ham, or julskinka. Glowing through a mustard rub and topped with an apple, the ham sits pretty on the primest real estate of the buffet table. Historically, the ham has been so integral to the julbord that, according to Swedish food consultant Michel Jamais, people living before refrigeration used to slaughter and salt the Christmas pig as early as August or September.

Cajoling distended bellies to plow on, a course of warm food takes over with Jansson’s Temptation, a baked casserole of sliced potatoes layered with onions, anchovies or sprat, and cream. Meatballs, herring dumplings, cabbage, sausages, stuffed cabbage rolls and pork ribs cheer on the appetite.

Tradition 4: Skeletons in the Closet? Michel Jamais thinks that the julbord may have evolved into its present, massive form because women wanted to provide a sponge for their men to use in absorbing their alcohol. So what about Christmas drinks in a country that was once referred to as the “vodka belt”?

Although most of the Swedish Christmas traditions are sacrosanct and immutable, the customs surrounding alcohol seem slightly more open to innovation. Swedes traditionally enjoy snaps, which refers to a distilled alcohol, similar to vodka, which is often spiced. (The bastardized form of heavily sweetened and flavored Schnapps which has sickened generations of American college kids bears little resemblance.) Snaps also refers to an activity, where a shot of aquavit, vodka or a lighter liquor is drunk during the meal with herring or as a digestive. Aquavit refers to a distilled alcohol, similar to, but more refined than, vodka, which has often been flavored with lingonberry, lemon, anise, fennel or caraway. At 80 to 90 proof, the drink, which means “water of life,” is so strong that during the Middle Ages it was believed that it could be used to bring people back from the dead.

Glancing through a book on Christmas customs, Village Bakery’s Schofield raises her eyebrows when she sees snaps recipes calling for saffron, cranberry or a combination of dill and coriander. “The snaps table has grown,” she says, noting how Swedes are experimenting more with spicing their own snaps.

Swedes tend to be big fans of snapsvisor, or drinking songs, which they do as a group prior to downing servings of snaps. The drinking songs all end in a resounding “Skål!” the Swedish version of “cheers.” Some say its etymology comes from the Vikings, who may have drunk from the skulls of their enemies. Michel Jamais, however, thinks that the saying might instead come from the word for “bowl”; in times past, a bowl of aquavit might have been passed around and each person would drink it with a spoon, rather than from individual cups.

Tradition 5: Light Bright In spite of a vast menu, Swedish Christmas is really all about light. Candelabras fill the windows there during December. There is even a tradition not unlike the Jewish menorah, where households progressively light candles on a four-armed candelabra each Sunday in December until Christmas.

It’s a dreary, coldish day outside in the North Bay, but Schofield’s lingonberry-jam-filled shop, the Village Bakery, is warm and cozy inside. Even after 40 years in the United States, she still knows how to ward off the winter with light. It’s practically a Swedish survival mechanism.

God Jul!

To learn more about the ‘julbord,’ search for ‘smorgasbord’ on Wikipedia.org, and click the link ‘The essential Julbord from Radio Sweden including recipes.’ Village Bakery, 7225 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. 707.829.8101; 1445 Town and Country Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.527.7654.


View All

Quick dining snapshots by Bohemian staffers.

Winery news and reviews.

Food-related comings and goings, openings and closings, and other essays for those who love the kitchen and what it produces.

Recipes for food that you can actually make.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

North Bay Bohemian E-edition North Bay Bohemian E-edition