Swede deal: a taste of 'jul' in an Irish yule
Lucia, festival of light, is about candles, songs and buns. Early in the dark morning, long before dawn, someone in the family dresses in a white gown, or equivalent, puts a crown of candles, or equivalent, on her head, and brings coffee and lussekatter (buns flavoured with saffron) to those who are still tucked up in bed.
These fortunate souls should be awoken by the encroaching smell of baking, saffron, coffee and by the light of candles and the sound of sweet haunting music. It’s nice if you can pull it all off at 6am. Or 7am. But at worst it’s breakfast in bed, for the man of the house. Because, of course, Lucia should be female, if at all possible. Ideally a young beautiful woman, but any kind will do, as long as she can heat up buns (home-made are best but you can get them, frozen, in Ikea).
Christmas itself is celebrated on December 24th. The Irish eat turkey, Danes eat roast pork and Swedes get meatballs, even at Christmas. Also, baked ham, pickled herring, and Janssons frestelse: the best bit, a casserole of potatoes, cream and anchovies. The traditional Christmas dessert is rice pudding with a lucky almond in it – if you get the almond, you’ll get married during the next year.
We have a very set ritual. Guests arrive about two. Their first treat is glogg, the great Swedish word for mulled wine. Most people are rather fond of that. Then comes dopp i grytan. Grytan is the pot in which the Christmas ham is boiled. You have to line up, dip a bit of bread into the pot, and eat it; with a glass of schnapps. There can be refusals here, to the dopp and even to the schnapps, which is an acquired taste. And then we all roar Helan Går, a drinking ballad, sung at every Swedish celebration.
Then it’s time for some rousing games of cards, Gris, or “Pig” (belonging to the Old Maid subgroup), is the favourite. It’s best played like rugby – very physically – and must be followed by a few rounds of loppe, or Tiddly Winks. Finally, lunch, as outlined above.
Then, when everyone is sitting around the fire and darkness is falling, Jultomte, Santa or the Christmas elf, comes knocking on the front door with a sack of presents on his back.
“Are there any good children here?” he enquires, as he trundles into the candle-lit room, in his red furry gear. He pulls parcels out of his sack, and reads rhymes or riddles, if he has had time to compose them on top of his various other Christmas duties. They are supposed to be silly, and they are.
Ah yes, the sound of happy Swedish laughter. That’s what keeps families glued together. The Swedish Christmas is characterised by another thing, when properly celebrated. Good taste.