Swede deal: a taste of 'jul' in an Irish yule


Mixing Christmas rituals is a tradition for this Swedish-Irish family, whose big celebration on Chtistmas Eve, writes EILIS NI DHUIBHNE

Anthropologists say that calendar customs are crucial for human well-being. Festivals punctuate the year with reliable, pleasant rituals, providing necessary breaks from the monotony of everyday routine. They reinforce our sense of community, and emphasise our connection with the past, since most of the customs reach to the remotest depths of history and pre-history.

Even Christmas, the origin of which we can more or less date (unlike say that of Halloween, or May Day) incorporates plenty of pre-Christian elements. The contemporary Irish festival includes practices which are borrowed from many countries: English and American food, German decorations, Scandinavian gift-bringers. Like almost every kind of folklore, the feast of Christmas includes indigenous and international elements.

It’s multi-layered. Its rituals are designed by a widening gyre of creators: starting with the individual, the family, the neighbourhood, and expanding to the region, country, religion, and the world.

You will hear many people say: “I always read A Christmas Carol,” or, “We always have parsnips and carrots, as well as the sprouts, of course.”

There are strong local rituals. On the Blasket Islands, you had to go down to the Trá Bán and have a violent game of hurling before you tucked into your beef and whiskey. These days, Dublin folk enjoy plunging into the Forty Foot. At national level, there’s Midnight Mass, Santy coming down the chimney, holly and ivy, mulled wine in offices on Christmas Eve and the turkey and ham (and the sprouts, of course). All aspects of the tradition have become increasingly important to Irish people. Christmas won’t be Christmas without parsnips. It’ll be ruined if I don’t freeze some part of my anatomy in the Irish Sea before pre-turkey drinks with the O’Briens around the corner.

Like all folk customs, the Christmas rituals have always been subject to variation and renewal. As soon as any new family establishes itself, or two people set up home, a blending of rituals – or maybe a clash – will occur. If the couple are of mixed nationalities the potential for clash, or for enrichment, is greater because every country in Europe (never mind further afield) does Christmas in its own way, which has some things in common with the worldwide tradition and some that are unique.

Lucy in the sky

Our family is half Swedish and half Irish. Our Christmas has, for the past 30 years, been more Swedish than Irish, for reasons to be considered later.

Swedish Christmas really starts on December 13th, with Lucia – St Lucy’s Day – and the saying: “Lucy Lucy Lucy bright, shortest day and longest night.” While the shortest day is actually December 21st, the anomaly was caused by the calendar adjustment from the Julian to the Gregorian in Sweden in 1753. In that year, February 17th was followed immediately by March 1st, so 11 days “disappeared”. Before the change, the winter solstice was on December 13th).

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).

Meatball feast

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.

If you are in Stockholm any time in December, you will see a single white star lit in the window of every house and apartment. Inside, there will be white candles and Christmas trees decorated with clear lights. No Santys climbing up the walls in a bewilderment of flashing colours. No coloured lights at all. No excess. A discreet touch of red, in the table cloths or napkins, some of which may be family heirlooms, sewn by some long-gone ancestor (on our tree, we have little paper flags for Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, dating from the second World War, when solidarity with the occupied Scandinavian countries was demonstrated on the Christmas tree).

How do you reconcile two rituals, which have some elements in common and many different?

It’s easy enough if they fall on different days. We do the Swedish Christmas on the 24th and the Irish Christmas on the 25th. Somewhat more low-key, since Christmas parties are tiring. But we go to Mass (even though he is a Lutheran humanist and I’m a Catholic humanist), have a walk on the beach, eat turkey and mince pies. Santy came down the chimney when there were children in the house. We have some gaudy Irish decorations vying with the tasteful Swedish stuff. And the sprouts, of course.

I have to ask myself, why did I so quickly adapt to a Swedish Christmas? It should have been the other way round. I’m at home, my husband’s the immigrant, the “new Irish”. It’s true that he is a self-confident Swede (is there any other kind?) who knows Sweden is the best country on earth. So it goes without saying that its customs must be maintained, wherever Swedes find themselves. The festivals, Lucia and midsummer, are in fact celebrated by the Swedish community in Ireland, at events organised by the Swedish Womens Education Association and the Irish-Scandinavian Club. But perhaps I took to the customs because I admire Sweden so much. It’s probably the most democratic and caring society on earth, especially if you are a woman or a child (or an animal: in Sweden, even the dogs have rights).

I’m happy to be attached to Sweden. In that most secular and multicultural society, the fundamental message of Christmas (peace on earth, goodwill to everyone) is in general practised, more so than elsewhere. It deserves to be celebrated.

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