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How to Experience the Magic of a Scandinavian Christmas

Before meeting my husband and his family, who are Danish-Canadians, I had no experience with Scandinavian Christmas traditions. My understanding of Christmas was limited to the typical North American customs. My husband’s family does things a little differently. They celebrate, open gifts, and eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. They eat festive foods like pickled herring and until very recently they lit their Christmas tree with real candles. I was intrigued by their celebrations and over the years I’ve tried to learn as much as possible about how to celebrate in Scandinavian fashion. Now that we have a daughter, we try to incorporate some of these traditions into our own holiday celebrations.

If you want to include some Scandinavian traditions in your Christmas festivities, here are a few fun ideas to get you started:

Get Festive on Christmas Eve

A traditional Danish Christmas tree complete with real candles and tiny flags

Across Scandinavia, celebrations for holy days, including Christmas, typically take place the evening before the big day. Families typically attend church, eat Christmas dinner, sing carols around the Christmas tree, and open gifts on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day and Boxing day are reserved for relaxing or visiting relatives and friends.

Stretch out the Holiday Parties

With so much to love about Christmas, Scandinavians make the celebrations last as long as possible with non-stop Christmas parties. The Christmas table or ‘julebord’ is a traditional all-day party arranged by friends, family, or your workplace. They typically begin with lunch and can easily run into the next morning. In Denmark the tradition is to take a shot of schnapps after each plate you eat. When eating from noon until midnight, this can be dangerous. The first julebords begin in mid-November and are held as late as the end of January, so pace yourself!

Light an Advent Star

An advent star lights up a window in Greenland

With many Scandinavian countries lying so close to the North Pole, the winter days are very short. To counteract the long nights, many traditions involve lighting up the darkness. One of the most beautiful traditions comes from Greenland, where paper Advent stars lights up the windows in many homes. Families gather to light the star on the first Sunday in Advent and keep the star lit until Epiphany on January 6th. The typical Advent star is folded from orange or yellow paper, giving it a beautiful golden glow when lit.

Worship the Yule Goat…if it Doesn’t Burn Down

The 2009 Gävle Goat – Photo by Tony Nordin (Creative Commons)

Paying homage to their Viking heritage, Scandinavians recognize the tradition of the ‘yule goat.’ It is believed this goat symbol is connected to the Pagan worship of the Norse god Thor, whose chariot was pulled through the sky by a team of goats. All across Scandinavia there is a tradition of making straw goat ornaments during the Christmas season as good luck charms. In some cities, enormous straw goats are erected, and nowhere is this more celebrated than in Gävle, Sweden where their 13-meter-tall goat has a notorious reputation. Almost every year since it was first introduced in 1966, it has been burned down or vandalized by pranksters. To date it has been burned down or destroyed a whopping 36 times! The goat survived 2017 unscathed, so if you want to see how it fares this year, you can follow its progress through a live video stream here or follow it on Twitter here.

Find the Almond Present

Risalamande, a traditional rice porridge with cherry sauce is part of this fun Scandinavian Christmas tradition

A common tradition in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden is a special treat of sweet rice porridge with a fun twist. There are several variations of this game, but the goal is always the same – to locate a single almond hidden in one bowl. Whoever finds the almond wins “the almond present” which is typically a small gift or a shareable treat. Typically, the game proceeds slowly as each bite has to be checked thoroughly for the almond before chewing. Whoever finds the almond usually tries to keep it a secret in order to watch the other players choke down every last bite.

Get Ready for Christmas With a Festive Sauna

It’s not Christmas in Finland without a Christmas sauna or ‘joulusauna’. Before the evening festivities begin on Christmas Eve, it is customary to visit the sauna to calm and purify the body and mind. But don’t forget to bring a treat for the sauna elf or ‘saunatonttu’.  According to Finnish beliefs, every sauna has its own sauna elf who needs to be cared for.

Why Settle for Santa When You Can Have 13 Yule Lads and a Giant Cat?

In Iceland, children don’t have to settle for just one visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Instead they are visited by 13 mischievous ‘yule lads’ for 13 days leading up to Christmas.  Children place a shoe in their bedroom window and are visited by one yule lad each night. They leave sweets and gifts, or something terrible like rotting potatoes, depending on how the child has behaved that day. The lads, with names like “Meat Hook” and “Spoon Licker” have unique physical traits and funny habits. In addition to the yule lads, every Icelander must receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas or they will find themselves in mortal danger from the Christmas Cat, an enormous black cat who eats anyone who doesn’t receive new clothes.

Hide Your Brooms!

The beautiful Northern Lights are in full swing at Christmastime in Scandinavia

Perhaps one of the most unorthodox Christmas traditions can be found in Norway, where people hide their brooms. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. To this day, many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen. So, if you want to avoid housework and keep evil spirits away at the same time, this is the tradition for you!

Experience the Traditions of Scandinavia For Yourself

If you want to learn more about Scandinavian culture, join Wells Gray Tours this July on an incredible cruise of the Norwegian Fjords aboard Holland America’s newest ship, Nieuw Statendam. On this tour we will visit Viking-era villages, view breathtaking waterfalls, tour immense glaciers, and experience the magic of the midnight sun.

From all of us at Wells Gray Tours, we wish you and your family a magical holiday season filled with your favourite traditions.

Written by: Pam Jensen