Christmas in Sweden | Yule tide in the Northland (1889)

Christmas In The Northland

All Sweden gives itself up to the enjoyment of Yuletide. First comes Christmas Eve, next Christmas itself, then Second-Day Christmas, then Third-Day Christmas. When I first visited Sweden, all four were legal holidays, and on all four days are the Christmas festivities celebrated.

For a month everybody has been at work buying and preparing presents, and planning and deliberating; all carried on with the greatest secrecy, and in a profoundly mysterious manner, for no one must know or even guess what is in store for him at Christmas.

But perhaps Yule is enjoyed most heartily in the country. After an early dinner on the 24th of December, the Christmas tree is dressed by the older members of the family. Presents are not hung upon it as with us, but it is decorated with bonbons, ribbons, and little bright glass globes. From the end of every branch and twig rise little wax tapers, and when they are all lighted you may well believe the tree grew in some fairy bower. Sometimes cotton-wool is laid on the branches, but very thin and white must it be, so that it shall look just like the snow out doors.

When it begins to grow dark, which is very early in Sweden, the tapers are lit, and the tree stands a pyramid of light and color.

Now the children are first admitted into the room. They press forward with wondering eyes, and eager expressions of delight. Joining hands they dance about the tree, a jolly Christmas dance full of mirth and motion ; while the old folks sit at a distance and quietly enjoy the brilliant light of the tapers, the woodsy freshness of the tree, and, most of all, the innocent joy of the children. When the tapers have all burnt down, the chandeliers and lamps are lit and fruit, confections, nuts and goodies are passed around.

Soon the family gather about a great round table in the middle of the room ; whereupon the father draws forth from capacious baskets the Christmas presents, one by one, and reads the names inscribed thereon.

All the presents are done up in papers, and many of them accompanied by verses of poetry. These rhymes are always read aloud and excite much merriment. Then what a wondering, and guessing, and peeping in, and beholding goes on round the board! How happy are the faces of the children, and how their bright blue eyes gleam! Whole hours are passed in distributing and opening the presents, and it is late in the evening when the happy family troop down to a Christmas supper.

At six o’clock on Christmas morn are matins in the parish church. Out doors it is dark as midnight; but the stars sparkle brightly as you drive swiftly along in your cutter. Every tree by the roadside is loaded down with a wealth of snow. In every peasant’s cot along the way the Christmas tree blazes brightly. The great church is full of light, which streams forth through the tall arched windows to meet you, while the bells from the lofty tower chime a merry peal that vibrates far and wide through the clear, frosty northern air.

I have said that the Christmas festivities last for four days. Yes, in the country the merry-making goes on for a fortnight. Friends and neighbors pay and return visits, often stopping for days at each other’s houses, and throughout this season the time honored dishes of Yuletide are eaten.

I shall never forget the first Christmas I passed in Sweden. I was residing then in the city of Gothenburg. When I awoke on the morning of December 24 and looked out of my windows, the market-place was changed to a forest of spruces, so thickly was it filled with Christmas trees. But the forest was a dissolving one; all day it kept disappearing in every direction, borne off, tree by tree, in the arms of stalwart Swedish housemaids.

I was invited to spend the evening at the W. Thomas, Jr. hospitable home of Herr Hawkes Lyon, a prominent and respected merchant of Gothenburg. On my way thither in the early dusk, I found the streets full of masked figures. These were all house-servants, but they were disguised as kings and queens, sailors, soldiers, and harlequins. They trooped along in little companies, with laugh and shout and song, bearing big baskets of their master’s presents to his friends. Each masked party salutes every other with the utmost respect in passing. Did they not, Christmas law would award them a pair of soundly-cuffed ears. The whole scene seemed like a Protestant carnival.

At my host’s were assembled a pretty family party. A large Christmas tree was ablaze with tapers at the farther end of the room.

Soon five masked figures stalked in—a king, queen, two sailors, and a lady. The sailors were evidently girls in disguise. The masqueraders walked to the middle of the room, under the chandelier. One by one they took out the Julklappar—Christmas presents—from their capacious baskets and knapsacks, read the name of the luck3r recipient, who stepped forward out of the circle of friends standing around, and received his gift with a bow, and a Tackar sa mycket— thank you so much.

The distribution over, the maskers were invited to a side table, and treated to cake and wine. They were pumped also with all sorts of questions; but they were very cunning in their answers, and gave no clew to the sender of the gifts. I noticed also that the knowing ones carried straws, through which they sucked the wine without removing their masks. Then the host gave each one.z.drickspcnniiig—a small piece of money, —and they departed.

But hardly were they gone, when in came another masked party, loaded with presents, and then another, and another; and so they came trooping in the whole evening. ,

The Christmas gifts were all disguised in nondescript bundles and multifarious wrappers. A large box, the size of a seaman’s chest, after being opened, with great difficulty, was found to contain something that looked like a leg of beef, and this in turn held the real present,—a handsome dress, all ready to put on.

. . . . . another lady who had been engaged to be married for seven long years, and whose betrothed was standing at her side, received a wedding trunk, filled with useful but significant articles, such as a single person would hardly need. A merry laugh burst forth at this broad hint, in which the procrastinating pair joined as heartily as any.

The presents were of all sorts, from jumping-jacks and match-boxes to silver sets, oil paintings, silks and satins. Their number, too, was something prodigious to my New England eyes. I am sure the daughter of the house, Froken Hannah, received over fifty. She sat unwrapping them, and nearly covered up with loose paper, which two servants bore away in huge armfuls, until forced to stop from sheer exhaustion; and that, too, when a great pile of presents was still unopened.

Supper was served at ten o’clock. The sugar bowl made a lasting impression on me. It was a square box of embossed silver. The lid was closed and locked, and I shall never forget the maternal dignity with which our good hostess, Fru Lyon, drew from her girdle a bunch of keys, badge of her housewifely authority, deliberately unlocked the sugar bowl and lifted the silver lid. No servant or child, however sweet a tooth they had, could pilfer sugar in that house.

This one little act pleased me greatly. It was a brilliant illustration of the care and watchfulness with which the Swedish mother superintends all her household duties. It reminded me of our good New England grandmothers, and how carefully and conscientiously and grandly they presided in their households. I sometimes wonder if the girls of the present day will ever make such grandmothers as we have had.

But to return to our Swedish supper. The first course was lut-fisk. This is a cod or a ling prepared for a Christmas delicacy by being buried for days in wood ashes. A piece of lut fish placed on your plate immediately falls apart into flakes; each flake is translucent and trembles like jelly. When eaten alone it is tasteless; but when seasoned with salt, much pepper, and plenty of butter sauce of two kinds, and well mixed with a mealy potato, the lut fish is delicious.

The next course was rice porridge with powdered cinnamon and cream, and the third and last, a great fat goose roasted to a turn.

These are the three time-honored dishes for Christmas Eve; and while we supped every family in Sweden, from the king to the peasant, was eating just the same sort of supper, with the same sort of courses.

And in every home throughout the Northland, from the palace to the backwoods hut, stood the jul-gran—the Christmas tree, with ribbons fluttering from its branches and wax tapers burning brightly from every bough.

One wintry afternoon, at Jul-tide, I had been skating on a pretty lake, Dalsjon, three miles from Gothenburg. On my way home, I noticed at every farmer’s house we passed there was erected, in the middle of the door-yard, a pole, to the top of which was bound a large full sheaf of grain.

“Why is this?” I asked of my comrade.

“Oh ! that’s for the birds. The little wild birds. They must have a merry Christmas, too, you know.”

Yes, so it is. There is not a peasant in all Sweden who will sit down with his children to a Christmas dinner within doors, till he has first raised aloft a Christmas dinner for the little birds, that live in the cold and snow without.


Source: Cosmopolitan, 1889

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