Christmas in Sweden begins with the Saint Lucia ceremony. St. Lucia’s Day (or St. Lucy’s Day) on December 13th honoring the Christian martyr Lucia.
Usually, the eldest girl in the family portrays St Lucia. She gets up before dawn and dresses as the “Queen of Light” in a long white dress wearing a crown of evergreens with tall lighted candles attached to it. Singing “Santa Lucia,” the Lucia Queen wakes her parents and serves them with coffee and treats.
The celebration of St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden started in the late 1700s. Sweden is not the only country in the that celebrates St. Lucia’s Day. St Lucia’s Day is also celebrated in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Bosnia, and Croatia.
Christmas Eve, known as Julafton in Swedish, is also very important in Sweden. Christmas Eve dinner includes dried fish, Christmas ham, boiled potatoes, pork sausage, herring salad, spiced bread, and lots of sweets.
A popular Christmas tradition in Sweden is to serve Risgryngrot, a special rice porridge cooked with one almond in it and the person who finds the almond in his or her bowl gets to make a wish.
Two days before Christmas, Christmas trees are set up decorated with little Swedish flags, glass ornaments, candles, apples and small gnomes wearing red hats. The Christmas tree lights are lit after dinner. After that, a member of the family dresses up as Tomte, a Christmas gnome character. Tomte wears a white beard and red robes similar to Santa Claus’ and distributes gifts from his sack.
Another popular and important Christmas tradition in Sweden is that many Swedes on Christmas Eve afternoon watch Donald Duck. This slightly odd tradition of religiously watching the same 1950s Disney cartoons over and over again started back in 1959 at 3.00pm on Christmas Eve, when the TV station TV1 showed the Disney special “From All of Us to All of You” or in Swedish “Kalle Anka och hans vanner onskar God Jul” meaning “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.”
According to Slate’s Jeremy Stahl who experienced the cultural phenomenon firsthand, “The show’s cultural significance cannot be understated. You do not tape or DVR Kalle Anka for later viewing. You do not eat or prepare dinner while watching Kalle Anka. Age does not matter—every member of the family is expected to sit quietly together and watch a program that generations of Swedes have been watching for 50 years. Most families plan their entire Christmas around Kalle Anka, from the Smörgåsbord at lunch to the post-Kalle visit from Jultomten.
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“At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you can’t to do anything else, because Sweden is closed,” Lena Kättström Höök, a curator at the Nordic Museum who manages the “Traditions” exhibit, told me. “So even if you don’t want to watch it yourself, you can’t call anyone else or do anything else, because no one will do it with you.”