Growing up in a predominantly Catholic, mostly Irish and Italian area outside Chicago, my friends thought my family’s Christmas celebration bizarre.
I was blessed to have both parents come from Swedish backgrounds. In fact, my dad’s father had come over in the 20s. On my mom’s side, it was her grandparents who had immigrated here. So both sides of the family observed a similar Christmas.
I tried to teach my friends how Swedes celebrate Christmas over the years and managed to incorporate some of the Swedish foods and traditions into my own family’s celebration.
First off, Christmas begins with Advent. A good Swedish Lutheran will have an Advent wreath and light the appropriate number of candles every night until Christmas. Depending on the year, we might read a verse, say a prayer, or do a Bible study.
As part of Advent, we decorate the house before it begins. There is something about having the lights everywhere that signals to the brain: now I must prepare for Christmas.
As the eldest daughter in the family, I got the privilege of celebrating another holiday about halfway through December—Santa Lucia Day. I would wear a wreath with pretend candles on my head and serve everyone breakfast. The older I got, the less often I performed my Lucia duties. It didn’t seem very holiday-like since I was the one who either made meals or at least assisted with the cooking on a regular basis.
After Advent, the traditional Christmas Eve is my favorite. These days it doesn’t all happen on Christmas Even like it did when I was a child, but sometime during the week of Christmas we will hit most of the elements.
- The fuss and bother of the traditional Swedish dinner. I ignore the lutfisk when I make it (check out Garrison Keillor for lutfisk jokes), but make sure most of the other elements are present. I brought various aspects of our feast to school and usually got disgusted looks—especially from my favorite fruit soup! The entire repast includes: meatballs, potato sausage, boiled potatoes, green beans of some variety, fruit soup, rice pudding with lingonberries, hard tack with butter, limpa rye bread, sweet pickles, pickled or fresh beets, plus spritz or pepparkaka cookies for dessert. (I’ll make spritz, but usually buy pepparkaka.) I got smart the last few years and had the local butcher make up our potato sausage.
- Christmas Eve is also present time. Growing up, only the Santa presents came on Christmas Day. Since we don’t ‘do Santa’, we reserve Christmas morning for immediate family gifts.
- My favorite part of Christmas Eve growing up was late church. I always loved the 11:00 PM service that welcomed the baby Jesus. Whether at my parents’ church or my grandparents’, we were issued candles when we entered and after the lights were extinguished during Silent Night, the flame was passed around until we left by the light of our little candles. It was also a great reason to stay up late as a kid!
I know other Swedish Christmas traditions exist, but we never did the others in our family.