The forgotten history behind Sweden’s most bizarre Christmas traditions

From TV specials to decorations and food, there are plenty of ways to get fully into the festive spirit in Sweden. The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in this bumper guide.

The forgotten history behind Sweden's most bizarre Christmas traditions
Did you know the Swedish Santa is inspired by old folklore? Photo: Bert Mattsson/TT

The beloved TV series that changes every year

Christmas is all about traditions, and the advent calendar television show produced by Swedish broadcaster SVT is one of them. From the beginning of December until the 24th, every evening brings a new episode for the whole family to watch. Cliffhangers are guaranteed.

Read more about the television traditions around Christmas in Sweden to plan your festive viewing.

The children selling magazines on your doorstep

When Christmas is approaching, Swedish children go door to door to sell jultidningar (Christmas magazines). The tradition of the magazines has origins going back to the late 19th century. These magazines played a crucial role in popularizing the now-classic image of the jultomte, also known as the Swedish Santa (more on him later).

Learn more about the tradition of Christmas magazines.

How glögg sends Swedish wine consumption through the roof

Each December, Swedes drink around five million liters of glögg, a Swedish variety of mulled wine. The drink is closely associated with winter and the chilly weather, and is sold at Christmas markets, at Systembolaget and in supermarkets.

If you like sweet, spiced hot wine make sure to read the article.

Photo: Emelie Asplund/

Julmust, the festive drink that outsells Coca-Cola every winter

In 1910 a father and son in Örebro began producing and distributing the julmust Christmas soft drink. More than a hundred years later, the drink even outsells Coca-Cola during the winter season. 

More about the famous julmust drink.

How a folklore tomte became Sweden’s Santa

The Swedish version of Santa Claus is known as jultomte. Originally a folklore creature linked to agricultural traditions, writer Viktor Rydberg transformed him in a 1871 story into a figure who delivers gifts on Christmas Eve. 

Meet Santa’s Swedish brother.

The biscuits that were once thought to improve your sex drive

Getting together with the family to bake some pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) in all sizes and shapes is a typical Swedish Christmas activity. The cookies were once thought to cure illnesses like indigestion and depression, produce a calming effect, and even improve sex drive…

Sound good? Read the fascinating history of pepparkaka here.

How a German Christmas tradition became distinctively Swedish

During the dark northern winter days close to Christmas, the Swedes like to get cosy at home. The typical advent lights are everywhere to be seen and initially began as a tradition to count down the days until Christmas. You can’t miss them while visiting Sweden during winter time.

Learn more about advent lights in Swedish winter.

Photo: Ulf Lundin/

A Christmas candy with an unfortunate name

Swedes are real sweet tooths, so of course there’s a Swedish candy tradition just for Christmas. The juleskum sweets are soft and come in a lot of flavors. Although the name isn’t that appetizing to English-speakers, the sweets are rather tasty.

More about these skum sweets.

The foreign traditions embedded in Swedish Christmas

Over the years, Sweden has adopted Christmas traditions from all over the world. From pepparkaka cookies to glögg, and from the adventsljusstakar to Saint Lucia, much of Swedish Christmas actually has its roots outside Sweden. 

Read about foreign influences in Swedish Christmas in the past and today.

The festive feast that has stood the test of time

The julbord, which translates to ‘Christmas table’, is a Scandinavian tradition with historical roots going back to the time of the Vikings. A typical julbord contains a mix of savoury and sweet foods with a lot of fish. You are guaranteed a festive evening.

Learn about julbord and its culinary history.

Why lussekatter are one hell of a bun

We all know the famous Swedish cinnamon buns. But have you also heard of lussekatter buns? These buns are associated with Luciadagen (Lucia day) on December 13th. 

Read more about the Lussekatt buns (and try the recipe).

The historical dark side of Sweden’s Lucia tradition

Together with Christmas and Midsummer, Lucia Day is one of the most important cultural traditions in Sweden. But behind the gentle twinkling candlelight of a traditional Swedish Lucia procession is a far more complex and varied history than many people may realize.

Read about the remarkable history of the Saint Lucia tradition.

Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/

How common sweets became Swedish julgodis

Among the most traditional Christmas sweets (julgodis) are marzipan, caramel and toffee. With 18 kilograms of candy consumed per person per year, no other country eats as much as Sweden. So Christmas here is paradise for sugar-lovers.

More about Sweden’s favourite candy during Christmas.

Stepping back in time with Swedish Christmas markets

The wooden houses, typical music and twinkling lights: Christmas markets bring warmth and light to the darkest time of the year. Swedish favourites like warm glögg, brända mandlar (candied almonds), and julgodis like knäck are sold on the markets that are open all December. Don’t miss them!

Read more about the history of Christmas markets in Sweden and famous markets in Stockholm.

How one Swedish woman influenced the candy cane

Did you know a Swedish woman invented the candy cane? Thanks to Amalia Eriksson we now have the iconic polkakäpp (candy cane) in our Christmas trees.

More about the Amalia Eriksson and the story of her sweet invention.

How Elsa Beskow created a timeless Swedish Christmas

Elsa Beskow was both a talented illustrator and writer. Her work left a lasting impression on Swedish Christmas. Many children grew up with her stories, which made Swedish Christmas the celebration it is today.

Get to know Elsa Beskow’s Christmas stories here.

How the julbock went from demonic creature to straw figure

Every year a massive julbock (Christmas goat) is built out of straw in the Swedish city of Gävle. These days the giant statue is mainly known for its unfortunate history of being set on fire by arsonists, but there’s much more behind this festive symbol.

Read more about the tale of the julbock.

Sweden’s favourite Christmas film
There’s nothing like watching the same movie every year during the festive season. The movie Fanny och Alexander is from the 80’s, but is still very popular. A Swedish Christmas simply isn’t complete without this film.
The festive Swedish songs just for adults

A drinking game during Christmas dinner? That’s what the snapsvisor tradition is all about. Just sing and drink, sing and drink. That’s probably why Sweden in the 1800s was called “the most drunken country in Europe”.

Fill your glasses and get to know more about Sweden’s Christmas drinking songs.

The tradition with a surprising connection to H&M

Your decorations aren’t complete without an accompanying advent star. These paper stars can have up to an impressive 110 points and play an important role in the seasonal preparations.

More pointy facts about advent stars.

The tradition that’s not really all about Kalle Anka

Donald Duck, or Kalle Anka as he’s called in Sweden, has an important role to play in the festive season. Every year at 3pm sharp on Christmas Eve it’s one full hour of Disney cartoons on television.

More about Donald Duck and Swedish Christmas here.

The Day Before Dipping Day

December 24th, for some Swedes, means a traditional meal of bread dipped or soaked in a liquid. The day before this festive event is called ‘the day before dipping day’ or dan före dopparedan

More about the day before dipping day:

Christmas is here… 

Where other countries celebrate Christmas on December 25th, Swedes can’t wait and have picked julafton (Christmas Eve) as the main day of festivities instead. Meeting with the family, exchanging gifts and gathering around a perfect julbord all add up to the perfect Swedish Christmas Eve.

More about celebrating a true Swedish Julafton.

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Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedag jul, literally "the thirteenth day of Christmas" always falls on January 6th, which this year is a Friday. It's a public holiday in Sweden meaning many people have a day off. But why is it celebrated it at all?

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedagen, or trettondagen, or Epiphany as it is sometimes referred to in English, is the thirteenth day after Christmas Eve, the day when Swedes celebrate Christmas. Unlike most Swedish holidays such as Midsummer’s Eve (midsommarafton), Easter (påskafton) and Christmas Eve (julafton), the trettondag holiday is celebrated on the actual day, rather than the night before on trettondagsafton.

As a Christian holiday, it marks the day the three wise men met baby Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and therefore the day God’s son arrived on earth. In Denmark and Norway, the day is still referred to as helligtrekongersdag, or “day of the three holy kings”.

Unlike the Twelfth Night or the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is considered to be the last official day of Christmas in many Christian countries, the official final day of Christmas in Sweden falls on the twentieth day after Christmas, January 13th or tjugondag Knut. So, you can keep your decorations up for a while yet.

In Småland, trettondagen is sometimes referred to as farängladagen or änglafardagen(literally: “angel travel day”), as it was previously believed that the dead returned home the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, returning to their graves on January 6th.

How is it celebrated in Sweden?

In modern Sweden, most people don’t do anything in particular to celebrate trettondagen, other than perhaps taking down their Christmas decorations (although as mentioned above, many people do this on January 13th instead). It’s a day off for many, and state-run alcohol chain Systembolaget is closed.

In the Swedish Church, trettondagen is a day for raising funds for various charitable campaigns elsewhere in the world, such as this year’s campaign to end child marriage, female genital mutilation and gender-based violence.

The Swedish Church will often hold services on trettondagen or trettondagsafton. If you’re interested, you can find out what services churches in your parish will be holding here. Just type in your address, then look for trettonhelg to see what’s on.

How did Swedes celebrate in the past?

Traditionally in Sweden, the day was marked by boys and young men walking from town to town telling the story of the three wise men. These young men were known as stjärngossar (literally: star boys), a precursor to the stjärngossar you still see at Saint Lucia celebrations in modern Sweden.

This stjärngossetåg (star boy procession) would include the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who represented Europe, Africa and Asia, wearing pointy hats and white shirts, alongside King Herod, who Mary and Joseph were fleeing from (and the reason Jesus was born in a stable), Herod’s servants and a julbock (Christmas goat).

These storytellers would occasionally be given presents or money, and taking part in a stjärngossetåg was often a way for poor boys and men to earn some money, or even be given something alcoholic to drink.

The julbock‘s role was to collect these gifts or money, and it could even have a funnel hanging from its jaw which would lead to a container to collect any snaps gifted to the procession.

This stjärngossetåg still exists in some parts of Sweden, such as on the islands in the Stockholm archipelago.