Swedish word of the day: julhög

Here's the next word in The Local's Christmas-themed word of the day series, running from December 1st to Christmas Eve.

the word julhög on a black background beside a swedish flag
Will you be eating a Christmas heap on December 24th? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s word of the day is julhög, which is made up of the word jul (Christmas) and hög (heap, pile, or mound).

You’re unlikely to see a julhög at Christmastime these days, unless in a museum – they are a small piece of Swedish Christmas history which was already going out of fashion in the mid-1800s, and disappeared almost completely during the 1900s.

So what is a julhög, and what is the history behind it?

A julhög is a conical or pyramid-shaped heap of freshly-baked bread, usually topped with a treat – such as a lussekatt, a piece of fruit, or a piece of cheese. For much of Swedish history, Christmas was one of the rare times of year where people ate freshly-baked bread, rather than the day-to-day dry crispbread which had a long shelf-life and was therefore easier to store.

Julhögar on display in Burlöv museum. Photo: Bara härads hembygdsförening/Flickr

The bread in a julhög often progresses from large, wide fibre-rich crispbread or rye bread at the bottom, to smaller, more refined wheat breads nearer the top of the pyramid, often featuring some form of sötebröd or sweet bread flavoured with spices, syrup or vört (wort), a sweet liquid extracted from grains used to brew beer. Families used to brew their own Christmas beer, so wort was a readily available by-product for use in baking bread.

Wort bread, or vörtbröd in Swedish, is still popular at Swedish Christmas buffets, and is often flavoured with raisins – or even chocolate – for extra sweetness.

According to julhög tradition, everyone around the table would be served their own julhög – which was sometimes meant to last for the entirety of the Christmas holiday. Those working in the household as servants were often given their own julhög as a Christmas present, which may have been decorated with Swedish pepparkakor or spiced Christmas biscuits, if the family could afford the expensive ingredients.

Sometimes, bread from the julhög was saved until the spring, where it could be dipped in coffee and eaten on the first day of plowing the fields for the new season, given to the horses, or sprinkled in the fields to promote a good harvest for the next year.

Example sentences:

Julhögar brukade innehålla båda knäckebröd och sötebröd, såsom lussebullar eller vörtbröd.

Christmas heaps used to contain both crispread and sweetened breads, like Lucia buns or wort bread.

Alla i familjen fick varsin julhög, som skulle räcka hela helgen.

Everyone in the family got their own Christmas heap, which had to last the whole holiday.

Need a good Christmas gift idea?

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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Swedish word of the day: liga

You may have this word in your native language or recognise it from football leagues such as the German Bundesliga or Spain's La Liga. Liga has a similar meaning in Swedish, too, with one crucial difference.

Swedish word of the day: liga

Liga originally comes from Latin ligāre (“to bind”). In most languages, liga means “league”, a group of individuals, organisations or nations who are united in some way.

Similar words exist in many European languages, such as Dutch, Spanish, Czech and Polish liga, Italian lega, French ligue and Romanian ligă.

A league is almost always something positive or neutral in other languages, but in Swedish a liga is something negative – a criminal gang, with the word ligist referring to a (usually young, male) gang member, thug or hooligan.

Political or diplomatic leagues are usually translated into Swedish as förbund (“union” or “association”) rather than liga: one example is the Swedish term for the League of Nations, Nationernas förbund.

The only exception to this rule is sport, where the popularity of international football leagues such as the Bundesliga and the Premier League has lessened the negative meaning somewhat in this context. Fans of hockey will be familiar with SHL, Svenska hockeyligan, and Sweden’s handball league is referred to as handbollsligan.

The history behind liga’negative meaning in Swedish can be traced back to the Thirty Years’ War, which took place largely within the Holy Roman Empire between 1618 and 1648.

Essentially, the Thirty Years’ War began as a fight between Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire, with Catholic states forming the Catholic League and Protestant states forming the Protestant Union.

Sweden was – and still is – Lutheran, meaning that, when they got involved in the war in 1630, their enemies were the Catholic League – or the katolska ligan in Swedish, with its members being referred to as ligister or “league-ists”.

King Gustav II Adolf eventually beat the Catholic League in 1631 at the Battle of Breitenfeld, ultimately leading to the formal dissolution of the league in 1635 in the Peace of Prague, which forbade alliances from forming within the Holy Roman Empire.

Although this may seem like ancient history, Swedes still don’t trust a liga – the word’s negative connotations have survived for almost 400 years.

Swedish vocabulary:

Jag är lite orolig för honom, han har börjat hänga med ett gäng ligister.

I’m a bit worried about him, he’s started hanging out with a group of thugs.

Manchester United har vunnit den engelska ligan flest gånger, men City är mästare just nu.

Manchester United have won the Premier League the most times, but City are the current champions.

De säger att det står en liga bakom det senaste inbrottsvågen.

They’re saying there’s a gang behind the recent spate of break-ins.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.