For members


Advent Calendar 2022: How to decorate your Christmas tree like a Swede

In the next installment of our 2022 Advent Calendar, we go through the traditional decorations for a Swedish Christmas tree.

Advent Calendar 2022: How to decorate your Christmas tree like a Swede
A Swedish Christmas tree with flags and straw decorations. Photo: Helena Wahlman/

The tree

First off, the basics. Swedes, like in many countries where Christmas is celebrated, will often bring a real Christmas tree into their home in the run-up to the holiday, although plastic reusable trees have become more popular in recent years.

If you live in a town or city and want a real tree, look for Christmas tree sellers on town squares and streets. If you’re willing to travel or you live in a more rural location, try visiting a Christmas tree farm to fell your own tree. The advantage of felling your own tree means you can see exactly how the tree will look when it’s standing, which you can’t always do with pre-felled trees which are often bought wrapped in plastic netting.

Note that Sweden’s right to roam, which provides you with free access to much of Sweden’s nature, does not extend to felling your own tree – so you can’t just travel to your nearest woods and fell the first tree you see without the landowner’s permission. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. 

If you’re looking for a plastic tree, have a look at homeware stores such as Ikea or Clas Ohlson. There are usually a range of different kinds of trees on offer depending on your budget, including trees of different sizes, and even some with built-in fairy lights.

A Swedish Christmas tree at Skansen with lit candles in 1997. Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT


That brings us on to the next topic – lights. You’re most likely to see white LED fairy lights on a Swedish Christmas tree nowadays, although elderly Swedes or those with a more traditional taste in decoration may hang lit candles on their Christmas tree.

These long, white candles are usually attached to the tree with metal candle holders, known as julljushållare. Beware though if you do choose to go down this route – Christmas trees can dry out after a few weeks indoors and it’s probably a good idea to limit the amount of other decorations on the tree so there’s no risk of anything catching fire.

Additionally, make sure that the candles are only lit while people are paying attention to the tree, and consider a different light source if you have young children or pets in the house.

If you like the idea of lit candles on your tree but dislike the fire risk, try searching with terms such as LED julgransljus for electric replica candles to get a similar effect.

Woven Christmas hearts are popular decorations in Sweden. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Paper decorations

Despite Swedes traditionally placing lit candles on their tree, decorations made from paper or straw are quite traditional. In terms of paper decorations, you’re likely to see handmade woven Christmas hearts (julhjärta), crackers (smällkarameller) or even small Swedish flags decorating Swedes’ trees this season.

Straw decorations such as small people or goats (julbock) similar to the famous straw Gävle goat are also common, and you might also see straw goats decorated with red ribbon on tables and windowsills during the Christmas period.

Baubles and tinsel

Of course, more modern decorations such as baubles (julgranskulor) and tinsel, often made of plastic, are also popular in Sweden, with many families decorating their trees with colour and glitter rather than choosing more traditional, pared back, paper or straw decorations.

Why not try mixing some Swedish elements into your Christmas decorations if you’re celebrating this year? Or maybe introduce your Swedish friends to some traditions from back home? Let us know how you’re planning on celebrating in the comments below.

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For members


Why Swedish fermented herring is more fun than crayfish

There's spectacle: opening each can is fraught with danger. Self-discovery: can you stomach this slimy, stinky fish? And all that snaps and singing too. Surströmming parties beat crayfish ones hands down, argues The Local's Richard Orange.

Why Swedish fermented herring is more fun than crayfish

It was my wife’s idea. Some sort of tribute, I think, to her parents’ origins on the coast of Västernorrland, home to the main producers of Sweden’s intriguing fermented herring delicacy.

Surströmming for real,” she wrote in her invite. “All the trimmings. No messing about with alternative food. A party for those who love surströmming or want to try it properly. Not for those disgusted by the idea or who know that they hate surströmming, nor for those who wonder if we might be able to prepare something else. A true culinary and social experience.”


In the end, only one of her many invitees – a former Lund university colleague still deeply involved in the institution’s odd traditions, societies and fellowships – took her up on the offer.

After I’d invited Emma, The Local’s editor, and absolutely everyone else I know, we eventually managed to cobble together ten guests willing to explore Sweden’s most extreme taste frontier.

We laid the table out according to tradition, with mandelpotatis, or “almond potatoes”, lots of finely chopped red onion, tunnbröd, or “flatbread”, in both hard and soft varieties, gräddfil sour cream, and an enormous bunch of fresh dill.

I had ordered a can of Rovögerns surströmmingsfilé, made by the the brothers Lars and Björn Lundgren and their friend Lars Eklund, three fishermen turned fermenters from Västerbotten. Their fermented herring had been named “bäst i test” by the Aftonbladet newspaper back in 2018, cost a chunky 325 kronor for 250g, and has since sold out.

Lars and Björn Lundgren, and their friend Lars Eklund, who make Rovögerns surströmming. Photo: Rovögerns surströmming

We then set up a special can-opening table a safe ten metres from the guests, with a plastic bag to catch any unexpected explosions and a silver tray on which to bring the delicacy to the table.

As I prepared to pierce the can, there was a real sense of excitement, both for me and the guests. Once fermented herring is canned, it continues to ferment, meaning gases and pressure can build up. The juices can shoot out, and the gases are famous for their powerful odour.

In the event, it was an anticlimax. This was only two days after the Surströmmingspremiär, the official start to the fermented herring eating season, and the Lundgren brothers had only canned the fish a few weeks previously.

Despite the absence of an explosive build-up, it didn’t take more than a few seconds for the smell to hit me, stomach churning certainly, but no worse than the more mature French cheeses.

“Jag känner vidrigheten komma hit här nu!” exclaimed one of the guests a moment later with a laugh. “I can detect the revoltingness coming over here now!”

The fermented fish is slimier and smellier than the salted variety. Photo: TT

I then did a round of the table, depositing one glistening, slimy filet on top of the potato, sour cream, onion and dill rolls each guest had prepared, and returning the can to safety ten metres away.

The excitement, the smell and the anticipation of the taste, acted as an icebreaker and the party was already high spirited as each guest took their first bite.

I’d eaten fermented herring only once before, for a YouTube video showing the reactions of my Somali, Kurdish, Iranian and Arabic colleagues at Sweden’s public radio broadcaster, and found it surprisingly tasty. This time was no different. Fermentation turns the herring into an umami bomb, the intense fishy flavours cutting through and enhancing the potato, dill and onion. 

We followed up with snaps and a rousing chorus of Helan går, Sweden’s best known drinking song, after which the party became more and more like a kräftskiva, the crayfish-eating parties that are the August entry in every Swede’s social calendar. 

Surstömming is either laid out on a piece of dried flatbread or else rolled up into a ‘klämma’ with potato and sour cream. Photo: TT

For me, though, the surströmming variety was so much better. The excitement of opening the can and the shared experience of eating this traditional and far from ‘lagom’ food, was bonding in a way eating crayfish is not. 

Maybe a few decades ago, eating crayfish felt as special, but with home-grown Swedish crayfish long since replaced for most people by farmed ones imported from China and Turkey, it doesn’t feel so much of a treat. 

Then there’s the joy in celebrating an artisanal tradition which legend suggests goes back to the time of Gustav Vasa, the founder of the modern Swedish state. Apparently, the powerful merchant city of Lübeck cut off supplies of salt to Sweden, because Vasa had failed to pay his debts, forcing herring producers to ferment their fish, which uses less of it. 

We’ll be having another surströmming party next year.