I adore Christmas and still await it with the same childish eagerness I remember from my childhood. I think I have inherited this “Christmas happiness” from my father who has always loved it; the tree, the decorations always in the same places around the house, the cheesy music, the food, the sweets, the list goes on and on. Drinking was of course also important, but in my family a surprisingly modest amount of alcohol would be consumed, instead it was and still is I suspect, julmust, a traditional Swedish soft drink that was drunk in vast quantities. In fact julmust, which is made from carbonated water, sugar, hops, malt extract and spices, giving it a beer-like taste (without the alcohol), is so popular it apparently outsells Coca Cola during Christmas time.
In Sweden Christmas is celebrated on the 24th and this day, julafton, still holds all the magic from my childhood (albeit with less snow). When I woke up on Christmas Eve morning my parents would already be up and busy making last-minute arrangements. My mother would be in the kitchen preparing food and my father would be hanging or placing the last few decorations; we really differentiate between advent, the time leading up to Christmas, and Christmas itself, and so certain decorations would only be unpacked on Christmas Eve morning. My father would have brought the tree in the night before, but it would still be standing undressed and without lights in its place by the big window in the living room. After I finished eating breakfast I would help my father dress the tree. When I was very young we still had real candles in the tree, I can’t remember when they were replaced with electric ones, but I must have been in my early teens. I loved helping my father dress the tree, and finding the old decorations in their box, many with wax on them from dripping candles of previous Christmases, was like receiving a welcome visit from an old friend. When we were finished my mother would come in and she would hang the final decoration; a simple wooden carving of Mary crouching by baby Jesus. Even though we wouldn’t light the tree until lunch we would still stand and admire the tree, hopefully with snow falling outside the window. This is how I remember it, calm and peaceful and ridiculously perfect.
We had the big meal sometime between 12 noon and 1pm. Some years one of my sisters would be there, usually the younger of the two, but more often it would just be the three of us. We would have a buffet, or julbord (a Christmas-y version of the famous Scandinavian smorgasbord), laid out in the kitchen and we would make our selection from different kinds of sill (pickled herring), cheeses, potatoes, salt beef, pork roll, different kinds of sausages and patés. The centre piece would be the Christmas ham, and my father loved the ritual of carving the first slice, always paper-thin, and tasting it to make sure it was just right. Finally there was “dopp i grytan”. Dopp i grytan (literally dip in the pot) consists of a broth from the cooking of the Christmas ham. The broth would be kept warm on the stove in a big red pot, and we would dunk different kinds of bread in it. This was fished out almost immediately with a round flat sieve and placed on the same plate as the rest of the food. It may sound strange, but it’s perfect comfort food, and since most of the food on the table is cold, this created a nice balance.
We would eat in the living room, next to the tree, which would be lit, listening to German Christmas carols on an ancient gramophone. And “protecting” the food in the kitchen would be Dicken, a wooden tomte (a Swedish hybrid between Santa Claus, a gnome and a stable boy) about half a foot tall.
After several rounds to the buffet table the countdown started. At 3pm the most eagerly awaited TV program of the year would start; a bizarre selection of short Disney cartoons, including Donald Duck going more or less insane in the jungle trying to photograph birds, and Mickey Mouse attempting to dress the Christmas tree with the unwanted help from two chipmunks. We would always have coffee (I would have more julmust) and seven different kinds of biscuits (a Swedish tradition) while watching the program.
Shortly after the program finished (at 4pm) I could be found by one of the windows in the living room. Of course it was completely dark outside by now, and winters in my childhood were so much colder so there was almost always a thick layer of snow covering the ground and the trees. And suddenly I would catch sight of Verner, our very own tomte. The tomte is something quite different from the big jolly Santa Claus introduced by Coca Cola 75 years ago. He does have a beard and wears a red hat, but he’s usually dressed in simple clothes and not very jolly at all, instead he is often depicted as quite stern. Our tomte was one of our neighbours, who did a fantastic job at dressing up, he used make-up and a very elaborate fake beard, and wore old-fashioned clothes. He would come walking across the ridge carrying a lantern and a big sack slung over his shoulder. When he got to our house he simply exchanged his sack for one my father had placed on the veranda earlier, containing the Christmas presents. Once inside he would come into the living room and sit down on the sofa. He would then hand out a few gifts before making his excuses; of course I understood there were many other children waiting for him as well. My father would then finish handing out the rest of the presents.
The day would of course continue after this, with more food in the evening; lutfisk (literally lye fish, and one of my least favourite memories of Christmas) followed by rice pudding. But when I think back of my childhood Christmases, from where my love of all customs and traditions probably originate, it is the visual memory of Verner the tomte walking in the dark towards our house, lit only by his lantern and with snow falling all around him that sums up the magic of Christmas.