Festive Postcards: Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere

Christmas in the Northern HemisphereTomte Nisse

Even though we haven’t put up our Christmas tree yet or opened the first door on our advent calenders, preparation for the festive season is in full swing here at AlexandAlexa HQ. Thousands of orders are already being wrapped up and shipped out to families all over the world.

This got us thinking about the different ways in which Christmas is celebrated across the globe. How will the kids who receive our parcels in Australia be spending their holidays in comparison to kids in the UK?

In the first of our Festive Postcards blog series, we caught up with author and illustrator Jules Nilsson, who has been living in Sweden on and off for the past 14 years. Read our interview with her, below, to find out how she and her family spend Christmas in the northern hemisphere.

— Christmas In Sweden by Author and Illustrator Jules Nilsson —

Looking back, Christmases for me were always a little different. My parents were a young South African vegetarian couple who had emigrated to North London with their two children in the mid 70s.  There were two versions of Christmas which peppered my childhood and neither really followed suit with traditional yuletide festivities. If staying in the UK for Christmas my little nuclear family would open presents together around the tree in our pajamas ridiculously early on Christmas morning. For lunch we would tuck into an alternative menu of nut-roast and gem squash followed by a Fortnum’s Christmas pudding, ending the day with a typically drizzly family walk.

Alternatively Christmas could be spent sweating it out on my Ouma’s peach farm in the White River, South Africa. In between swatting flies and jumping in the pool to cool off we would enjoying a sumptuous braai of wild boar, avocado salad, butternut squash and pecan nut pie all from produce grown on the farm.  Both Christmases had upsides and both brought disappointment.

Upon reflection, both were a huge contrast to the Swedish Christmases I have enjoyed since my early 20s. In Southern Sweden, where I have lived on and off for the past 14 years, the festive season is really done in a fashion which is as honest and true to an authentic Christmas as one could hope to achieve.  There is a feeling in Sweden, being such a small nation, that they are unified in really taking the business of their unique winter traditions most seriously. In truth, the festivities during December to January are very essential to all Swedes as they make the darkest and least appealing months of the year more bearable.

My family and I currently live in a pine forest on a tranquil stretch of coastline in an area called Näset.  Sweden is awash with wintery Nordic imagery which I had never encountered as a child in the dry heat of South Africa or soggy North London.  As an author and illustrator of children’s books my current inspiration is derived from the beach huts and white sand dunes found beyond our pine forest.

Launching this December is “The Hounds of Falsterbo”, a timeless tale which follow three dogs and their idyllic existence living their lives as “furry princes” in the idyllic setting of Falsterbo, Southern Sweden.  In this location I have found the true sprit of Christmas tradition which is impossible to avoid or not become enchanted by.  There is certainly a very “God Jul” (Merry Christmas) to be had in Sweden….

Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere

Buster with Jules’s book The Hounds of Falsterbo; her son Bear with Saffron buns; Christmas day dog walk 

What’s the festive season in Sweden like?
Due to the dark tempestuous weather of the Nordics, candles, wood burning fires and windows decked with lights set the tone of Christmas in almost every home throughout December and January.  I remember the warm glow of little IKEA glass tea light candles lit on every desk in my child’s class room during our first winter here and thinking, that would never of happened in their little pre-prep in Highgate! “Mysigt” is a Swedish adjective which combines cosy, comfort and all things pleasurable wrapped up in a neat little word-parcel tied with a red sash, a word which I believe cannot accurately be found in the english vocabulary. Christmas time is truly “mysigt” in Sweden, the ultimate pine cone, sheepskin rug festive affair which Swedes do to perfection.

How do you celebrate Christmas? 
Christmas really gets going on Lilla Julafton, the day before Christmas Eve.  In Sweden families get together to bake luciakatt (saffron buns), pepparkakor (ginger biscuits) and Julpyssal (which is an old tradition of creating Christmas decorations) and constructing gingerbread houses.  Glögg parties are held where families or good friends come together to drink warmed spiced wine with raisons and almonds and children munch on pepparkakor gris (ginger biscuits in the shape of pigs). There is always a wonderful warm feeling of anticipation on Lilla Julafton.  Christmas is celebrated on the 24th December, Julafton (Christmas Eve),  with a festive feast in the form of a Julbord (Christmas table) traditionally commencing around 4pm.  The Julbord is an extensive version of the smorgasbord (buffet table) typically eaten in Sweden, but this is taken it to a whole new level at Christmas time.  There is the traditional herring in various delicious guises, but typically some extra special delicious homemade Jul herring is present, warm smoked salmon, gravad lax, smoked eel, dill sauce, beetroot salad and dark breads.  The warm meat course, which is eaten typically after the fish, is rich and delicious with the classic Swedish meat balls, prince korv (small sausages), smoked pork, spare ribs, brown and white cabbage, potatoes and lutfisk ( which is a white fish preserved in soap). Typically not much of the lutfisk is actually consumed, surprisingly enough!  Schnapps & beer are drunk during the festivities and much impromptu singing of Christmas snaps songs accompanies this very hearty meal throughout. Countless return trips to the Julbord means the feasting festivities can go on for hours.  It is due to the children mainly that things come to an end in order to prepare for Jultomte (Father Christmas) to arrive.

What are the special traditions?
Early in the morning of December 13th Sweden celebrates Santa Lucia who comes each year to dispel the darkness of the long winter night.  It always signifies the real beginning of Christmas as Lucia appears almost angelic, traditionally with long blonde hair, dressed in a white full length chemise with a red ribbon around her waist carrying a lit candle.  Delicious luciakatt (saffron buns) are enjoyed with the morning coffee and children sing the traditional Lucia song in their kitchens.  Everywhere all over the country Swedes wake up to this traditional event which references that Christmas is not far away.  Houses are adorned with lights in almost every windows, tomte nisse (little jolly Christmas elves) pop up all over the place and pine sprigs are laid outside of front doors.  Children in Sweden all follow the SVT Julkalender on national television and radio as a Christmas tale unfolds in a daily installments which keeps the youth of Sweden griped until Julafton (Christmas Eve) when the main celebration are held. .  A special Julgröt (Christmas porridge) is served on Christmas morning, which after all the eating and drinking of Julafton is usual a very restful day.

Does it snow where you live?
Snow has fallen every Christmas since we have lived in Sweden, which is apparently unusual in the south coast. However, as we have never experienced a Christmas in Sweden without snow I long for it to fall as I adore the light crispness it gives to our dark winter forest.  It also brings people out of their houses as they take to their cross country skis, children toboggan and families ice skate on the frozen sea.   Our family dog Buster becomes a snowboard pulling husky as our children hold on for dear life as he pulls them along the snowy tracks, it’s all rather wonderful!

Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere

Snow tracks on Christmas day

Do you have a Christmas tree? And if so how do you decorate it?
We always have a native Swedish Christmas tree as my husband’s family summerhouse is situated on a pine forest, so we typically go into the forest together and select a tree.  My husband chops the tree down, very scandi-handi,  it’s then attached to a sledge and towed back home by the children.  The whole experience is not without complication as transportation is tricky and trimming you own tree for an indoor treestand is harder than it looks. The tree is usually on the large size so we have many strands of white tree lights to really make it look very bright and elegant.  The children now decorate the tree themselves, so we have a mixture of traditional wooden painted decorations, homemade decorations, glass and crystal balls, always completed by a big silver star on the top of the tree.  Chocolates are off limits on our tree as Buster the dog gets too excited and it can all end in a tree catastrophe which has happened several times!

Do you give presents? 
In Sweden Jultomte (Father Christmas) visits each house in person, traditionally after the Julbord (Christmas table) has been enjoyed, by entering through the door and not the chimney. In our family Jultomte has been known to walk around the outside the house peering through the windows which is thrilling, possibly a little terrifying, for the children.  He brings gifts in an old cloth sack and sits, chats and distributes the presents with the help of the children, to all family members.  In the Nilsson home typically Jultomte is rewarded with a Christmas Aquavit at the end of the gift giving before he is on his way back outside into the winter weather.  The whole heady combinations of crackling fires, schnapps, great food and candle light actual makes this annual date with Father Christmas appear rather real, even though it is typically Lars the sweet old man from down the road, but the encounter feels so much better then queuing to meet Santa in Harrods.  As my children are half British I have always maintained that Father Christmas is aware of this fact and therefore he pops back to our house on his return journey to Lapland to drop off a stocking for the morning, to avoid disappointed.  Stockings can always be found by the fire place on Christmas morning, my attempt at an English tradition, complete with tangerine and chocolate money.  My children seem delighted that Christmas seems to spread over two days for them in Sweden.

How do you get together as a family? 
Our family goes for a long dog walk on “Julafton” (Christmas Eve) before the guests arrive at around 2pm to put the finishing touches to the Julbord.  Often the Julbord is a joint effort with other family members bringing some homemade herring, home baked bread or possibly a pepparkakor (gingerbread) cake.  We will then spend the night and the following day together eating, drinking and playing games.

And finally how do you make it really magical for the kids?
When we first moved to our coastal location in Sweden we started to go down to the beach on Christmas day, a novelty which soon became our tradition.  It can sometimes be -5 and totally windy but we wrap up warm, take the dog, bring hot chocolate and pepparkakor (ginger biscuits) and sit in our beach hut and just marvel at how fabulous it is to live in such a great place on a beautiful beach in true wintery weather.  I hope the children remember those moments as its pretty special where they are growing up in Sweden and I certainly feel thrilled to finally have my own traditional riktig God Jul (really good Christmas!)

Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere

Ljunghusen on Christmas Day

The Hounds of Falsterbo by Jules Nilsson is published by Vind & Våg Publishing House and will be launched this December find out more here:  The first UK book reading /signing will be at Nomad Books in Parsons Green, London December 19th.


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