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Scandinavian Christmas 1

Scandinavian Christmas traditions: Your guide to Christmas in Scandinavia

Few regions encapsulate the spirit of the holiday season quite like Scandinavia. An area packed with ice and snow, roaring fires, and home comforts, Scandinavia paints the perfect picture of Christmas. 

It’s even a great place to find wild roaming reindeer!

Scandinavia brings the scenery you’ll find on your favorite Christmas cards to life, with beautiful homely spaces that encompass the spirit of hygge, and many unique areas to explore. 

It’s no wonder that many of the traditions of our own Western Christmas celebrations come from Scandinavia. 

Whether you’re visiting Scandinavia this winter and want to know what you can expect from the local celebrations, or you’re going Scandi at home, you’re in the right place. 

We’re going to tell you everything you need to know about Christmas in Scandinavia. 

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How do they celebrate Christmas in Scandinavia?

Christmas in Scandinavia is an incredible experience. While many of the Nordic countries share similar traditions and ideas, each location comes with its own special points to remember. 

One thing you’ll find in every Scandinavian country is that Christmas celebrations don’t’ just last a couple of days. 

Most regions begin celebrating on December 13th, St Lucia Day. Some regions of Iceland start celebrating on the first advent Sunday. 

Christmas in Scandinavia also lasts for a full 13 days — not just 12. 

Many Nordic locals even manage to get two whole weeks off work for Christmas. Festivals often last up to January 6th, which the locals refer to as the day of Epiphany. 

Another common tradition of Nordic Christmas involves sharing and opening gifts early. In the UK and other western regions, most children will open their presents on Christmas morning. 

However, in the Scandinavian region, mythical creatures begin visiting homes around 12 days before Christmas. At bedtime, children leave slippers by their windows in anticipation of the visitor. 

If the children are good, they’ll receive candies and cookies before Christmas day. 

Christmas Eve is usually deemed much more important than Christmas day too. There’s a lot of evidence that this fondness of Christmas Eve comes from Scandinavia’s Viking heritage. 

Vikings believe that a new day starts when the sun goes down on the day before. This could be why many people start the festivities early on Christmas Eve. 

After you’ve decorated your Christmas tree in Scandinavia, you gather the family around for a large dinner on Christmas Eve, complete with all the traditional trimmings, and wait for gifts to arrive. 

As mentioned above, most families open presents on Christmas Eve and reserve the day of Christmas for visiting family. The day after Christmas (Boxing day) is when families put holiday items into boxes for the less fortunate and visit friends. 

Nordic Christmas traditions: What is Christmas in Scandinavia?

Christmas is the favorite celebration of the Nordic region, a space covering Iceland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. 

Scandinavian Christmas is often the light at the end of the tunnel for locals dealing with harsh winters, sometimes offering only five hours of daylight per day. 

Scandinavian Christmas tradition is an opportunity to find warmth and love with the people you care about. It’s also a time to celebrate the return of light prevailing over the darkness. 

Although Scandi locals generally don’t decorate their homes with too many flashing lights, you’ll notice many candles in the region around this season. 

Candles and a decorated hearth are common parts of the Scandinavian Christmas tradition, passed down from celebrations of Winter Solstice

Like most European Christmas celebrations, Scandinavian Christmas has its roots in Yule — a day-long feast that celebrates the winter solstice. 

Yule evolved in the hands of Christianity around the 9th century, when missionaries began transforming it into the Christmas we know now. 

Some Nordic Christmas celebrations still use the word Yule, or “Jul,” “Jol” or “Joulu” today. 

Compared the Western Christmas you know now, Nordic Christmas will usually seem quite old-fashioned and traditional. There’s more of a focus on food, hygge, and celebrations, than expensive presents and huge flashy light displays. 

Scandinavian Christmas traditions are more about spending time with your loved ones and remembering the origins of where your country or town came from.

Where other parts of the world have evolved to celebrate a Christmas that concentrates heavily on commercialism and toys, Scandinavia is one of the few parts of the world that holds true to the original meaning of Yule. 

Let’s take a look at the common Scandinavian Christmas traditions for each Nordic country. 

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Scandinavian Christmas traditions in Norway

Merry Christmas in Norwegian is God Jul. 

Like many Scandinavians, Norway starts Christmas celebrations early. There aren’t any Thanksgivings celebrations to worry about, so Norwegians start decorating in late November. 

You’ll also see the streets of Oslo lined with decoration and Christmas trees in November too. 

During the Advent period, Norway hosts tons of julebord parties, which are basically pre-Christmas celebrations held by private societies and companies. 

December 23rd also comes with a celebration. On “Little Christmas Eve”, families decorate trees, bake sweet goods, and make traditional risengrynsgrøt. 

On Christmas Eve, Norwegian churches ring bells, and people start opening gifts. You don’t open your presents on the morning, as the day is more about spending time with family members. 

Norway also has a special Christmas Eve dinner, which usually includes dry-cured lamb ribs, or cod fish cured in lye. The drink of choice is a popular one across Christmas in Scandinavia — glogg. This is a mulled wine that you can dip cookies into. 

Interestingly, if you’re celebrating a Nordic Christmas in Norway, the 24th is actually a bigger event. It features a lot of last-minute shopping for gifts, and fairytale telling. 

Norway’s mischievous Christmas elf, Nisse is commonly integrated with Sinterklaas — the Santa Clause in the region. Some families that still celebrate the Nisse will leave a bowl of rice pudding for him. 

Goats also play an interesting role in Nordic Christmas in Norway. Yule goats are often part of Christmas decoration, and they link back to Viking traditions. Although it was once a Norse tradition to sacrifice a goat around Christmas — that’s not so popular today. 

If you visit Norway for Christmas, check out the huge gingerbread town of Pepperkakebyen, open from mid-November to the end of December. 

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Scandinavian Christmas traditions in Sweden

Merry Christmas in Swedish is God Jul. 

Swedes have free access to the countryside around them, which leads many to believe that they have the right to go and fetch a tree from the woods using anything they like (including shotguns). 

However, the Swedish authorities are trying to cut down on this. 

Swedish Christmas traditions start with December 13th and St Lucia Day. In Sweden, Lucia was a martyr known for delivering food to Christians in hiding. 

As per Nordic Christmas traditions, the eldest girl in the family may portray St Lucia on this day, wearing a crown of candles (not actually lit ones), and a white robe. She serves her parents mulled wine or coffee. 

Swedes put up their Christmas trees a couple of days before the event and decorate them with flowers like a poinsettia. White amaryllis and red tulips are also popular. 

On Christmas Eve, Swedes celebrating Scandinavian Christmas traditions visit the church. Usually, these families will return to a traditional Christmas Eve dinner that includes a buffet or smorgasbord with ham, fish, pork, and sweets.

Families celebrating a traditional Nordic Christmas might ask someone to dress up to the Christmas gnome, Tomte. 

This little gnome living in the forest is the alternative to Santa Claus for Sweden, and he hands out presents every year. 

Throughout Sweden, there are tons of amazing holiday events to check out in various cities. If you visit Stockholm, you can see performances that change every day according to the Christmas Calendar. 

You’ll also discover various amazing festivals too. 

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Scandinavian Christmas traditions in Denmark

Merry Christmas in Danish is Glaedelig Jul.

Danish Christmas, like most Scandinavian Christmas celebrations, has a lot of unique traditions. 

Usually, the celebration starts with an advent wreath of red berries and spruce leaves with four candles on top. You light one of these candles every Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve. 

Similarly to Norway, Denmark is famous for Christmas Eve being more important than the day itself. 

Candles also have a significant role in Nordic Christmas for Denmark, with a calendar candle with 24 marks on it. These decorated candles burn down from December 1st to the 24th at a rate of one mark per day. 

Scandinavian Christmas in Denmark is all about the children, with television networks that air 24-episode specials to help children count down the days. Most families decorate their Christmas trees with a silver or gold star at the peak. 

It’s common to add strips of tin foil to reflect the light of the candles on the fireplace. Danish flags are a popular decoration. 

Old folklore tales in Denmark suggest that animals can speak on Christmas Eve, so you typically give your dog or cat special treats on Christmas Eve, so they don’t say anything bad about you. 

Santa Clause in Sweden is called Julemanden, or Yule Man, and he has a reindeer drawn sleigh well as help from mischievous elves who families leave porridge out for, so they’re not targeted by the elves’ pranks.

Danish meals on Christmas Eve are incredibly elaborate. Common treats include stuffed goose or duck, with sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and red cabbage. 

Rice puddings are a huge part of dessert here, with options like risengrød and ris a l’amande leading the way. 

On Christmas morning, everyone eats a cupcake called a ableskiver for breakfast, and lunch usually consists of cold cuts and various kinds of fish. 

On Christmas night, most families gather to exchange presents, sing carols and spend time together. 

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Scandinavian Christmas traditions in Finland

Merry Christmas in Finnish is Hyvää Joulua

Finland is one of the most Christmassy countries in the world, so it’s no surprise it comes with a lot of Scandinavian Christmas traditions. Fins often say that Santa Claus originally came from Finland. 

Like most regions, Nordic Christmas in Finland starts on December 13th, with plenty of great activities and local markets to enjoy. 

Finland shares a lot of Christmas traditions with its neighbor, Sweden. This includes the celebration of St Lucia’s day on December 13th. 

Interestingly, Finland also still calls Santa Clause by the pagan name Joulupukki in some regions. The name translates to “Yule Goat”, which references the Swedish belief that goats play a huge role in Christmas. 

On Christmas Eve in Finland, most Finns will attend mass, and many visit a sauna to purify themselves before the big day. It’s common for Finnish families to visit cemeteries and remember their lost loved ones too. 

Christmas dinner comes on Christmas Eve, and it usually features various forms of fish, and roast pork. Christmas dinner in Finland can also include oven-baked ham, beetroot salad, and numerous types of casserole. 

Santa Claus visits houses on Christmas Eve that children can open on the next morning. 

One of the biggest parts of a Scandinavian Christmas in Finland is dessert. Rice pudding is everywhere in Finland, and you eat it for breakfast too. Finland also has its own version of mulled wine, known as glögi.

Christmas celebrations are particularly impressive in Helsinki, and Aleksanterinkatu. The lane is usually lit with various forms of Christmas lights, and shops invite people in to avoid the cold. 

There’s also a popular department store named Stockmann that has an incredible display every year.

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Scandinavian Christmas traditions in Iceland

Merry Christmas in Iceland is Gleoileg jol.

The Christmas season in Iceland is huge, lasting around 26 days. Here, the celebrations take place for Scandinavian Christmas in the darkest time of the year. 

There’s rarely much daylight at all to enjoy, and the Northern Lights are visible more often. Iceland features some of the oldest Nordic Christmas traditions in the region. 

Known as jolasveinar, there are actually 13 different Icelandic Santa Clauses. Every one of these characters, otherwise called the “Yuletide lads”, the Santas are said to be the children of a mean woman who boils naughty children alive (Gryla). 

You can see a statue of Gryla in the Troll Garden at Fossatun. This location is about 80km north of Reykjavik, and it’s accompanied by a waterfall. 

In Iceland, children celebrating Nordic Christmas place shoes in their windows. If the kids have been good, one of the Santas leaves a gift. If they’ve been naughty — the children get a potato. 

Shops stay open until 11:30pm on Christmas Eve, perfect for last-minute shopping. 

Icelandic families eat all kinds of interesting foods for Christmas dinner. Grouse with berries is the most common meal for traditional families. 

You’ll also find plenty of portions of Glogg, along with rice pudding desserts for a warm sense of hygge after the meal. 

If you’re looking for opportunities to celebrate with the locals in Iceland — there are plenty. The Christmas market in Hafnarfjörður is one of the largest in the region for Nordic Christmas shopping. 

You’ll also find tons of extra things to do and see, such as horse-drawn carriage rides and musical performances. 

Quick facts about Scandinavian Christmas

Scandinavian Christmas is a fun and lighthearted time where loved ones get together to ward off the darker moods caused by months of darkness and cold. 

Nordic Christmas celebrations are usually brimming with all the traditional images of the holiday season. 

Chunky knitwear is everywhere, and people visit yule markets all the way up to the big event. 

Here are some quick facts that you might not know about Scandinavian Christmas traditions: 

  • Animals are everywhere in Nordic Christmas: We’re not just talking reindeer either. The Christmas Goat, mentioned above, is the ultimate prankster, known for wreaking havoc on villages and punishing people without clean homes. The Christmas Goat isn’t all bad though — he’s also responsible for bringing gifts. Aside from goats, Scandinavian Christmas also has other animals too, like Jolakotturinn. Jolakotturinn is a Christmas cat from Iceland with a habit of eating unhelpful and rude children. 
  • The Yule lads are huge characters: The Yule lads are another interesting tradition from the Nordic region. Each one has it’s own unique character, with one that loves Yogurt, and another that’s fond of licking spoons. It’s definitely worth checking out the full story if you’re looking for something interesting to tell your children about this year. 
  • Food is a big deal: Wondering, “what do Scandinavians eat at Christmas?” well there are a lot of options to choose from. Food is a huge deal in this region, with many Christmas-themed parties serving up boards full of foods like cold cuts, fish, and various sweet treats. Many restaurants and venues around Scandinavia even offer their own julbord menus to choose from, so you don’t have to stay home to get into the festive spirit. 
  • Nords make ornaments out of straw: Scandinavian homes are often well-decorated for Christmas, with shiny baubles, candles, and various other shimmering objects to enjoy. However, you’ll also find a lot of small ornaments made from straw. This act comes from a tradition that dates back to the Remembrance of Birds. Farmers from the fall harvest used to leave bundles of wheat outside of their porches for birds to eat during winter. Offering straw meant that the Swedes could deter the birds from trying to get not their valuable grain stores. 
  • Trips to the sauna are common: We mentioned above that a Nordic Christmas often involves a trip to the sauna in Finland. However, in all parts of Scandinavia, you can book a fun trip to the sauna before your festive celebrations. Saunas are a great way to purify and relax after all the stress of Christmas shopping. It’s common for a cup of porridge or treat from the festive table to go back to the sauna with Finnish families, as a gift to saunatonttu, the sauna elf. 
  • Glögg is a must-have: Every region across Scandinavia has its own form of traditional alcohol drink for the Christmas season. Usually referred to as Glögg, the biggest Nordic Christmas drink features cloves and cinnamon, as well as vodka, bourbon, brandy, or aquavit — depending on what you have handy. Apparently, drinking this beverage helps to ward off evil spirits that tend to run amok in winter. Glogg is also handy for fending off the winter cold. 
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What is a Nordic Christmas?

A Nordic Christmas is an amazing celebration that’s all about the spirit of hygge, family, and amazing local traditions. Few places on earth know how to celebrate the holiday season quite like the Scandinavians. 

Whether you’re visiting Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or even Iceland, you’re sure to find countless celebrations to fall in love with. 

Nordic Christmas traditions often center around Yule and Viking history. However, there are also a lot of experiences that have continued to evolve over the years, driven by the changing attitudes of Nordic families. 

One thing remains certain — wherever you go in Scandinavia around Christmas time, you’re sure to find plenty of people eager to welcome you into the party. 

If your idea of the perfect Christmas includes plenty of sweet treats, tons of delicious food, and more than enough alcohol, you’ll probably be right at home in a traditional Scandinavian Christmas setting. 

Have a great yuletide celebration!

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