It’s almost Christmas again, which means it’s time for Esset to get into the mood! Christmas is a holiday full of traditions, but are they the same everywhere? Today we are going to take a look at Christmas traditions in Sweden and The Netherlands! A second article will come soon about traditions in the USA and Ireland.
In Sweden, Christmas has a lot of rules. First of all, it should be celebrated on the 24th of December. Swedes prepare a Julbord, a Christmas table, with traditional food. I, as a non-Swede, expected some mashed potatoes, meat, fatty sauces, and sweet cakes to follow. However, once I found out what food is actually on the Julbord, it can be pretty fishy. Of course, there is supposed to be some delicious food on it, like Julskinka (Christmas ham glazed with mustard, the most iconic dish) and meatballs, potato gratin, and ribs. The rest of the bord; however, is filled with fermented fish: inlagd sill (pickled herring) and lutfisk (Stockfish). To compliment all this delicious food (or if you hate fermented fish, to wash away the taste), Swedes drink tons of Julmust, a soft drink that’s only available around Christmas (or easter, but then the label is different and called påskmust). It’s a drink mainly made out of sugar, hop extract, and spices. If you want some alcohol instead of a soft drink, the Swedes turn to Glögg. This is a warm red wine with spices and is very similar to Glühwein (which may be recognizable for the Germans among us).
Besides this delicious, and less delicious food, there is one specific tradition everyone in Sweden commits to, which seems quite bizarre. Every 24th of December at 15.00, the Swedish main television Channel airs a 1958 Donald Duck special or Kalle Anke in Swedish. The first time this was aired on TV on Christmas was in 1959, and since then, it has been on TV every year. Don’t be mistaken: the Swedes do not watch Kalle Anke for fun - it is mandatory. You do not prepare food during Kalle Anke; you do not record Kalle Anke to watch it back later; you do not do anything during Kalle Anke except for watching Kalle Anke. Over the years, there have been some attempts to kill this tradition, but every single time this was blocked by the Swedes. Around the 70s, the head of children’s programming at that TV station tried to pull the show off the air because she thought it was too commercial for the time. She received personal threats after this idea, and the show never got canceled. Nowadays, the Disney characters have become Christmas symbols as common as a Christmas tree and the Julbord, and they are one of the strongest (and strangest?) Christmas traditions of Sweden.
In the Netherlands, Christmas does not have a lot of traditions. Most people get together with their families, eat, drink a lot and unpack presents. Dinner sometimes happens by ‘gourmetten’, a festivity where everyone prepares their own food in very small pans on a stove/grill in the middle of the table. While this can be a lot of fun, you won’t be able to get the smell out of your house until next year’s Christmas. In the Netherlands, there are three days to celebrate: 24th, 25th, and 26th, so there’s no excuse not to visit your least-favorite family.
While Christmas in the Netherlands may not be that big, Sinterklaas is. Sinterklaas is a traditional day that happens on December 5th, which similarly includes an old man with a white beard and a red dress coming to the country once a year to bring presents to children. Sinterklaas doesn’t come in a flying sled from the north pole but in a steamboat from Spain. A bit less environmentally friendly, but more realistic. Before Sinterklaas, children could follow the man around in a daily newsflash aired on national TV. The boat arrives around two weeks before December 5th ; during these weeks you are allowed to put your shoe next to your door (or fireplace if you have one) before you go to sleep. You put a carrot in it, maybe some water next to it, and sing a song. Then, during the night, Sinterklaas goes through the country on his white horse with his helpers. They enter the houses, take the carrots and water for the horse and leave a small present along with some candy for the kids. This candy mainly consists of ‘kruidnoten’ or ‘pepernoten’, some small cookies that you have to try if you are in the Netherlands in winter.
Then on December 5th , a big bag of presents is dropped by Sinterklaas for the kids. However, when the magic of believing in an old man who visits the whole country every night, walking the roofs on his white horse, is gone, people celebrate December 5th by buying presents for each other. A few weeks before, you draw a name from a pot. In the following weeks, you have to buy a present and write a poem for them, as if that poem was written by Sinterklaas himself. It is strictly forbidden to reveal who you have to write the poem for. After the poems are read and the presents are unpacked, you can reveal who the secret Sinterklaas was - similarly to Secret Santa.