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Scandinavia paints the perfect picture of Christmas and spending Christmas here can be an incredible experience. Darkness, cold weather and traditions dating back to the old Viking days. What more could you ask for? But what exactly is a Scandinavian Christmas?

While in many other countries gifts are opened on the morning of the 25th, a tradition that all Scandinavian countries share is the one of opening Christmas gifts early, on the evening of the 24th to be exact. The reason for this and for many other Scandinavian traditions can be found in the heritage from the Vikings. The Vikings believed that the new day starts when when the sun goes down the day before which explains why Scandinavians start their celebrations the evening before the 25th.

Like most European Christmas celebrations, Scandinavian Christmas has its roots in ‘Yule’, a day long feast that celebrates the winter soltice. Yule originates from Christian missionaries in the 9th century who then started to transform it into the Christmas we know today. This is where the Scandinavian words for Christmas come from (Jul/Joulu).

Compared to the commercialised version of Christmas that many of us know from movies and TV, Scandinavian Christmas can seem quite old-fashioned and traditional with much more focus on food and celebrations with family than expensive gifts and flashy light displays. Scandinavia is one of the few parts of the world that still very much holds true to the traditional meaning of Yule. Although Scandi locals generally don’t decorate their homes with too many flashing lights, most homes put a big emphasis on candles, another important part passed down from celebrations of winter solstice and Yule.

While the Scandinavian countries celebrate Christmas in quite a similar way each country comes with its own special traditions. Lets take a closer look.

In Norway December 23rd, Lillejulafton (Little Christmas Eve) is also celebrated. Families decorate the tree, bake and make the traditional risengrynsgrøt (rice pudding) and some put out a bowl for the mischievous Christmas elf, Nisse. On Christmas Eve the churches ring bells and people open gifts. A typical Norwegian Christmas Eve dinner traditionally consist of Pinnekjøt (dry cured lamb ribs) Ribbe (crispy pork) and cod fish cured in lye. Glögg (mulled wine) is mandatory. Goats play an important part in Norwegian Christmas, linking back to old Viking traditions. It used to be a tradition to sacrifice a goat but nowadays most homes have Yulegoats as decorations instead.

In Sweden, Christmas traditions start on Santa Lucia (december 13th) and on December 24th families might ask someone to dress up as Tomten (Santa Claus). Traditionally this is the father of the family who very often makes the excuse to “köpa tidningen” (go and buy the newspaper). He then dresses up as Santa and comes to hand out gifts to the children. Coming back he is always very disappointed that he year after year misses Santa. This tradition is getting increasingly more difficult as less and less children know what an actual newspaper is and thus other excuses must be made. A traditional Swedish Christmas dinner normally consists of a smorgasbord of julskinka (Christmas ham), meatballs and a variety of fish such as sill (herring) that comes in unlimited variations. 

Santa Claus in Denmark is called Julemanden, or Yule Man, and he has a reindeer drawn sleigh as well as help from mischievous elves who families leave porridge out for. Danish meals on Christmas Eve are incredibly elaborate; Duck and flæskesteg with crispy pork rinds, as well as boiled potatoes, caremlized potatoes, brown sauce (gravy) and pickled red caggage are traditional dishes. Risengrøt (rice pudding) is a huge part of dessert in Denmark, with ris a l’amande leading the way. Traditionally, it is made the day before or in the morning and set out during the day to prevent Nisser (elves) from playing pranks. On Christmas night, most families gather to exchange presents, sing carols and spend time together but you better be nice to your pets. Old Danish folklore tales suggest that animals can speak on Christmas Eve, so you typically give your dog or cat special treats hoping that they won’t say anything bad about you.

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. Finns often say that Santa Claus originally came from Finland (there is an ever ongoing battle of "Santa Claus is ours” in Scandinavia). Finland shares a lot of Christmas traditions with Sweden, including the celebration of Lucia 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 Viking belief that goats play a huge role in Christmas. On Christmas Eve in Finland, many Finns will attend mass, and many visit a sauna to purify themselves before the big day. It’s also common for Finnish families to visit cemeteries and remember their lost loved ones too. Christmas dinner, on Christmas Eve, 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. One of the biggest parts of Christmas in Finland as well as in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, is the rice pudding, the Finns call it Riisipuuro. It’s everywhere in Finland, and you eat it for breakfast too.

Overall, Scandinavian countries celebrate Christmas very much in the same way but there are differences as well. One thing, however remains certain —If your idea of the perfect Christmas includes plenty of sweet treats, tons of delicious food, yulegoats, rice pudding and more than enough alcohol, you’ll be right at home in a traditional Scandinavian Christmas setting and you’re sure to find plenty of people more than happy to welcome you to the party.