How to celebrate a traditional Nordic Christmas!

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From Norse mythology to honoured customs and past-time rituals. Explore the Scandi-Christmas way of Yule festivities!

Nordic mythology hails from the popular indigenous folklore and pagan Germanic era, through to the Christianisation of Scandinavia. The Norse viewed the Winter Solstice as a time to commemorate the death and rebirth of the Sun Goddess after her fateful encounter with Fenrir the wolf. This also signifies the freedom from a reign of terror from the powerful underworld, under the protection of the almighty Thor. Yule, or Jól referred to the time-frame between the Winter Solstice and the Jólablót, said to take place on the 12th of January to present sacrifices in the form of feasts and drinking to ensure a good year ahead. In the 10th century AD, Christian King Hákon the Good decreed that jólablót should be held on the 25th of December in order to influence Norway to adopt the Christian culture.

Now, with the Scandinavian countries steeped in such traditional ceremonies including Midsummer and All Saint’s Day – the contemporary Nordic Christmas still bears a striking nostalgia for the past. We cannot help but notice the Nordic patterns and Faroese jumpers have become popular in our own idea of a modern Christmas image. Not to mention the Christmas markets, the hygge and gløgg to welcome in waves. Here is a glimpse into what actually goes on during the Yuletide Scandinavian season.

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In Sweden, Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö entice the crowds in the lead-up to Christmas with a beautiful Hallmark image of markets with sweets, mulled wine (gløgg) and hand-crafted ornaments. The Lucia festival also paved the way at the beginning of December with an enchanting procession of lights that illuminate the dark wintry nights with girls wearing wreaths, marking the holy recognition of St. Lucia. The parade also involves children in costume and tasty treats of saffron buns given to the beguiled onlookers. The importance of food is epitomised by the Swedish smorgasbord – a bountiful selection of delectable morsels, known as the julbord.

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The Danes enjoy novelty present calendars, advent candles, and wreaths, as well as putting their mark on Christmas cards with their renowned Christmas Seals, beginning in 1904. Danish traditions go as far as a regimen for decorating the tree: the patriarch lights the candles (preferable to the electric variety) and a star is placed at the top of the tree, never a fairy effigy. The main celebrations take place on the 24th December on Christmas Eve, as opposed to the 25th, with Christmas mass, dinner and the opening of the presents. The belief that animals were able to talk during this magical season is still acknowledged in an indirect way when families go for walks in the parks with their children, delivering nibbles to the local wildlife.

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Norwegians also class the 24th December as the main day of Christmas. Norway bears similarities with the UK in that the 25th and 26th December are public holidays, however with Christmas Eve as an additional day off work. Attending mass in church is another typical practice to embrace the festive feeling. As opposed to British families that may be accused of erecting the tree somewhat early from 1st of December, Norwegian people wait until Lillejulaften or “Little Christmas” on the 23rd December to decorate their trees. You are likely to catch someone feasting on a salted and dried leg of mutton, known as fenalår, and drinking Juleøl (a dark Norwegian Christmas beer) as well as a splash of Aquavit.

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Icelandic revellers during Christmas employ a delightfully superstitious attitude to the proceedings. Knitting garments for loved ones and work colleagues is a common habit, writing Christmas cards on time and cleaning the homestead thoroughly is expected. A Christmas jumper is not only a meme for us in the UK, but a brand new Christmas outfit is required in the households of Iceland. Children are encouraged to place their shoe on the window ledge for the “Yule Lads” – an alternative Santa Claus – to leave a little gift inside and warned in jest not to be eaten by the infamous “Yule Cat”. With this itinerary adhered to closely, Christmas can begin from 6pm on 24th December after the church bells ring.

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Finland cannot be missed with its iconic connection to Christmas. Families flock from all over the world to keep the festive spirit alive through the eager eyes of their children with a visit to Lapland, in the northernmost region of the country. In Finnish homes, Santa Claus or Joulupukki does not descend from the chimney but through the front door to discover if a child has been naughty or nice before handing out presents. Before Santa is due to arrive on Christmas Eve, a traditional meal of ham and salmon with scalloped potatoes and rice porridge is devoured, followed by a visit to the cemetery where families light candles to commemorate their departed loved ones.

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All that is left to say is God Jul / Glædelig jul / God Jul / Gleđileg jól / Iloista joulua from the Nordic realm!