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Yuletide: the Scandanavian way

Scandinavia is a cultural and historical region in northern Europe that includes Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Sometimes the term is also taken to include Iceland and Finland due to their historical association with the Scandinavian countries.

The now commercialised western Christmas traditions of a decorated tree surrounded by presents and Santa Claus are immediately recognisable worldwide. However, in Scandinavia, celebrations are a little different.

In Sweden, Christmas celebrations begin on 13 December with Saint Lucia Day. Christmas trees are set up two days before Christmas. Homes are decorated with gingerbread biscuits and red tulips. Christmas Eve (24 December) is known as Julafton in Swedish and locals will form processions to church with lit candles. There is a festive dinner on Christmas Eve and one popular tradition is to serve Risgryngrot, a special rice porridge with one almond in it. The person who finds the almond gets to make a wish. After the meal, someone dresses up as Tomte, the Chrismas gnome who looks a little like Santa Claus and hands out presents while singing funny rhymes.

In Denmark, the mischievous elf, Nisse, plays pranks on people during this festive season. On Christmas Eve, many Danish families will leave rice pudding to appease him. The traditional Christmas starts on 23 December, with hot cinnamon-laced rice pudding (Grod) served with a knob of butter. Children are not allowed to see the Christmas tree until dinner time on Christmas Eve (Juleaften). On Christmas night in Denmark, families gather around Christmas trees, exchange presents and sing carols.

Norway also has an elf called Nisse who is a known trickster but has goat-like attributes and is considered to be a guardian of animals. For Christmas, a special biscuit called Sand Kager is eaten and children go from door to door asking for treats in the afternoon.

In Iceland, there are 13 Santa Clauses. Each has a different name, character and role. Icelandic children place a shoe by the window from 12 December until Christmas Eve. If they have been good, one of the Santas leaves a gift. Bad children receive potatoes.

Whether there are mischievous elves or jolly men in red suits to facilitate the festivities, one thing that remains constant throughout Scandinavia and the rest of the Christmas-celebrating world is the spirit of Christmas. “Merry Christmas,” and “Happy New Year!” Or as they say in Swedish, “God Jul… Och Ett Gott Nytt Ar!”

19/12/2011

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