Sunday, November 30, 2014

God Jul

I've got a mixed heritage - believe me, I'm an American melting pot. A simple explanation of my heritage is I'm half-Swedish and half a whole lot of something else (French, Welsh, Hungarian, German). However, because I'm mostly Swedish, I've grown up fairly familiar with that side and all of the traditions that go with it.

Over the years, I've spent a lot of time looking into what a "Swedish" Christmas looks like. And so, with the Christmas season upon us, I thought I might share what I've learned. Maybe you too might want to carry out a "Swedish Christmas"?

Click here: adorable vintage footage of a Swedish Christmas
Click here: (favorite of mine) Swedish Christmas video

Here's what I have. God jul och gott nytt ar! (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!)

And don't forget to put a candle in your window to light the way for the Christ Child!

Sankta Lucia

Across Sweden, and in many American towns, a holiday known as "St. Lucia Day" is carried out on December 13th. The oldest daughter of each household with her maids and star boys bring a breakfast of coffee and "Lussekatt"(Lucia buns) to the other members of the home. As they walk through the house, they sing carols, particularly, "Sankta Lucia." It's a breakfast in bed celebration that has roots that trace back to Italy and Ancient Rome. 

Swedes adopted the tradition, possibly because of the "Lusse" folklore - a battle between light and darkness during the Winter Solstice. But with the arrival of Christianity and Lutheranism, a new tradition was born. 

When the story of a young, virgin martyr from Italy came to Scandinavia - a woman who worked to help persecuted Christians - they were immediately drawn to the image of her attaching candles to her head (to light her way and keep her hands free). This story morphed into the tradition now practiced, mostly by Swedes, but throughout Scandinavia. 

In Sweden, it is common for a pageant of sorts to take place to chose a local "St. Lucia" representative. There is also a national St. Lucia who is chosen, culminating with the "Globen Luciakonsert" in Stockholm (I've included some links). 

Swedish Lucia for Dummies (official Swedish video)
Full length video of the 2012 Luciakonsert (youtube)
10 min clip of Luciakonsert
Hear Lucia Song sung in Swedish (great music video)

Night walks with heavy steps
Round yard and hearth,
As the sun departs from earth,
Shadows are brooding.
There in our dark house,
Walking with lit candles,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Night walks grand, yet silent,
Now hear its gentle wings,
In every room so hushed,
Whispering like wings.
Look, at our threshold stands,
White-clad with light in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Darkness shall take flight soon,
From earth's valleys.
So she speaks
Wonderful words to us:
A new day will rise again
From the rosy sky . . . 

Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

Jultomte & Julbock

Like most Swedish Christmas traditions, the roots are tied up in folklore. But to be sure, they do have a sort of "Santa Claus." This Santa grew out of the Swedish lore of Tomten - little elves/trolls that inhabit the farms of the countryside and help with the chores. They were especially fond of children. 

the Jultomte is their Christmas Tomte. He brings gifts to the children. 

Drawing his sleigh is a "Julbock" or Christmas goat. This goat began with a history as a prankster, but he now accompanies the Jultomte. 

Swedes keep their Julbocks near their trees on Christmas - but why? Well, they make these wonderful little animals out of straw and red ribbon to watch over their Christmas festivities - he's the Christmas police of sorts (making sure everything is done correctly). But in his early days, Swedes didn't want him in their homes! 

One Swedish tradition is to sneak a Julbock into a neighbor's home and place him beneath the tree without being caught. The only way to get rid of the goat is to pass him off in the same manor to another unsuspecting family. 

Risgrynsgröt (Julgröt)

After Christmas dinner comes dessert! I don't think Swedes have ever been known for their food - Lutefisk? no thank you! - but I find this tradition rather sweet. (not all rice puddings taste very good, but if it's done right, it can be very good).

The day before Christmas, mothers make a rice pudding, or Julgrot. A single almond is dropped into the pudding and stirred in.

When the pudding is served after Christmas dinner, every person at the table secretly hopes to find the almond in their pudding. Why? Because the person who finds the almond in their pudding is rewarded!

There are two traditions about the almond.

1. If you find the almond, you will be the next to marry (much like catching the bouquet at a wedding)
2. You will be granted a wish.

One of my favorite storybooks as a child was "Annika's Secret Wish," which follows a young girl hoping to get a wish by finding the almond. A very sweet story about siblings.


Jul is the Swedish word for Christmas or Yule. Lotta is a term that refers to the time slightly before dawn. In many Swedish Free Churches, Swedish Baptist Churches, Swedish Covenant Churches and Lutheran churches who hold to their roots, Julotta is a service that is held early Christmas morning around 4am (some services are done at 6 or 7am).

I suppose waking up so early to greet the day seems strange to us, but the concept of Julotta is much like a Christmas Eve Service or a Catholic Midnight Mass. Some churches even put on Julotta, late on Christmas Eve, ending the service at midnight.

With Sweden being situated so far north, most of the churches were very cold and poorly heated. No church member arrived early on purpose, nor did they stay longer than necessary. Folklore tells that the dead have a Christmas service at midnight and would attack you if you arrived early. But the primary reason was heat.

After the service, Swedes would rush back to their homes to open gifts.


Lussekatter (Lucia Buns)

Temp: 375 degrees
Cook time: 15 mins
Yield: 20 buns

1 cup melted butter
1/2 tsp. saffron threads, finely crumbled (or 1 tsp. powdered saffron) 
1 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs, well-beaten, plus one egg white
raisins or currants to decorate
1 package dry yeast

Crumble saffron threads into melted butter. Let sit 30 mins to an hours (this intensifies the saffron flavor)

Heat milk to a light boil, turning off heat when it reaches the scalding point (with small bubbles across the top). Stir in melted butter, sugar, and salt. Pour mixture into mixing bowl and allow to cool until "finger-warm" (still quite warm, but just cool enough to touch). Stir in yeast and let sit for 10 mins.

Mix 3 1/2 cups flour into liquid. Stir in 2 well beaten eggs. add enough of the remaining flour to form a soft dough (just until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. You don't want to add too much flour).

Transfer dough to a large greased bowl and turn to coast all sides. Cover with a clean town and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Punch down risen dough. Lightly knead two or three times on a floured surface. Pinch off small handfuls of dough (about the size of a racquetball) and roll into "snakes." Shape snakes into "S"-shaped buns or other desired shapes. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, cover with the town again, and allow to rise until doubles (about an hour).

Decorate buns with raisins, brush with egg white, and bake in preheated 375 degree oven about 15 mins, just until brown.

Pepparkakor (ginger cookies)

Temp: 375 degrees
Cook time: 6-8 mins (beware, they burn easily)
Yeild: 75-100 cookies

1/4 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup light syrup* or molasses
Almost one cup sugar
3 ½ oz butter
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups (as well as some for the rolling out)

Melt the butter and the syrup on low heat. Let cool before adding the other ingredients. Work the dough well. It’s important that the spices are freshly milled. Let the dough rest overnight in a cool place so the spices have time to fully develop their aromas. The resting will also make it easier to roll out the dough.
Roll out the dough and cut out shapes with gingerbread cutters. Bake in the oven at 375ºF for about 6-8 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they burn easily.
This dough can also be used for a gingerbread house. Just roll it out slightly thicker. 
*You can buy light Syrup (ljus sirap) at Ikea. You can also use ”Lyle’s Golden Syrup” that you can find in British food stores.

Risgrynsgrot (Julgrot) or "Rice Pudding"

1 cup regular long grain rice
1 Tbsp butter
1 cup water
1 Tbsp sugar
4 cups half-and-half
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp butter
Cinnamon stick
1 whole almond

For garnish:

warm cream

In a heavy saucepan combine rice, butter, water and salt. Bring to boil and cook covered for 10 minutes. Or until water is just absorbed. Add half-and-half and cinnamon stick to above. Bring to boil, stirring continuously. Let simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes. The half-and-half should be almost absorbed. The results should be creamy and tender, not mushy. Add the extra butter, and some cream for extra richness. 

Before serving, hide the almond in the porridge. Serve hot with warm cream, cinnamon and sugar. Whoever gets the almond will get married within the year (or a wish).

Now, these two are some family breakfast favorites that came out of the Hilmar (Swedish) Covenant Church where my dad's family attends...

Try you hand at:

 Swedish Pancakes with Lingonberry jam and powdered sugar

Swedish Cardamom Rolls

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