The Look: A Very Scandinavian Christmas

December 24, 2013 | Alex

It's Christmas Eve! A cherished part of the holiday season is the connection I feel to my cultural heritage. Like many Americans, I'm guilty of a fair amount of ignorance when it comes to the traditions of my ancestral homelands, Denmark and Poland. But around Christmas time, I do feel a real kinship to my maternal Danish roots.

If you visited our home around the holidays, you might think my mom and I were 1st and 2nd generation Americans. (In fact, we're 3rd and 4th, if I'm counting right.) My mom inherited a few beautiful Scandinavian Christmas decorations from her mother. Recently, she's adopted the tradition of trimming the tree with garlands of Danish flags. This year's mantle even has a distinctly Scandinavian quality in its rustic simplicity.

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Since I'm feeling a combination of nostalgia for my Danish ancestry and anticipation for my upcoming Swedish adventure, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite holiday traditions from Scandinavia.

TRADITIONS + DECORATION

+ Advent calendars, while certainly a presence in the US, are much more popular in Scandinavia. Advent calendars are a sweet way to build children's anticipation in the 24 days leading up to Christmas Day. (Although the days on a modern advent calendar always overlap with the Christian Advent, they don't always correspond.) I especially love this homemade advent calendar that Emma Reddington of the marion house book created for her family:

+ St. Lucia's Day is celebrated on December 13, and serves to officially kick off the Christmas season. A girl is selected to portray St. Lucia in the celebratory ceremony, and dons a white rob with a red sash and a wreath of candles. She is followed by a processional of girls carrying a single candle. In Sweden, a "St. Lucia" in each household wakes the family with coffee and saffron buns called lussekater. (Some of my American contemporaries probably might recognize all this from Swedish-American Girl Doll, Kirsten.) The date coincides with the ancient winter solstice and many of the traditions of St. Lucia's day pre-date christianity. It's a really fascinating example of how the now predominantly Lutheran nations integrated many pagan/folk practices into their religious observance, as well as how the theme of light vs. dark features so heavily in Scandinavian culture.

+ A true Scandinavian christmas tree sports real candles on clips and garlands of national flags. Drums are another popular motif, dating back to the World Wars. The top of the tree is typically decorated with a star (never an angel, which seems to be a popular tree-topper stateside.) While we've adopted the Danish flag tradition, we plan to stick with electric lights following a near-miss with a fire last Christmas eve. 

+ My mother grew up opening presents on Christmas Eve, as is the Danish fashion. Christmas morning was reserved for stockings and playing with ones' presents. In my childhood, we each opened one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas morning. This year however, we're doing things Danish-style! (Albeit for scheduling reasons, but let's just chalk it up to getting in touch with one's roots.)

To get you in the Christmas spirit (if not now, when?) here are a few lovely Scandinavian decorations I rounded up:

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Sources

  1. Danish Christmas Tree Garland
  2. SNOMYS Decoration, Ikea - $9.99
  3. Birch Log Bundle, Terrain - temporarily out of stock
  4. Eucalyptus, Bay and Evergreen Crown, via DesignSponge
  5. Ivory + Scarlet Striped by Ana Candles, via FiveStripes - $24 and  Marble Candle Holder by Fort Standard, via Steven Alan - $44

FOOD + DRINK

If you like Scandinavian Christmas decor, just wait til you see what they've got to offer in terms of food and drink. I'd have to say that gløgg is my Christmas beverage of choice, but while I was in Iceland over Thanksgiving, I picked up a fondness for birch liqueur. Then of course, there's any cocktail made with Lingonberry. The Nordic nations sure know how to drink.

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During the holiday season, Danes whip up tiny round apple pancakes called æbleskiver, that are served with powdered sugar. It's a food I learned about at a young age when admiring my great grandmother's treasured cast iron aebleskiver pan. But interestingly, one I only tasted when my Danish friend Iben started hosting an annual aeblskiver party. It's Danish Christmas in Brooklyn! 

Growing up, my mom would always indulge in a pack of Anna's ginger thins around Christmas time. To me, that was the gold standard of Swedish cookies. That is until I discovered rosettes. Both tasty and beautiful to look at, they're a bit like a delicate waffle coated in powdered sugar. 

And in the Danish tradition (superstition?) of giving a treat to your animal friends, lest they speak ill of you when they're temporarily given the power of speech on Christmas Eve, I've even included a festive antler snack for Hektor.

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Sources

  1. Swedish Rosette and Timbale Set, via World Market - $7.49
  2. The Double Fork Dog Toy, Smoky Mountain Studio via Etsy - $28
  3. Hafi Lingonberry Concentrate or SAFT LINGON via Ikea (pictured is Brunneby's Lingonberry Concentrate) - $4.99-5.99
  4. Bjork Liqueur via Foss Distillery + Birch Straws via Terrain
  5. NorPro Cast Iron Aebleskiver Pan, via Ebay - $8.91
  6. Anna's Ginger Thins (12-pack of boxes) - $26.99

Glaedelig Jul, God Jul, and Merry Christmas, everyone!