Ho, ho, ho! It’s that time of year again! December is now upon us and the time has come once more to put up our Christmas trees, take out our decorations and begin enjoying all of our most cherished festive traditions.
Although many Christmas traditions are universal nowadays, many different countries and regions still retain old customs that may seem odd to outsiders – from feeding logs until they poop out presents in Catalonia to heading out for a Christmas KFC in Japan.
Given the long tradition of pagan and Viking customs and beliefs in Nordic region, you won’t be surprised to learn that these countries also have their fair share of kooky customs. Curious to learn more? Then strap into your sleigh and let’s go on a whirlwind tour of the more peculiar Nordic traditions at Christmas!
Norwegians hide brooms on Christmas Eve
Yes, while the rest of us are busy preparing for dinner or leaving out treats for Santa and his reindeers, many in Norway are racing around the house collecting up every broom they can get their hands on. Why on earth do they do that, you might be asking? To stop witches from using them as a means of transportation and a vehicle for mayhem, of course!
This tradition dates back about a thousand years to pre-Christian Norway, when late December was associated with the mid-winter celebration of Jul. It was believed that witches and evil spirits roamed freely around this time, leaving mischief and chaos in their wake. Many believed that if they left their brooms sitting out, they would be commandeered by witches and used to wreak havoc on the village.
While few Norwegians nowadays still believe in witches, many carry on the tradition as a bit of fun for the kids and to pay homage to the pagan traditions which marked this time of the year long before Christianity arrived.
Icelanders have not one Santa, but thirteen!
Over the course of thirteen nights, children in Iceland are visited by the Yule Lads, or Jólasveinar as they are known locally. According to Icelandic folklore, the Yule Lads are the sons of terrifying mountain-dwelling trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði, who themselves are notorious for their insatiable appetites for naughty children.
But the Yule Lads are not anywhere near as malevolent as their parents. Rather than bringing fear and terror, they come bearing treats and gifts which they leave in shoes that children place on the window sill each night. Unless you’ve been naughty of course, in which case you can expect a big, fat, earthy potato instead!
The Yule Lads are known for their mischievous behaviours and each one has a name based on their personality, from the Spoon Licker and the Door Slammer to the Sausage Swiper and the Skyr Gobbler. Although Santa has also reached Iceland in modern times, he has not supplanted the Yule Lads, and their endurance is testament to the firm place that folklore continues to enjoy in modern Icelandic culture.
The Finns have a Christmas Goat!
If you thought the Yule Lads were a departure from the ordinary, then brace yourself to meet Joulupukki – Finland’s Christmas Goat. As per the tradition of hiding brooms in Norway, the figure of Joulupukki also has its roots in the celebration of Jul.
The name literally meaning Yule Goat, this creature was traditionally thought to be an ugly-looking beast who scared children and embodied the spirit of the forest. Over time, the tradition morphed and became conflated with the popular figure of Santa Claus, invariably wearing red robes and eventually taking on a human form. But even though he now resembles the same jolly old Santa Claus we know elsewhere, in Finland he is still known as the Yule Goat.
Another related tradition which endures to this day in some parts is Nuuttipukki – the practice of young men dressing as evil goat-like spirits on 13 January and visiting people’s houses to demand leftover Christmas food. In the past, the visitors would have committed misdeeds unless their demands for hospitality were met, but nowadays it is usually children who dress up and the experience is an altogether less threatening one.
Swedes celebrate Saint Lucia on 13 December
Saint Lucia’s Day, or Luciadagen, is an important celebration in the run-up to Christmas across Scandinavia, but especially in Sweden. The highlight of the day is the so-called Lucia Procession. Girls and boys dress in white gowns and sing songs together as they walk behind their Lucia, usually a young girl wearing a crown of candles atop her head. Processions are held by churches, schools and local communities and are both a poignant and moving experience for all who attend.
The actual history of the procession stems from the story of the martyr St Lucia of Syracuse who lived in the fourth century. According to legend, she brought food to persecuted Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs, wearing a candle-lit wreath on her head to light her way. She refused resolutely to renounce her Christian faith under the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian and was put to death for this.
Today, the festival marks the true beginning of the festive season, bringing light into the darkest period of the year. For people of all faiths and none, it is a time for hope, remembrance and reflection. Although for many, the highlight may actually be the saffron buns and warming glögg traditionally shared on this day!
Danes go almond mad on the big day
No matter where you’re from, food is a huge part of any Christmas celebration, and Denmark is no exception to this rule. For Danes, the traditional dessert at Christmas is a dish known as risalamande. This is a form of rice pudding made with whipped cream and chopped almonds, and traditionally served with hot cherry sauce.
But the fun doesn’t end with the eating! A peeled almond is also hidden somewhere in the serving bowl – and whoever is lucky enough to get it wins a small mandelgave. This literally translates as almond gift and can be anything at all under the sun, but curiously enough it is often a marcipangris or marzipan pig.
It is unknown exactly where the marzipan pig comes from but in Germany, they are associated with good luck in the new year. Their presence in Denmark can be traced back to the early 1800s when marzipan was first introduced to Danish confectionery.
So there you have it – five fun and festive Christmas traditions from around the Nordics. We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about them and that you may even be inspired to incorporate them into your own festive celebrations this holiday season! But for now, all that remains is for us to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!