As we enter the Christmas season, and the days grow shorter, I have eagerly looked forward to decorating – a concept previous me would have scoffed at. To get through a Scandinavian Christmas known as Jul (pronounced Yool) you’ll need a basic understanding of holiday decor and traditions.
While these decorations are beautiful, they (mostly) share one theme. Light. Scandinavian winters are dark and cold. Living here requires acceptance of this fact, while also finding any opportunity to make your day a little brighter. The sun shines for a very short period of time each day, and the decor serves to both provide additional light and cheerfulness ( or hygge if you’re into the Danish word).
Another thing to note is these traditions are largely non-spiritual. Some traditions may resemble past Christian traditions, (let’s not even get into where those were taken from) and the joyful and non-spiritual-guilt fueled traditions remain. The Scandinavian Jul is perfect for the non-religious among us who never felt like they could fully indulge their heathen ways in Christmas traditions.
Adventsstjärna (Advent Star)
The Advent Star is traditionally placed in windows on the first of advent, but you’ll see people begin decorating sooner. The Adventsstjärna are beautiful paper lanterns (sometimes metal or wood) in the shape of a star. These lanterns come in all sizes, patterns, and colors and are hung in many windows of the home.
If I were back in the U.S I could definitely see myself decorating my home with these on a regular basis. Unfortunately here, you’ll get odd looks for having year-round holiday decor. Stores will often display in clusters over beautiful table-settings. Apparently, you do not ever hang these over tables. Only windows. Swedes are very particular with their holidays.
In the U.S. (and maybe other parts of the world, I don’t know) you are likely to see many homes decorated with images of Santa Claus. Here in Scandinavia, it’s the Tomte. The Tomte has existed before Santa, and sort of ended up merging into Christmas Santa traditions along the way.
The Tomte is actually a small gnome, or house gnome, who watches over the homestead and will deliver gifts with his Jul Goat. He is actually a=the ghost of an ancestor who will become irate if you behave inappropriately and will play tricks on you. He looks both creepy and cute and is the best thing ever. These decorations are all over the place this time of year.
These are long candles with dates printed down the side. It is meant to be used as a calendar to track the days until Christmas. On the first of December, the candle is lit and burned until the candle melts down to the first line. It is then lit each subsequent day until Christmas arrives.
These are seen in groups of four candles, placed together. These are generally placed in some form of container or bowl, which is then traditionally decorated. Swedes decorate the candle holder with moss, small berries, small pinecones, faux mushrooms, etc. On the first Sunday of December, one candle is lit. Another will be lit the following Sunday, then the next, etc. until Jul arrives
Decorations Similar to the U.S
Christmas Trees: Similar to the U.S. and I am sure many other countries, Swedes bring trees into their home to decorate. A popular tree light is candlestick lights, but string lights are also available.
Outdoor Christmas Lights: You will also see Swedes decorate the outside of their home with strings of Christmas lights, though being generally minimalistic, not to the extent you see many homes in the U.S.
American Decor you are Unlikely to See
Stockings: Stockings aren’t really a thing here, so you can’t find them as easily, and they aren’t a traditional part of decor.
Santa: You will find some images of Santa here and there, though its few and far between. Many households will have “Santa” deliver presents Christmas eve.
Rudolph: While you may see real Reindeer, you likely wont see a red-nosed Rudolph pulling a sleigh. I have not seen Rudolph around.
Elves: I have not seen any Christmas elves either, probably due to the lack of Santa.
Large blow-up decorations in front yards: This is more of an American thing. I haven’t seen a single blow-up Rudolf or Santa around.
Manger Displays: Going back to the fact that Christmas here is largely non-religious. I have yet to see any manger displays depicting the birth of baby Jesus.
Jesus / Other items of religious Significance: See above.