STOCKHOLM, Sweden The sun sets this time of year just after 2 p.m., a brief and somewhat dim journey across a sky that may bring rain or snow, but not much in the way of light.
But despite darkness that even locals call disorienting and somewhat depressing, December brings magic, as well from the lovely maiden with the crown of candles to the skinny little Santa-like fellow who totes smiles and gifts to Swedish children.
The magic can be found in warm saffron bread and abundant feasts and marzipan candies and makeshift market stalls bursting with flowers and toys and handicrafts. It is in the very air, a Christmas concert going on somewhere in this city of islands nearly any time of day. Even the too-short days are beginning, slowly, to lengthen now.
It's Christmastime, a family-centered celebration that stretches from late November to 20 days beyond Christmas itself, when families gather for one more party to take down the Christmas tree and other decorations.
According to Sweden's tourist bureau, in this country that is predominantly evangelical Lutheran, the Christmas celebrations are a "motley blend of pagan rituals, Viking rites, Christian traditions, folkloric forest spirts, southern European saints, German customs and characters from American soft-drink advertisements."
The results, it notes, are both "diverse" and "extravagant."
Utahns with ties to Sweden remember the holiday fondly.
Vivianne Forsyth, president of Utah's Swedish Heritage Society, left Sweden to study at Brigham Young University. "It has never felt like Christmas since the last Christmas I spent in Sweden in 1980," she says. "Sweden is very dark this time of year, and the evenings are long. To compensate, Swedes hang lighted stars and put electric candleholders in the windows, which light up the winter darkness. I've also missed the cozy feeling these decorations give. Every home looked so homey to me with the warm, inviting lights. ..."
When she was a child, an Advent calendar always hung on the wall as Christmas approached. "With great excitement, we couldn't wait to open the next window. It was tempting to cheat, but we didn't," Forsyth says. "Mom had a calendar she made in cross-stitch. She would hang a small gift by each number, and we would take turns opening it."
More than 20 years after she served a mission for the LDS Church in Stockholm, Keri Skousen's own Christmas traditions in north Orem are enhanced by the Christmases she enjoyed across the ocean.
She bakes pepparkakor, which are crisp gingerbread cookies, and fresh saffron buns called saffronsbullar. When one of her now teenage daughters is willing, they celebrate Lucia.
There are several versions of the story of Lucia, so central to this season in Sweden. Some of them are darker than others, but the gist is the same, and it is all about light. Skousen tells Lucia's story this way: She came to Scandinavia, a beautiful young woman, on the longest night of the year, ready to fight Satan. Later, the Swedes honored her as someone who brought light the gospel to all in the long, cold, dark winter.
Forsyth sees in Lucia the promise of spring, as well.
There are many Lucia celebrations in Sweden, beginning with local pageants in which Lucia herself will be selected. Her day comes Dec. 13, when she dons a crown of lighted candles and leads a procession. The other young women carry lighted candles, while the males wear long white robes and pointed hats, carrying little wands with stars on the tips. The procession brings them to a place where there are speeches and song. It culminates, usually in a town square, of which there are many, with baked goods and drinks.
Families, schools, hospitals and businesses have their own scaled-down versions. At home, the oldest daughter traditionally dresses in a white gown with red sash and puts on a battery-powered crown of candles, then wakes her sleeping family with songs and hot chocolate or a mulled wine called "glog" and fresh-baked saffronsbullar and pepparkakor.
"As schoolchildren, we would be out celebrating all night and visit our teachers at 3 in the morning, and they would treat us to cookies and hot chocolate," says Forsyth.
Another beloved tradition is pyssel, which literally means "to putter around making stuff." It refers to making paper decorations for the house and Christmas tree, including hearts and icicles, stars and small woven heart baskets, birds and other designs.
Deseret Morning News editorial editor Jay Evensen's wife, Kirsti, was born in Sweden, and her family moved to the United States when she was little. Coincidentally, Jay Evensen served an LDS mission there, so the family's love of Sweden run deeps. This time of year, Kirsti likes to make traditional paper heart ornaments to adorn their tree. Other popular decorations include straw ornaments and, often, Swedish flags.
In Sweden, the country's blue-and-gold flag is everywhere, from the handmade decorations on the tree in front of Junibacken, the museum dedicated to Pippi Longstocking, to the fronts of stores and tops of homes. They are as common as the tree's straw ornaments, available for pennies in an economy that is expensive. The straw ornaments, whether plain or complex, remind one of Christ's humble birth in a manger, a shopkeeper explains to the American reporter.
Christmas buffets are an enduring tradition. They begin in late November and remain part of the festivities until the last ornament is stowed in January. The feasts, not unlike what a family will put together for a huge Christmas Eve dinner, are offered in restaurants, castles and on the sightseeing boats that cruise around the water everywhere in Sweden. They are a smorgasbord, complete with ham and mustards, pate, freshly smoked salmon, herring, eel, egg halves stuffed with roe and shrimp, reindeer roast, sausages, meatballs and boiled potatoes heaped high with fresh dill. There are different cheeses and crackers, breads and desserts.
It's not a holiday feast most Americans, used to Christmas turkey or ham, have ever seen. For one thing, it's much more formal. Skousen remembers especially well the pickled salads "lots and lots of shredded roots that they pickle." Fish is served in every catchable variety, along with ground or chopped meats. The sandwiches resemble slices of rectangular cakes, made with layers of different fillings: shrimp and egg and ground meat and, always, lots of mayonnaise.
The clerk at a local Clarion Choice hotel says that Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, is the one constant in a very diverse, drawn-out celebration: "We don't do much on Christmas Day, although even those of us who don't regularly attend may go to church. But Christmas Eve is a big family time, the buffet at the heart of it. We all get together and eat and eat and eat."
As a child in Sweden, Forsyth remembers watching Disney cartoons at 3 p.m. every Christmas Eve. She loved "Bambi" the best. A friend's father sang "When I Wish Upon a Star" in Swedish, his voice unforgettable. The recording, she says, is still used today, and the show is still watched.
At dinner that night, girls follow the pepparkakor ritual, breaking the gingerbread cookie in their palms. Whoever has the most pieces will marry first, notes Skousen. Like all traditions, there are variations. Evensen learned, for instance, that the goal is to break the cookie into three parts, a guarantee of joy.
Then it's time for dessert a creamy rice pudding with one almond hidden inside. Whoever gets that will have a year of luck.
After dinner, families traditionally dance around the Christmas tree holding hands. (In the little Christmas markets that spring up and at the town square celebrations, dancing around the tree is common, as well.)
After dinner, Jultomten comes knocking on the door. He is Sweden's equivalent of Santa Claus, but he's a skinny little fellow with a long white beard who brings gifts to the children. In books, he's depicted as tiny and "very much like a sneaky little goblin, albeit one who is kind to woodland and farm animals," Skousen says. He dresses somewhat like Santa but often wears a plastic mask, although that tradition has faded a bit with time. He gives the children their presents and visits for a few minutes, then leaves the way he came in, by the front door. And an older male relative dad or an uncle reappears and the children marvel that the poor soul has such bad timing that he always, somehow, misses the beloved Christmas visitor.
The gift-giving, locals note, is usually much less extravagant than what they see in American movies but no less heartfelt.
The day after Christmas is Annandag jul ("another day of Christmas"). Forsyth remembers visiting relatives and friends and being "fed wherever we went." The tourism bureau notes that movie theaters are often packed that day and that some stores begin their big year-end sales.Still, the holiday's not finished. The tree and decorations will linger for a few more weeks, along with the leftovers from the sumptuous buffets. And when every morsel and trinket is packed away, the Swedish will remember a very "God Jul."