Everyone strives to make their Christmas the most wonderful time of the year. All around the world, this Christian holiday inspires people of many different cultures and backgrounds to get together with their family and friends, eat, drink and be merry. Certainly, in Northern Europe, the myriad customs, foods, and decorations these cultures uphold feel very familiar to us Brits.
For example, if I wished you a “God Jul” (pronounced ‘goude yule’) you would be able to easily infer the message of the greeting. However, the many distinct Nordic ‘twists’ on the yuletide holiday adds a certain freshness, cosiness, and magic to the yearly Christmas proceedings.
For instance, take Christmas Eve: in Britain, many children wake up on Christmas morning to find Santa’s rewards for good behaviour. However, in Scandinavian countries, Christmas Eve is the evening when families gather together for a big festive meal, and Santa arrives through the front door to give out the presents.
Further, midwinter’s night in Sweden falls on the 13th December and is observed with the Festival of St Lucia (the bearer of the light). On this night, churches and families at home nominate a young girl to play the St Lucia character. The chosen girl wears a customary white nightgown and crown of candles on her head (one for each Sunday of Advent).
Image credit wikimedia commons
After a procession, accompanied by a tray of gingerbread, ceremonial foods, and candles, a choir sings hymns and recites scripture to mark the midwinter holiday.
Observing other culture’s Christmas traditions can be a great way to bring new elements of excitement to your family’s traditional Crimbo celebrations – check out our list below to see how Northern European cultures celebrate the Christmas holiday…
Creating A Cosy Atmosphere
Nordic Christmases are unique because the aurora borealis is shining at its brightest in the night’s sky. Light is an essential part of Nordic Christmas traditions, as there is so little natural daylight to lift the spirits during this time of year. Log fires, flickering candles, and fairy lights are a huge part of Nordic Christmas décor (very hygge).
If you want to set out the perfect cosy Christmas theme in your home, start off with planning your lighting design. Advent lights in the window and lots of white church candles are a great place to start. Try setting your candles on your mantelpiece or on side tables in a display with pinecones and festive foliage.
You can also use LED lights strung in garlands or set to flicker behind your other festive decorations. Brighten the mood with accent lighting wherever you want to create a cosy Christmas glow.
Colour And Contrast
The Nordic countries tend to favour white as the base of their Christmas colour palettes. On top of that, red, silver, gold, forest green and grey make up the accents commonly seen in Scandinavian Christmas homes.
Scandinavian style is expressed in the simplicity of form and functionality, which is particularly evident in the tradition of making and hanging paper stars, for walls and window dressings. Simple, clean star silhouettes like the one above are great visual anchors for any Scandinavian Christmas décor scheme. Paper stars are usually found in white, however you can also use stars to introduce a punchy contrasting colour for interest.
Many Nordic Christmas decoration designers favour the look and feel of rustic, handmade trinkets. Handing down heirloom decorations, or making your own, is as much part and parcel of the Nordic Christmas tradition as it is here in the UK.
You can have a go at cross stitching some hanging Christmas tree decorations, or have a look at these charming Hygge Hearts by Punochka on Etsy.
Image credit: Etsy
Alternatively, check out Scandinavian Shoppe for some traditional Nordic gnome decorations to pair-up with your Elf on the Shelf figurines.
Image credit: Scandinavian Shoppe
Quick Tip: Under no circumstances should gaudy tinsel be a feature of your Nordic Christmas décor displays. Tinsel is the antithesis of clean and crisp Scandi Christmas style. Instead, opt for coloured ribbon, hand-sewn bunting, or strings of hanging wooden shapes and letters.
Bringing The Outside In
As Nordic regions love to stay in touch with nature, at Christmas time many families will use a lot of natural foliage in their Christmas decorations. Homemade wreaths are wrapped with ribbon to add contrast, or frosted with white and silver spray paint to give a snowy effect whatever the weather.
Garlands can also be draped around candlesticks or hung from bannisters – plants used in traditional displays include juniper, spruce and pine cones. And of course, you can’t forget the pinecones in your Nordic Christmas vignettes…
Christmas trees are often the real deal in Scandinavian countries (but of course, you can get a live or plastic tree for your own home). In places like Denmark, Christmas tree selection must be carefully considered because trees perform a secondary function for family gatherings: many Danes on Christmas Eve join hands, dance and sing around their Christmas trees. This is an endearing festive tradition that Danish families have kept going for centuries. So be sure to leave some floor space at the base of your tree this Christmas! Who knows, perhaps after a few whiskeys, even your grumpiest uncle will want to give this activity a go?!
Tree toppers are also just as important and symbolic as they are in UK Christmas cultures.
Tree Toppers commonly consist of handmade star decorations – these can be made from wooden sticks foraged from outside. Or you can have a go at this DIY Himmeli-Style Christmas Star Tree Topper.
An Eye For Pattern
Reinforce the ‘folksy’ twist on your Scandinavian Christmas décor. Use repetitive patterns and shapes in your design scheme, to help you maintain an eye-catching aesthetic. Think reindeer shapes, Christmas pine trees, stars, and snowflakes to emphasise the Nordic Christmas look.
This clay decoration DIY, for instance, screams ‘Scandi Christmas.’ These deckies look great hung from tree branches, wreaths, or even used as table place settings on Christmas Day.
Many families will dress up in their best outfits to celebrate Christmas with their families; this is especially true in places like Denmark.
A classic and stylish Nordic Christmas jumper should be a favoured addition to your Christmas wardrobe. True to the Scandinavian style ethos, Nordic knits are designed to last, like the Hedde jacket made by Dale of Norway, for example.
Image credit: Dale of Norway
The motif is also very subtle, and it can be worn throughout the entire winter season – without looking festive. Think of these knits as a style nod to Sarah Lund’s strong Nordic knit game in The Killing TV series.
No Nordic Christmas would be complete without this next Christmas classic (and famed ‘dad’ gift the world over): cosy socks! These thick argyle ones are soft and thermal and come from Heat-Treats.
Image credit: Heat-Treats
They’re perfect for curling up on the sofa and watching a classic Nordic Christmas film, such as Norway’s Reisen til Julestjernen (Journey to the Christmas Star).
Traditional Nordic Christmas Cuisine
Eating makes up a considerable part of the holiday for Scandinavian cultures.
There are many pan-Nordic Christmas food traditions, as well as many country-specific delicacies enjoyed by families across the region.
In the main, this handful of countries always strive to eat fresh and locally-sourced foods.
Like in the UK, the Christmas Supper (whichever day it may fall) is based on a cooked meat dish with vegetables, although the meal tends to roll out over several courses. There will also be snacks and sweets to tuck into during times of the day when you’re not sat down to eat at the table. Yes, Christmas really is universally a time of year for overeating and drinking…
You can start your meal with a glass of Glogg. This Nordic tipple is stronger than mulled wine, also containing brandy, or aquavit, and seasoned with cinnamon and cloves, etc.
For starter courses, fish dishes like herring and mustard is commonly eaten in Finland and Sweden. Chicken liver pâté with port is also commonly found, as well as egg halves, prawns, potatoes and turnip casserole. Beetroot and Apple Salad (Rödbetsallad) is a great traditional side dish, and be sure to pick up some traditional rye bread for your Christmas table too.
Onto the main course! Countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark celebrate Christmas with ham, duck or goose. Alternatively, meatballs may be served, seasoned with lingonberry sauce, brown sugar potatoes, and braised red cabbage.
Salmon is also, naturally, a popular Christmas dish – as a starter or main – in Northern Europe.
Christmas salmon usually comes in the form of gravad lax, which is a dill-cured salmon dish served with gravad lax sauce (dill, mustard and vinegar).
And, of course, no Christmas spread would be complete without a questionable talking-point dish. Just like with Brussel sprouts, (which everybody either loves or hates) the Nordic region has Lutefisk, served with bacon and peas. The fish’s texture is described as ‘rubbery’ and may be disliked by many. However, vast numbers of Finns and Norwegians love it, so why not try it for yourself?
Desserts and Sweets
In Denmark rice pudding (Riskrem) is both a traditional dessert and a Christmas game.
This rice pudding dish is seasoned with cinnamon and ground almonds, however the maker of this traditional dessert will also add one whole almond into the mix. When the pudding is served up, the person with the single almond wins a prize. In many cases, this will be a small marzipan treat.
Saffransbullar (saffron buns) is a traditional Swedish Christmas dessert which also forms part of the St Lucia Day celebrations. This delicious bun recipe contains currents, and the dough can be weaved into pretty star and knot patterns.
Pepparkakor (ginger snaps) are a pan-Nordic treat and a cornerstone of Christmas food traditions in countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark. Gingerbread houses are a common feature of Danish Christmas tables – in some homes, the whole family gets involved in decorating their Christmas gingerbread house. Often the structure will be smashed to pieces and eaten to mark New Year’s Eve. In other cultures, gingerbread is eaten on St Lucia day and all of the Sundays of Advent.
For a show-stopping treat, you could also try this Blueberry Icelandic Skyr Cake recipe. Nordic berries are a crucial component to Nordic Christmas desserts. Rhubarb tarts and cakes are another delectable sweet treat.
And, for those who are partial to cheese after Christmas dinner, try blue cheese with some gingerbread (a favourite food combo in Finland).
If you’re thinking of having yourself a Nordic little Christmas, regardless of your chances of snowfall or the ability to get away to a Finnish Lapland cabin, infuse some Nordic spirit into your holidays! Decorate your home with some simple and stylish Scandi decorations, or add some new dishes to your Christmas dinner table.
And in all that you do, hold onto these key Nordic truisms to stop you stressing out over this hectic season: keep things simple, functional and above all else, make Christmas memories that are ‘built to last.’
For more information on Christmas Nordic traditions, check out: