What’s the spirit around Christmas in Stockholm this time of the year?
When winter’s long dark nights roll around, Stockholm’s sublime warmth and rich history bubble up to the surface, revealing its traditional soul, shares Lola A. Åkerström, about Christmas in Stockholm.
The spicy waft of glögg – hot mulled wine – fills the cold crisp air, guiding you closer to the heart of Stockholm’s old town, Gamla stan. Across centuries old cobblestones and past colorful Dutch-style gabled rowhouses in yellow and red ochre built in the mid-1600s. Its piquant scent which permeates the air is joined by the sweetness of candied almonds roasting over open flames as you draw closer to Stortorget, the main square right in the middle of Gamla stan. With a history dating back to 1523, the city’s most popular Christmas market has been held in this square.
It is barely 4pm yet daylight has already faded away and once you reach Stortorget, you’re left basking in the warm glow emanating from wooden red timber stalls filled with artisans, and interior light streaming from houses which, even though they were restored in the early 1900s, still preserve touches of medieval décor and masonry.
You get a sense that this modern cosmopolitan city is still a traditionalist at heart especially when winter rolls around.
Spread across 14 distinct islands, Stockholm seems to be at its most captivating during the peak of summer when the sun hardly sets. Locals are usually out in full force basking under the temperate sun, and ferries dart across the bay, shuttling passengers from island to island and out to one of over 28,000 islands that make up Stockholm’s greater archipelago.
But to get a true insider taste of Stockholm, away from the crowds and fanfare that often comes with its peak tourist season, exploring this cool Scandinavian city during winter offers travelers a glimpse into the traditional Swedish soul.
When snow coats the city like sugary white icing on a cake, the harbor freezes over and its icy surface reflects city lights like twinkling stars, and the sky takes on its dark indigo blue for most of the winter months, Stockholmers retreat into the warmth, into the light as it were, and that’s where you’ll find them embracing their roots and preserving their traditions.
Taste of tradition
During the month of December, I love perusing seasonal markets such as Stortorgets Julmarknad (Christmas Market) in Gamla stan or the Julmarknad in Kungsträdgården, moving through stalls with vendors selling Christmas decorations, glass ornaments, handicrafts, handmade preservatives and jams, smoked meats, spices, artisan cheeses, gingersnap cookies called pepparkakor, and of course, glögg which is often served with raisins and blanched almonds. Even the official residence of Sweden’s royal family, Drottningholm, offers up its own two-day winter market on the palace grounds where blacksmiths, woodcarvers, textile weavers, and producers bring in handmade goods and artisan food to sell.
At Skansen, the world’s oldest open air museum opened in 1891, you’ll also find a seasonal market. Skansen itself was founded to preserve and spotlight Swedish culture. Milling around are traditional artisans at work weaving, smelting, and baking, wearing period outfits, and darting in and out of classic Swedish red cottages. You’ll also find barns with farm animals and a zoo with Nordic wildlife such as reindeer, lynx, wolves, and moose.
So, a visit to Skansen literally takes you back in time to the city’s pre-industrial era and gives you a glimpse into old-fashioned Swedish life at the turn of the century.
Among festive displays of traditional decorations for sale, you’ll find two distinct figurines. The first is an odd-looking gnome called Jultomte that looks more like the American band, ZZ Top. Called the Christmas Gnome, this is the Swedish version of Santa Claus. Alongside this gnome-like figurine stands the goat. The Julbock (“Christmas or Yule Goat”) has been a symbolic figure in Scandinavian history dating back to the 1800s, when it was presumed someone dressed as a billy-goat doled out Christmas gifts way before the emergence of the modern day Santa Claus.
Nowadays, you’ll find this goat made with woven straw or raffia, or sometimes carved out of wood alongside Jultomte figurines gracing not only homes, but storefronts, restaurants, and cafés during the festive season.
All about light
Swedes are naturally drawn to light. Centuries of dreary dark winters means light — both natural and artificial — are revered and the typical home is usually sparingly decorated with a heavier focus placed on light through windows and lamps, light-colored fabrics, and candles.
This obsession with light is often taken into the city’s demure streets during the winter. As you stroll along, you’ll find strategically placed, hockey puck-shaped candles lining sidewalks all over town, bringing that ambiance and coziness right onto the street.
Fashioned after the 16th century Spanish tradition of lighting bonfires along roads which led people to midnight mass at Catholic churches, the lighting of luminarias – candles placed in sand-filled brown bags – has taken on a whole new meaning in Sweden. These lights are now used more for holiday decorations. Considering it’s already pitch-black by 4pm, these makeshift human runway lights may not necessarily leading you to mass these days, but rather, to storefronts decorated for the holidays, as well as help you avoid hidden dangers like slippery black ice.
Along with the sidewalk candles, you’ll also spot large twinkling stars hanging in windows of both homes and businesses. Standing in stark contrast against the dark indigo sky, these stars – often in white or red – brighten up the city and make for postcard-perfect scenes. Oftentimes, those stars are replaced by electric Advent candelabras that even Swedes with no religious affiliation still display proudly in their windowsills.
Saints and songs
While the general mood in town is understatedly festive amidst sparkling lights, most Stockholmers mill around town in black or dark colored winter coats. There is one exception though, and that’s on December 13 when it’s okay to step out in all white.
On this day, you’ll find children running around town in white gowns, crowns of light, and tall paper cones on their heads in celebration of St. Lucia Day (Sankta Lucia).
This traditional procession is dedicated to the Sicilian Christian martyr Saint Lucy who died in AD 304. Celebrated as the mythical bearer of light, the concept of “Lucia” in Stockholm dates back to the 1920s when a newspaper elected an official “Lucia” to represent the saint. So the child chosen to portray Lucia wears a crown of battery-powered candles on her head.
Lucia concerts are held all over town – from schools and churches to libraries and community centers – and special songs which many locals know by heart are sung in honor of the saint and of her bringing light into dark corners.
After December 13, residents are back to wearing all black.
Feasts and fika
Stockholm has its share of Michelin starred restaurants which lead its new Nordic cuisine trend and a burgeoning street food truck culture. However, spending more time indoors during this cooler time of the year means retreating back to Sweden’s heart-warming version of soul food called husmanskost.
While the traditional Swedish smörgåsbörd has a few base husmanskost staples such as pickled herring called sill, meatballs (köttbullar), and cured salmon called gravad lax, this traditional buffet of food items morphs into the julbord – Christmas smorgasbord – with additional food items during the winter season.
From glazed ham and pork sausages to egg-and-anchovy mixtures, herring salad, pickled herring, home-made liver pâté, and a special potato-anchovy casserole dish called Jansson’s temptation which is named after Pelle Janzon, a food-loving Swedish opera singer from the early 1900s, over a hundred different restaurants serve their version of the julbord.
Restaurants like Fåfängan with its impressive views over Stockholm’s harbor, Bockholmen out in the archipelago, the upscale Berns Asiatiska downtown, and even IKEA located in Kungens Kurva, 20 minutes outside of town serve popular spreads. Through the site, Julbordsguiden.se, you can find a list of dozens of restaurants to pick from.
But be sure to save space for coffee afterwards.
One of the highest ranking coffee consuming cities per capita, travelers to Stockholm will quickly catch on to its deep-seated coffee culture. The act of drinking coffee isn’t the core of this tradition, but rather, religiously sharing with friends, colleagues, and family in a social situation known as observing fika.
Pronounced “fee-car”, observing fika is widely translated into taking a break from work and daily tasks to socialize over cups of coffee and is often accompanied with freshly baked buns collectively known as fikabröd. The most popular buns served are kanelbullar (cinnamon buns). During the winter season, golden festive buns called lussekatter are also popular and are infused with saffron and dark raisins.
If you find yourself in Stockholm from January through March right before the Lenten season, bakery displays will be filled with oval shaped wheat buns stuffed with almond paste and full whipped cream known as semla (plural – semlor).
Like glowing bulbous orbs oozing with sinfully decadent almond paste fillings, they lure window shoppers in with sweet wafting smells of cardamom to come take a tempting bite…right in time for the Christian holy observance of Lent.
Consuming semla became popular in Sweden as early as 1541 and its name is derived from the Latin word semilia which refers to semolina or fine wheat flour used to make the dessert. It was originally eaten only on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, but nowadays as fewer Swedes observe the religious season of fasting and prayer, locals start downing semlor pretty much right after New Year’s Eve up until Easter.
In 1771, King Adolf Frederick of Sweden was rumored to have died after following a hefty dinner with 14 servings of semla, his favorite dessert, so this pastry’s alluring effect should be taken seriously.
While dozens of cafés carry their own variation of semlor, be sure to stop by legendary Vete-Katten located on Kungsgatan in Stockholm for their award winning semlor.
If you’re willing to brave winter temperatures, you’ll be rewarded with a more sublime view of Stockholm. One which celebrates the city’s rich history and traditions while inviting you in to take part.
Winter Travel Tips for Stockholm
Traveling to Stockholm during this time of the year offers up a more personal side of the city and gives a closer glimpse into true Swedish lifestyles and culture, there are a couple things to keep in mind.
Avoid rental cars – Stockholm’s public transportation is punctual and extensive so renting a car is unnecessary. Also, due to inclement weather that could occur spontaneously during this time of the year, travelers who aren’t used to driving in adverse Scandinavian weather conditions should avoid renting cars.
Plan your sightseeing hours accordingly – Stockholm covered in snow is absolutely stunning and picture-perfect but with only a maximum of four hours of daylight at the peak of winter, be sure to plan your sightseeing accordingly so you have enough light to use – either for taking photos or navigating the city.
Pack and layer properly – Jackets, gloves, and warm hats may not be enough during this time of the year. Invest in some long wool or cotton underwear often called long johns which can be worn beneath trousers, jeans, and pants to wick away moisture and sweat.
Shop early – Many stores have modified open hours between 10-5pm with a few going past 6pm so plan your shopping for earlier in the day.
Wear low sturdy boots – Avoid heels, even a few inches and opt for flat-heeled boots with friction tracks or grooves in them. Sidewalks and paths are usually very slippery around this time of the year.
This piece was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Montage Magazine. You can also get 20 more insider tips for Stockholm.