35 Essential Swedish Words for Christmas

Celebrating Christmas in a foreign country is tough, right? You miss your family. You have no idea what’s going on. To top it off, Swedes can’t even figure out what day they’re supposed to celebrate on. The whole thing is cockamamie.

Fortunately, even though this is my first Christmas in Sweden, I’ve had some practice with Sweden’s other holidays, namely Springtime Christmas (Easter), Summertime Christmas (Midsummer), and Patriotic Christmas (National Day).

These holidays have been wonderfully rich experiences, yielding both memories that I’ll treasure forever and valuable coping strategies for situations in which the rules of play are unknown and running away is not an option.

Coping strategy number one: Focus on the food.

Coping strategy number two:  Do not be afraid of the wine.

Coping strategy number three: Study the relevant holiday vocabulary in advance.

Seriously. It doesn’t matter how lovely and wonderful your significant other is or how unafraid you are of asking for explanations, by the time you interrupt a conversation mid-flow for the tenth time to ask what a word means, you will feel like an idiot and want to slink off to a corner to hide for the rest of the day.

Either that, or you and I do not react to this kind of stress in the same way, in which case, you probably do not these coping strategies in the first place.

In any case, how you handle the day once it’s upon you is out of my hands. What I can help you with, though, are the words.

The basics

Tomte: Santa

Julklapp: Christmas presents

Etiketter: Gift tags

Mer: More

Det är kallt! It’s cold!

Strumpor: Stockings

Julgrann: Christmas tree

Ren: Reindeer

Klä julgranen: Literally, to “dress the tree.” More generally, to decorate it.

*Chimney is skorsten, but apparently Sweden’s Santa Claus walks right in through the front door to personally deliver presents, so forget it.

Activities

Baka: Bake

Julpyssla: To channel your inner Martha Stewart and arts and crafts bedazzle your entire house/apartment for Christmas.

Ringdansen: The ring dance. If you hear these words, it’s time to finish your drink and/or hastily pour another.

Titta på Kalle Anke: To watch Donald Duck cartoons, a treasured Christmas tradition from ye good olde days. (Read the Slate article, “Nordic Quack,” here.)

Åka pulka: To go sledding

Rimma: Rhymes. Presents must be accompanied by a poem personalized for the recipient, written in rhyming couplets.

Snögubbe: Snowman


One plate of a Swedish Julbord. Photo: bjaglin (CC BY 2.0)

Food and Drink

Julbord: Literally, the “Christmas table.” It’s Christmas dinner, which is served as a large buffet. There’s a lot of herring, perhaps a casserole or two, a potato dish called Jansson’s Frestelse, and the pièce de résistance, the Christmas ham.

Hugg i: Dig in.

Jansson’s Frestelse: Literally, “Jansson’s Temptation.” A baked casserole made of potatoes cut into matchsticks, onions, bread crumbs, cream, and pickled sprats (not anchovies—don’t argue with me, argue with Wikipedia).

Julskinka: A baked ham, special for Christmas (and sometimes Springtime Christmas). I have never seen a real roasted ham in real life, so I am looking forward to the occasion.

Köttbullar: Meatballs. (Pronunciation here.)

Sill: Pickled herring. (Also important for Springtime and Summertime Christmas.)

Prinskorv: Baby sausages.

Kakor, Godis, Choklad, Pepparkakor: Cookies, Candy, Chocolate, Gingerbread.

Gröt: Some sort of rice pudding-porridge, served warm with an almond hidden inside. As popular legend would have it, if you get the almond, you’re destined to get married within the coming year.

Ris à la Malta: Another version of rice pudding-porridge, served cold without an almond. This version is not known to cause unexpected marriages within the coming year.

Julmust: A very strange Christmastime soda that tastes a little like flat Dr. Pepper. (Also appears at Springtime Christmas.)

 
Julmust also appears at Springtime Christmas as Påskmust (literally: Easter Must). Photo: dalager (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Other

Glitter: Tinsel

Julkrubba: The nativity scene, from Jesus in the manger and cows lowing in the hay to the Wise Men bearing gifts and angels singing up on high.

Snö: Snow

Julhandla: Christmas shopping

Slå in: Literally, “to punch in” (?!). In this case, to wrap presents.

With any luck, that should about do it! More suggestions are always welcome, however. Merry (Almost) Christmas!

  • Audrey K B

    Oh nice, reminding nice souvenirs… together with pepparkakor and glögg :) tack!

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Tack själv! Thanks so much for reading!

  • Adamzarouk

    Jag ser fram emot din bok! “Kate tolkar svenska högtider!” Den kommer bli succé! =)

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Haha tack Adam! Jag har inte bestämt mig för vad det kommer att handla om, men det låter ju bra! Kram till dig och Sofie :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marie-Lindström/500380295 Marie Lindström

    Would love a full update after your Swedish Christmas.

    I want to slå ett slag för (throw a punch for?) the Christmas TV tradition Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton. A wonderful story about taking from the rich and giving to the poor in a good old Swedish socialist spirit. http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagan_om_Karl-Bertil_Jonssons_julafton

    Also – interesting triva on Julmust. The julmust essence is made by a old family-run company who has a trademarked secret recepie.

    What do you mean I should get back to work? :)

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Back to work, back to schmork.

      I love Karl-Bertil! What a feel good socialist Christmas cartoon. Almost as good as “It’s a Wonderful Life!”

      And I will definitely have to do some research on Julmust. You never know when it will come in handy… quiz night, anyone? :)

  • http://blogs.sweden.se/work/ Kristin Lund

    OMG, I am laughing so hard. Thanks! This is so relevant to my life right now. I love the “other holiday” names. Fantastic. I have no idea what’s going on and I can definitely see people’s eyes glazing over when I ask “What did you just say?” for the umpteenth time! God jul!

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Haha, I hope it helps when the day comes! Will you be celebrating with your friends in Uppsala? God Jul, God Jul, God Jul!!

  • Cecile Pham

    oh man… you just reminded me how much i love Jansson’s Frestelse!!! om nom nom nom nom.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Hahaha I know! I always think of you when I think of Frestelse! You should make some for your Christmas, bring some of the Swedish spirit back :) Miss you!!

  • Maukgirl

    The Julmust tastes like Cheerwine (Carolina based cherry coke)

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      It has been so long since I tried Cheerwine, but that seems about right! From what I remember, it tasted like funky but good Dr. Pepper… Bet it would make a killing here… Hmm….

      Happy Holidays and thanks for reading!

  • Monica-USA

    Nice job on your holiday tips. I have tried the Julmust and to me it tastes like a Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola with a beer after taste!! :o ) God Jul to you all!!

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Haha that seems about right! It’s very strange! God Jul to you, Monica. Wishing you a very happy holiday (and birthday, right?)!

      • Monica-USA

        Yes, thank you for remembering it is my birthday as well everyone always forgets!!! I think I should get a do-over and choose another day to celebrate!!! :o )

  • Mary

    Hi Kate, I really enjoy your blog. Here’s a coincidence for you – my son is a Michigander, living in Lund and will get married to a Swedish woman in Lund next July. Small world. We spent last Christmas in Lund and I could have used your Swedish Christmas vocabulary. We watched Donald Duck with everyone and made St. Lucia rolls and had a wonderful time. It’s a great place. Best wishes. Thanks again for your great blog.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Hi Mary! Thank you so much for your comment. That is too crazy! Lucky for him you didn’t post his name, otherwise I would already be on Facebook tracking him down. :) Very exciting about the upcoming wedding. Good luck to the happy couple and best wishes for a Merry Christmas to you!

      • Mary

        Hi again, Kate. Yeah, my son is pretty private and would probably kill me if I posted his name here, but you can email me if you want more info. :) I wish you and your new husband a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy new year!

  • http://twitter.com/mroach Michael Roach

    You forgot Lussekatter! I’d define them as saffron buns that have less than half the amount of sugar they should have. They’re so sugar-free I used them instead of pita bread to dip into hummus. Oh, and don’t forget Glögg. But I wouldn’t be upset if no glögg were present at Christmas. It’s like drinking syrup.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Haha! I have to admit, although I kind of hated the first 50 Lussekatter I tried, they’ve grown on me and now I actually really like them. Scary. It’s stuff like this that makes me worry about losing my Americanness. Next thing you know, I’ll be turning my nose up at High Fructose Corn Syrup, and then all will be lost.

      • http://twitter.com/mroach Michael Roach

        HFCS is nasty. I hate eating anything that contains it. Lussekatter are starting to grow on me, but I need a tall glass of milk nearby. I guess the upside to them being so devoid of sweetness is that you don’t want to eat so many…

  • Guy_lakiss

    Ok

  • IrisxMetal

    Hahaha LOVED it!! :P Thanks for the words, hope it’ll help me out my first Christmas Holiday in Sweden @ my boyfriend ;)

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Yay! Good luck!! Wishing you both a very Merry Christmas!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sten-Broth/100000648986514 Sten Broth

    Remember to put a plate of gröt out for the hustomte (a very different guy from the jultomte, read here http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomte or here in english http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomte ) so your home will be taken good care of the coming year.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Yes, I will definitely do that! Am I supposed to put that out on Julafton, Lilla Julafton, or Juldagen?!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sten-Broth/100000648986514 Sten Broth

        Dear Kate, you must have learned it by now… In Sweden, always on the afton! God jul!

  • Rick

    Wonderful post keep it up and have a good christams.

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Thank you! Merry Christmas to you too!

  • Izzatullah_99

    great

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Thank you! Merry Christmas! :)

  • Kim

    You are a wonderful person Kate. Keep it up :)

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      You are too kind! Thanks for reading!

  • Anonymous

    merry christmas to you, love the blog! wish i had found this before yesterday, but then my expat boy is pretty good with the food/holiday terms.. it’s the rest that’s the problem! your swedish is impressive, we’re struggling to find the time (motivation) for it. Lund is quite forgiving for english speakers, for good and for bad..

    btw, we do ris a la malta with almond in my family, risgrynsgröt is pathetic next to ris a la malta (can’t go wrong with whipped cream). also, the one who gets it doesn’t get married but has to make a rhyme. usually me. (this year’s wasn’t too bad, except for the fact that it was a true story – “in my rice pudding i found an almond so fair, lucky me, ‘cos some got a hair”

    • http://www.transatlanticsketches.com Kate Reuterswärd

      Hahaha ewwwwwwwww! Good on the spot rhyme, though! I was on a radio show on Friday to talk about Swedish vs. American Christmas traditions, and the man that came on after me was giving tips for writing rhymes. Fortunately, I got out of this year because we did a no-presents Christmas… phew. (You can listen to the program here, though: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/default.aspx?programid=4245)

      I didn’t actually get to try either rice pudding/porridge because we were all too full to bother, but with your recommendation, maybe I’ll give ris a la malta a try. Sounds good!

      Merry belated Christmas and Happy New Year! Hope you’re have some relaxing mellandagar :)

  • Mark Johnson

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