It’s the night before Christmas, and all through the mouse, not a beach chair is stirring, not even a louse.
Celebrating Christmas abroad can make you feel like things are, well, a little topsy-turvy.
You may have read about the way people celebrate in the country you’re living in, or you might be going into the day free of any knowledge or misconceptions. Regardless of which category you fall under, there will come a point in the day when you look around you and think to yourself:
Now what exactly is going on here?
Last week, I was invited to be on a radio show with two Swedish comedians to talk about the differences between American and Swedish Christmas traditions as I perceived them. I had some thoughts at that time, but now that I’ve actually experienced my first Christmas in Sweden, I’m ready to tell it like it is.
You’re celebrating on the wrong day
The first and biggest difference is the day and time at which Christmas is celebrated in Sweden. Kids will find their stockings hung at the end of their bed on the morning of the 24th, aka Christmas Eve. Then they can run around in a sugar-induced fit until about 3 pm, when a viewing of Donald Duck and his friends officially kicks off the Christmas festivities.
After that, it’s a late lunch/early dinner that stretches late into the evening, much the same way that an American Thanksgiving meal does.
From an American perspective, this is all wrong. Think about your own birthday. Would you celebrate it on the day before, just because it’s your birthday eve? No. You would celebrate it on your birthday. Enough said.
Santa shows up in person
Second of all, Santa (the Jultomte) delivers his presents. In person. No flying through the air on a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer, no defying the rules of nature to squeeze down an endless array of chimneys, nothing. He just waltzes in through the front door, dressed in a red suit and wearing a beard.
I don’t know if this means little Swedish children grow up with a stronger sense of magic (so much so that it clouds their ability to recognize their lightly-disguised relatives) or a weaker sense of magic (ugh, not Aunt Suzie dressed up as Santa again). I’m willing to accept this breach of protocol if it’s the former, but if it’s the latter… what are you guys doing?!
Ring around the Christmas tree?
The buffet table is groaning under the weight of a thousand delicious-looking plates, and the smells are wafting through the air, making your stomach growl.
You know what to do.
Join hands, leave the dining room (do not allow your reluctance to show on your face, this is CHRISTMAS), and dance around the Christmas tree in a wild rumpus, singing, “Nu är det jul igen, nu är det jul igen!” with an increasingly ravenous fervor until suddenly and inexplicably everyone stops singing and starts walking towards the table.
What does the song mean? I’m so glad you asked.
“Now it’s Christmas again, now it’s Christmas again, and Christmas lasts until Easter.” This is repeated a bunch of times, and then there’s a response: “But it wasn’t true, it wasn’t true, for in between is Lent.”
Time for the ham.
Highly scheduled seasonal joy
In the US, the Christmas season starts pretty much as soon as you put down your fork and push away your plate to signal that yes, you have finally reached the point at which one more slice of Thanksgiving turkey will make you burst. After that, it’s kind of a holiday madness free-for-all: cut down the tree, decorate, bake, go caroling if you’re the musical type, etc.
In Sweden, the Christmas season is nothing short of a highly choreographed waltz. It starts with the First Sunday in Advent, which is observed as a secular holiday (aka “the official beginning of glögg season”) with religious fervor. Following that, it’s Lucia Day on the 13th, after which you may buy your tree, but don’t even think about decorating that tree until the 23rd unless you want to be viewed with extreme suspicion.
On Christmas Eve, there are also very concrete milestones to help you regulate the festivities. 3 pm is Donald Duck. Once that’s done, you have until 7 pm to do whatever else is on your docket (you know, the food, the presents, etc.), because at 7, it’s time for another cartoon: Karl-Bertil Jonsson, a modern-day Robin Hood.
Finally, there’s “Tjugondag jul,” the 20th day of Christmas, which falls on the 13th of January and signals the definitive end to the Christmas season. On this day, Swedes will denude their trees and drag them out to the curb en masse. This also the first day you are allowed to feel truly unbridled hatred towards the dark and the cold since the promise of Christmas has finally come to an end.
More religious language and imagery, less religious feeling
If I were in the US, I would be doing some very elaborate verbal gymnastics to deemphasize the word “Christmas” in favor of the words “the holiday season.” For better or worse. I don’t care which phrase I use; I just want to honor the prevailing norms in the country where I’m living.
Here in Sweden, however, religious language and imagery are used far more often, while the religious underpinnings for Christmas Day are rarely mentioned. On a related note, I haven’t heard one Swedish person bring up Chanukah, and there were definitely more people in church for Lucia Day when I went than on Christmas Day.
Coming from a country where the holiday season is more often than not punctuated by highly-televised debates on the role of religion in American society, it’s very interesting and very foreign to have so much secularized, socially-accepted religiosity within the public domain.
Make your own traditions
It’s not always easy to take on a Christmas abroad.
For most people, this whole time of year is charged with emotions and traditions that take on an outsize importance in our minds. Of course I would have loved to have been able to share Christmas with my family, but I think that what I missed most about our Christmas celebration is the feeling of anticipation the night before—knowing that you’re about to reenact a time-honored and beloved set of activities that have become like a ritual for your own family.
The good news for all us expats (and really everyone else) is that you can take charge of your Christmas traditions and make them your own.
Do you look forward to certain foods at your Christmas dinner? Make them a recurring feature and get rid of the rest.
Do you look forward to certain activities throughout the day? Make sure that they get thrown into the mix.
What does your significant other value above all else? Add those, too.
The best part of this year’s Christmas was that it was the beginning of a lifetime of Christmas celebrations to come with my husband… Christmas celebrations in which we’ll try out new traditions and throw out ones that don’t work for us. Over time, we’ll create something that’s truly ours, and it’ll be a mix of both of our backgrounds.
For the most part, that is. I draw the line at this whole “celebrating on Christmas Eve” thing. There’s absolutely nothing right about that.