Here, gathered in our beloved South Dakota, are a few members of our Williamson / Mattson Clan. Charles and Luella are to be blamed (be kind, they didn't know what they were doing). We're generally a happy bunch and somewhat intelligent (notwithstanding our tenuous grasp on reality). I'm also proud to say that most of us still have our teeth.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Swedish Christmas. Family Culture

The holidays are a time for relaxation and reflection, to crawl into your winter lair, light candles and enjoy cooking all the food you have hoarded to survive the winter. For Swedes, December marks the beginning of endless invitations to Advent gatherings with friends and family. It all starts the first weekend in December with "Advent Sunday" and entails drinking lots of' glögg' and eating saffron cake or saffron buns. I simply love the Christmas feelings these get-togethers give me.

It is not only that I am crazy about saffron buns, but I love the coziness of the lit candles everywhere and the fire place sparkling which contrasts perfectly to the dark winter cold. There is a wonderful, almost childish, anticipation in the air, that there is more to come. The culmination for us Swedes is of course on Christmas Eve, which is the day Santa actually comes to visit.

Swedish Saffron Buns

  • 2 1/8 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3 (0.6 ounce) cakes compressed fresh yeast
  • 8 ounces quark or sour cream
  • 2 (.5 gram) packets powdered saffron
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 7 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup raisins (optional)
  • 1 eggs, beaten


  1. Heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan until the butter has melted and the temperature has reached 100 degrees F (38 degrees C). Crumble the yeast into a bowl, then pour in the warm milk. Stir well until the yeast dissolves.
  2. Stir in the quark, saffron, sugar, salt, and 7 cups of the flour. Mix the dough in the bowl until it becomes shiny and silky, adding more flour as needed until it begins to come away from the sides of the bowl. Cover, and let rise for 40 minutes.
  3. Prepare 2 or 3 baking sheets by covering each with a sheet of parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface, punch down the dough, then divide into 35 pieces. Roll each piece into a rope, 5 to 6 inches long. With the rope lying flat on the work surface, roll each end towards the center, in opposite directions, creating a curled S-shape. Place the buns on the prepared baking sheets, and garnish with raisins if desired. Cover with a towel, and allow to rise for an additional 30 minutes while you preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).
  4. Gently brush each bun with beaten egg, then bake in the oven until puffed and golden, 5 to 10 minutes.
Sweden is a great choir country, so there are Christmas concerts in every other church from the beginning of December until mid January. Beautiful Christmas carols are most important for me in conveying the true Christmas feeling. They express so much of the yearning for peacefulness - a time to pause and reflect on a spiritual level, far away from daily worries.

On December 13 we celebrate the Saint Lucia. Even though Sweden is a Protestant - and secular r- country, celebrating Saint Lucia is a dear tradition to us. In every work place and in every school and day care center there are Lucia processions, consisting of children and sometimes grown-ups, singing Christmas carols dressed up as Lucias, attendants, elfs and gingerbread men. Usually there is only one Lucia, with candle lit crown adorning her head, although in processions with very young children you often see several Lucias, as they all wish to play the Lucia part! After the procession there is Lucia coffee served with saffron cake and ginger biscuits.

The weeks following Lucia everything slows down. It is all a long waiting period for the holidays and filled with anticipation, especially among children. My oldest son Hannes was born on Christmas Eve, so the waiting is almost unbearable to him, with all presents during the year gathered to one occasion! We have decided to celebrate his birthday the day before Christmas Eve so that he gets his own very special day. That is also the day when we carry the Christmas tree into the house, and decorate it with ornaments such as glitter, straw figures, and Swedish flags.

Christmas Eve is the big day in Scandinavia, equivalent to Christmas Day in the US. This is the day when all children get their presents, the holidays start and most important of all - you can start to dig into the traditional Scandinavian Christmas food! At lunch time you eat a big Christmas buffet, filled with sausages, meat balls, potatoes, all sorts of herring, pies, and more exotic food like 'Jansson's temptation' and herring sallad.

It is almost magic with all the dishes to choose from - no wonder the expression smorgasbord originates from the Swedish Christmas buffet. While it is hard to believe on Christmas Eve, you do get tired of it in the long run, since the Christmas food leftovers lasts for at least two weeks!

In the afternoon we sing Christmas carols and we dance. Then the highlight of the day follows when Santa arrives with presents to all. Shortly thereafter rice pudding is served. An almond is put in the pudding and the person who gets the almond is the one who is getting married (or remarried!) the following year. I do not know how to interpret the fact that I always get the almond, since I have been married to the same man for almost seven years!

Christmas Day marks the beginning of a long resting period. This does not mean that the celebrations are over. Most people have another week or two off from work, since they only have to take a few days of vacation between Christmas and New Years and the Christmas tree is not to be thrown out until the weekend three weeks after Christmas. Then "you dance Christmas out" at a so called"Christmas tree plundering," where you strip the tree of all the decorations, throw it out of your home, and have your last Christmas meal.

And then you just wait another three months for the light to return...

By Emilie Eliasson Hovmöller