In Sweden, Christmas comes a night early, celebrated on Julafton (Christmas Eve), with many old traditions.
My personal theory is that Sweden is closer to the North Pole, so it's time-economical for Santa to stop by early. And in fact, he does come in person. A little rat-tat-tat on the door and a jolly voice asks, "Are there any nice children here?"
That Santa, Tomten, comes directly from the American concept of Santa Claus. But there are also tomtar, little gnomes/ mini Santas that visit on Christmas.
Like Santa, you leave a treat for the tomtar: Christmas porridge. Unlike Santa, if you don't give them anything, they will play a trick on you. The history of the tomtar comes from farms in Sweden, where people believed that these gnomes would come play tricks on you, replace your children with trolls, or generally make your hard life as a farmer harder. So, on Christmas, when you and your family were celebrating, it was assumed that you would share your mid-winter feast with the tomtar too.
Today, tomtar are just julpynt - Christmas decorations. Above left is a hand-embroidered table cloth, probably made from a pattern during the 1930s or 40s. Above right are some hand-made tomtar for sale at the Old Town Christmas market in Stockholm.
The julbock is another tradition that comes from the countryside. Like the wassailing traditions of other countries, the poor would go door to door dressed as a goat and ask for alcohol. The costume pictured above left is at the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm, and apparently had a funnel in the mouth that led to a pouch. Boys would dress up in the costume and go to neighboring landowners (many farmers in the late 1800s didn't own their own land, think share-croppers) and ask for aquavit. When the pouch was full, they'd go home and have a party.
Today, the julbock also finds his place in Christmas decorations, from the straw goat pictured above right (a giant one of which hooligans in Jävle try to burn every year) to gingerbread cookie cutters.
Just like Christmas all over the world, Sweden combines old, strange traditions of the midwinter feast with newer ideas of how to celebrate the holiday.
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