Updating my blog isn’t something I would ordinarily expect to do on Christmas Day, but such is the strangeness of Christmas in Sweden that I’ve ended up doing a few things I wouldn’t normally do, and eating raw herring is just the start of it.
The first odd thing about Christmas in Sweden is that it takes place on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. The food, the presents, all the festivities are on Christmas Eve, meanwhile on Christmas Day nobody does anything except maybe go to a church service, or in my case write a blog entry. This of course begs the question: What is the point in having a Christmas Day when the actually festivities take place the night before?
I have since learnt that this practice derives from an earlier time when Sweden was far more religious and conservative place. As a religious holiday, it was forbidden to do anything remotely fun and enjoyable. Everything was closed and everyone was expected to attend the local church, thus all festivities had to be confined to the previous night. As time has passed and Sweden has become radically more progressive and educated, Swedes have gotten over this religious guilt complex and suddenly found themselves with a free day. Today Christmas Day has become a day to go out drinking with friends, and quite typically Swedes use this day to drink the only way they know how: to excess.
Another bizarre Christmas tradition in Sweden is watching Disney cartoons. At 3pm every Christmas Eve the local TV station broadcasts old Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. The story behind this oddity is that when television was first set up in Sweden in the 1950s, there was much debate about what it should be used for, and what should be shown to the nation’s youth. Cartoons were considered detrimental and destructive for young minds so Disney was banned. However one exception was made: for one hour every Christmas Eve Disney would be screened and thus a new Christmas tradition was born. Of course the ban on Disney has long been lifted, but the tradition remains, and for older Swedes it is a nostalgic reminder of an age when Mother Sweden protected their innocence.
To counteract this capitalist American propaganda, Disney is always followed by a Swedish made cartoon called ‘Karl Bertil Jonssons julafton’ (pictured below). It’s a short cartoon about a weedy looking kid who spends Christmas Eve stealing presents from the rich, and redistributing them to the poor. Some of Karl’s more bizarre acts of social justice include giving a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre to a homeless alcoholic, and a tie to a prostitute. Karl’s father, a successful sales executive, obviously gets upset when he finds his presents in the hands of whores and drunks and thus makes Karl go round and apologise to all the rich people he stole from. But much to everyone’s surprise all the upper class toffs they meet are actually getting more enjoyment from seeing poor people with their new gifts than they ever would from the gifts themselves. Hence they all pledge to continue to redistribute their wealth to the less well off, and the Swedish welfare state is born. Young children all over Sweden are left thinking “Sure we’re forbidden from watching Mickey Mouse, but isn’t it great to live in a country where we’re taxed 50% of our wages.”