This year, many traditions have had to take a back seat. Due to the spread of the coronavirus, there are restrictions regarding the maximum number of people permitted to gather in one place, and festive events have had to adapt. This has affected the ability to hold everything from weddings to funerals in the usual way. Online funerals have become common in Sweden, while holidays such as Midsummer, crayfish parties or birthdays have been celebrated within the immediate family instead of as is usually the case with the extended family and friends. Christmas, which is considered the major holiday period in much of Europe, is now on the horizon. That too will be different for many people this year, as older relatives are unable to participate in the festivities in the same way as usual.
Companies that usually organise a Christmas buffet for their employees, sometimes along with a Christmas show, have had to rethink their plans. And this is a tradition too: In a telephone survey of 1,000 Swedes 10 years ago, it emerged that two out of three private sector employees were invited to a Christmas buffet by their employer. It’s not as common in the public sector, but even there just over half were invited to a Christmas buffet.
The Christmas buffet is an established tradition in Sweden. The Swedish word for Christmas (jul) is of pagan origin – as far back as the Vikings people drank yule beer, enjoyed with food and entertainment, when the winter was at its darkest. Precisely what the Christmas meal looked like then we don’t know, but perhaps even then pork was on the menu.
For a long time, both a pig’s head and its trotters were an obvious feature of the Swedish Christmas buffet, while the ham was saved for the summer or possibly eaten at Christmas in grander houses. Today, the beautifully glazed ham is the centrepiece of the Swedish Christmas buffet, while most people now avoid the trotters. Lutfisk, jellied veal, Christmas sausage and “dopp i grytan” (bread dipped in the broth from cooking sausages or ham) are some of the oldest dishes that are still on the Swedish Christmas buffet.
In the Middle Ages, when Sweden was Catholic, people fasted in the days running up to Christmas. Then it was possible to eat porridge and lutfisk, while the meat dishes had to wait until Christmas Day. Lutfisk is prepared from dried fish soaked in water with lye, and is a seasonal tradition because it was more difficult to get hold of fresh fish in the winter. It is said to be the only dish that has been celebration food in Sweden for over 500 years, but today it is among the less popular Christmas dishes.
Meatballs, prinskorv sausages and Jansson’s temptation (a potato and anchovy dish cooked in the oven) have only been staples of the Swedish Christmas buffet for about 50 years, although the dishes were invented before that. In addition, the Christmas buffet has been influenced by the “ordinary” Swedish smörgåsbord with, for example, beetroot salad and various kinds of salmon and pickled herring. Restaurants often try to excel at offering as many and as imaginative variations of herring as possible. They can be flavoured with herbs, different kinds of vegetables or berries, or perhaps alcohol, such as sherry and gin. Numerous kinds of cabbage, cooked in different ways, are also part of the Christmas buffet, as cabbage is one of the few crops that can be harvested as late as December in Sweden.
Last but not least, of course, desserts such as rice pudding, cheesecake, gingerbread, toffees and sweets are served. You can also find more traditional elements such as apples, nuts, marzipan and dried fruit, such as dates, figs and raisins.
For a long time, Christmas buffets were only eaten in homes. Serving Christmas buffets in restaurants started in Sweden after the Second World War. Initially, this was on the Advent Sundays before Christmas. Nowadays, restaurants put on Christmas buffet evenings for corporate customers in particular several times a week, starting as early as November, so that everyone can fit in this traditional meal in time before Christmas.
But this year it was a little different.
The photo is from Madame Brasserie & Café, Värnamo.