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Quirky Nordic Christmas Traditions

Andy Stevens / 14 November 2017 ( 20 March 2020 )

Discover some of the quirkiest festive customs from the Nordic countries of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland.

Iceland Christmas Cat
Meet Jolakotturinn, a proper geezer Christmas kitty from the land of proper geysers: Iceland. But beware, he's watching and if you misbehave there'll be no presents for you this year!

Think a Nordic Christmas is all compulsory chunky knitwear, festive markets straight out of Santa’s central casting yule-school, dangerous levels of hygge John Lewis can only dream of, and mugs of pungent mulled wine permanently fused to your palms, under the unconvincing ruse of keeping your hands warm?

Well, you’re partly right, in several ways. But when you pay a visit to the Nordic countries during the jingly Christmas hi-jinks, make sure you stay mindful of mean-spirited fictional cats, combustible giant goats and a level of broom worship not seen since Trigger’s Only Fools and Horses heyday.

Here is an utterly random guide to some of the kookiest northern yuletide delights; those far-out, far-flung and frivolous festive traditions and customs you might find yourself running in to, in an initial blizzard of confusion, when you spend Christmas in one or more of the Nordic nations:

Beware the Christmas kitty

Meet Jolakotturinn. That’s easy for you to say. He’s a cat, with all the industry-standard feline gubbins going on. At first glance. But your average Tiddles this fearsome fictional furball is not.

Jolakotturinn is a proper geezer kitty from the land of proper geysers: Iceland. And when yuletide descends on the dark, frozen north, you won’t find Iceland’s infamous Christmas Cat (for it is he) settling down on the sofa with a tin of posh Purina Gourmet and a Tom & Jerry boxset.

And if you’re a naughty Icelandic kid, tell you what: he’ll have you, he will. Boy, he’ll have you.

So to the furry fable of Iceland’s Christmas Cat. The yarn is actually a lot sweeter, benign and purrsome than we’ve been letting on. Children in Iceland all know the tale – sorry about that – of the Christmas Cat, aka Yule Cat.

There’s a tradition of receiving new clothes for Christmas in Iceland – warm ones, we trust. And children are told they have to work hard and be helpful, or else those shiny new threads won’t be forthcoming.

Children who don’t pull their weight not only miss out on receiving swish new clobber, but also run the risk of our old chum Jolakotturinn (we’ll be testing your spelling later) rocking up with a raging hunger and – gasp! – eating the errant sprogs.

Time to tidy your rooms, Reykjavik kiddiewinks.

Is Mr Claus indoors?

It’s one of the burning questions of our times: are we teetering on the brink of a global pandemic?

No, not that one. Will the EU give us a competitive Canada-style deal, or will we leave on WTO rules?

No, not that one, either. Where does Father Christmas actually live?

Yes that’s the fellow. Ho ho ho…and one more ho for luck.

Old Beardface, as we know, does the rounds the world over on Christmas Eve on his Mach-2 sleigh with Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen and all the other reindeer chaps. 

Still out-Amazoning Amazon, the boy Claus has built up a very healthy e-commerce global logistics revenue and end-to-end fulfilment stream through the centuries, by dispensing his non-biodegradable beneficences into the stockings of good children, who awake rapt in awe on Christmas morning at the magical appearance of a selection box that’s more box than selection, plus the latest, state-of-the-art, Alexa-enabled fidget spinner.

Happily, however, our people in Finland have managed to unscramble the signal on Claus’ in-sleigh sat-nav and tracked the corpulent cheery chappy down to the Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi. 

For that is Santa’s manor – his home – where after the festive frenzy the great man whips off his boots, slips into an elf onesie and kicks back with a schooner of Emva Cream and reruns of It’s A Wonderful Life.

The town of Rovaniemi has nailed the family festive fun shtick at its fine and jolly Santa Claus Christmas Village, replete with energetic wintry Arctic pursuits such as cross-country skiing and dog-sledding, plus Santa himself on site for endless photo-ops and selfies – always with a ready smile and textbook ho-ho-ho-ing, and never any need to consult his agent about image rights.

Sweden’s go-to Christmas Goat

The Swedish town of Gavle gets all festive every year, with a symbol of seasonal goodwill that’s instantly recognised the world over as one that captures the true spirit of Christmas: an enormous effigy of a goat.

And it’s a goat that festive fire-starters try to set light to, as well. Well, it’s traditional, innit?

Gavle’s animalistic yuletide take on The Wicker Man would be enough to get the late Edward Woodward scrambling into the nearest launch and heading straight back to the mainland. But the Swedes seem to like it.

As well as in Sweden, the Christmas Goat also features among Finland’s tinsel-time traditions under the catchily oh-so-Finnish name of Joulupukki.

But what exactly is the Gavle Christmas Goat’s MO? What drives this chap?

Reputedly as big a draw in this neck of the woods as Santa himself, the Christmas Goat tradition is steeped in Norse mythology, although the town of Gavle has only had the huge beast as its festive straw centrepiece since 1966.

But any Norse ancestral reverence goes right out of the window where this particular silly Billy is concerned. Central to this seasonal sport are attempts to set fire to the 43-foot high goat effigy. 

And the locals expend much time and energy trying to outsmart each other in their zeal for hircine immolation, and their unquenchable desire leave the poor old Gavle nanny in a state. Talk about a scapegoat.

Happily, though, since this goat-burning business began back in the Sixties the effigy isn’t consumed by fire every year, and sometimes gets away with it to neigh another day.

The serenity of St Lucia Day

A more serene slant on the Christmas season you’ll be hard pushed to find beyond Sweden are the country’s St Lucia Day celebrations.

Held on said saint’s day of December 13, the symbolism of St Lucia in Swedish myth is as the bearer of light, at the time when the deep, long darkness of Sweden’s winters start to kick in.

The ceremonies combine elements of both pagan (marking the winter solstice as it does) and Lutheran traditions. 

And they are a magical sight both to hear and behold, as children dressed in angelic white, bearing candles and wearing illuminating wreath crowns, march in saintly procession and sing well-known choral songs associated with the day.

Although not an official, designated holiday, St Lucia Day retains a huge significance in the run-up to a Swedish Christmas.

Whatever happened to the Yule Lads?

Imagine the knockabout – dare we say wacky? – spirit of a bunch of bearded old-school Beastie Boys madcap-ery meeting a Snow White-less Seven Dwarfs for a lads’ week in Magaluf, while channelling the knowing, intellectual humour of The Chuckle Brothers. Got that? Ladies and gentlemen we give you…The Yule Lads.

A kind of Crackerjack on Ice, The Yule Lads tradition in Iceland comprises trolls of the pre-Twitter and Facebook variety. 

The sort of trolls who keep themselves to themselves living under bucolic fairytale stone bridges chomping an onion, and not typing nasty things about Kylie Jenner’s latest Instagram post.

In a 13-day frenzy of family-friendly, Christmas-crazed japes and chortles, these 13 likely lads of yule take their cues for a fun-fuelled, door-to-door rampage of festive merriment, for the amusement and delight of Iceland’s children.

Each Yule Lad answers to a suitably Kinder-Surprise-meets-Slipknot moniker of mirth: side-splitters for you to collect include Stubby, Spoon-Licker, Door-Slammer, Meat-Hook, the Aphex Twin-esque Doorway-Sniffer and Bowl-Licker, Sheep-Cote Clod (your guess is as good as ours) and Window-Peeper. Their case comes up next week.

Here’s the festive deal with The Yule Lads, so listen up. Icelandic children leave their shoes outside the windows of their houses, and every night one of the 13 cheeky chappies leaves a present for the good boys and girls or, alternatively, rotten potatoes for those who’ve been naughty. 

Quite what the rigorous selection process is for the givers of gifts and/or mouldy veg remains a mystery. To us at least.

Hey, you crazy Christmas guys: you just kill me.

Broom at the top

It’s a matter of some conjecture among followers of such things as to how widespread the Norwegian Christmas tradition of broom-hiding is these days. 

Some cynics have even been known to say the whole thing’s made up. Oh ye of little faith. We’d like to think it was compulsory, but fear our wishes may fall somewhat short.

Broom-hiding is a prosaic festive pursuit suitable for all ages, but disappointingly yet to gain much traction on the international advent scene beyond Norway, according to our sources.

It involves hiding a – you’ve guessed it – broom, or brooms if you’re lucky enough to own more than one, in your house. That’s hidden away somewhere safe, so you can’t see it. 

Or rather so that evil spirits, witches and the like can’t see your broom(s) and become tempted to climb aboard and take one for a spin around the block.

This broom-hiding malarkey apparently dates back several hundred years, and should be done for maximum effect on Christmas Eve.

Quite how popular re-runs of The Wizard of Oz with its broom-tastic Wicked Witch of the West, or the famous Trigger’s Broom episode of Only Fools and Horses are in Norway we’re not entirely sure.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.