Christmas Around the World : Sweden

Welcome to Sweden :

Father Christmas comes in two forms in Sweden: a gnome-like figure from Swedish folklore, called a jultomte, and a rather jolly old man with a white beard and wearing a fur-trimmed red suit, known the world-over as Santa! This article explains how the gnome-like figure evolved and the connections between the two of them.

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The Feast of Jul

Jul (Yule) is a very old Nordic word from pre-Christian times. Indeed, the word is so old that we cannot be certain of its origin and how it was celebrated. However, most experts seem to agree that jul was a period of days, around the winter solstice, when people in northern Europe welcomed in the new year or, to put it another way, celebrated the rebirth of the sun.

The straw goat

In Pagan times a bock (a male goat) had some kind of special status in Scandinavia, probably because it was thought to be connected to the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats. At some point it became popular to make a straw goat, probably because the last bundle of grain from the annual harvest was thought to contain the spirit of the harvest, so it was saved for the Feast of Jul


Another tradition developed of knocking hard on the front door of a house, leaving a straw goat with a joke verse and then running away. The tradition is the origin of the word julklapp (Christmas present), which literally means ‘Yule knock’.

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Differences between Santa and Tomte

Santa and Tomte in Sweden may often look the same, but Swedes appear to reserve the word Tomte for a present-giver. So, for instance, the charity run shown above is called a ‘Santa Run’ because the participants are wearing Father Christmas costumes, but they are not giving out presents.

Although these days the present-giver may wear a Santa costume there are significant differences between Santa in most countries and Tomte in Sweden:
• Tomte lives in a nearby forest, not at the North Pole,
• he has a family,
• he doesn’t come down the chimney at night, but knocks on the front door,
• he delivers presents directly to the children on Christmas Eve, before the children go to bed, just like the julbock did;
• before he hands over presents he asks, Finns det några snälla barn här? (Are there any good children here?),
• he normally walks with his sack, but if he rides in a sleigh it is drawn by reindeer across the snow – they don’t fly,
• he likes a bowl of porridge, not a mince pie and a glass of sherry.

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