In Australia, Christmas is just a day. In the far‑Northern hemisphere, it’s a whole season, a feeling, a lifestyle, a philosophy, and a food group. Let’s hope for a white Christmas next year in a Covid-free world. Nicole Buckler reports.
If you grew up in Australia, you instinctively know that Christmas is a little weird here. Kids draw pictures of snowmen, roaring fires, and icicles. But in reality, the only ice found in our houses is in Mum’s gin. There’s no getting away from it. Christmas is a cold-country festival – a cultural idea that has been dragged to Australia by our long-dead ancestors. They came from parts of the world that were a little too close for comfort to the Arctic.
The Reason for the Season
The whole reason Christmas exists is to give humans in these Arctic regions some joy throughout a very cold, very dark part of the year. Before central heating, this time of year totally sucked. A lot. So humans do nice things to make it easier to live through.
I wanted a “real” Christmas for once. And I was dead right to go to Sweden. If you want a real Christmas, then this is your place!
The thing you may not be prepared for, is how little sunlight Mother Nature affords you at this time of year! She is mean with the luminosity at this latitude. Sunrise is around 9:00am and the sun starts to set at 2:30pm. The day never warms up, despite the sliver of sunshine in the middle of the day. For a Gold Coaster, it’s savagely freezing. You’ll need to bring proper clothing.
The way the Swedes distract themselves from the cold dark otherworld they live in, is by going absolutely wild with the lights and decorations. Businesses and museums decorate for Xmas in Stockholm in the most impossibly exquisite manner. And of course, being a country famous for their sense of design, the decorations are so tasteful, oozing Swedish style that makes Ikea the international success that it is. And it makes our decorations look wildly bogan.
If you walk around the city at Christmas, you can see where they are going with these decorations. It absolutely puts everyone in a good mood. Every street is a new experience, a visual orgasm. The cold is forgotten and the darkness is mastered with stylish lighting. All good.
In Stockholm, we stayed in a lovely area of Stockholm called Solna. Just about everyone lives in apartments in the capital of Sweden, they are easier to keep warm! And, the apartments are all built around a central green, where kids toboggan down hills together in a freezing idyll of modern life. If you want to schlep the grandkids somewhere, this is a good place to do it.
Christmas is really Christmas Eve, in Sweden. December 24 is the main day for celebrating Christmas, the major family event of the year. Swedes mix customs from home and abroad and keep the celebrations secular. They light up their homes with candlelight, decorate the tree and bake gingersnaps and saffron buns. They eat pickled herring, meatballs, and ham.
When everyone has arrived on the afternoon of the 24th, Santa comes knocking at the door with a bag of presents (he runs off after knocking, leaving the gifts, before the kids can open the door!).
But of course, it wasn’t Santa. The neighbours are actually acting as Santa for each other. They all knock for each other, leave the bag of presents, and quickly go back into their own apartments, thanks to arrangements made earlier.
The apartment we stayed in was across the road from a publicly funded outdoor ice-skating rink. The average Swede can just rock up to these rinks whenever there isn’t an ice-hockey match on, and use them for free. Watching the ice hockey is pretty cool too! While everyone was spending most of the day inside on the 24th with their families, we had the skate rink all to ourselves! In fact, we skated outdoors every single day we were there! It certainly gets you out in the fresh air and if you keep moving you are toasty in no time.
You can do wild skating though. Stockholm is built across an archipelago, so the city sits on connected little islands. During a cold winter (which isn’t every winter) the water between these islands freezes over. People then take to the ice, strolling, pushing prams, walking their dogs, skating, and cross-country skiing. It’s amazing to join in, it’s the stuff of life. We could have literally done this all day. It was beyond special. And, all ages were at it.
Every country now has Christmas markets. But the Christmas markets that are held every year inside Stockholm’s old town make you feel like you are walking in the original Christmas market that all others are based on. They are absolutely, achingly beautiful. If you want to bring presents back to Australia, this is your place. A month before Christmas these traditional stalls open. Some specialise in homemade food and drink, others in arts and crafts, and still others operate like regular retailers. The Christmas Markets take place in many places across Stockholm, but the best place to see them is in Gamla Stan – the Old Town.
Walking around the Old Town at Christmas is the real deal. It feels like Christmas in a Christmas movie. This part of Stockholm dates back to the 13th century and has plenty of medieval alleyways and cobbled streets. The square where the Christmas market is held is called Stortorget and is populated with old merchants’ houses. A hundred years ago the place was considered a godawful slum, and some of its buildings were knocked down because they were unstable hellholes. But from the 1970s, it became a tourist attraction. So the Swedes, sensing a moneymaker, slowly restored the remaining buildings. It is thought that the buildings still standing are around 300 years old.
The square that holds the Christmas markets was actually the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath, where Swedish noblemen were massacred by the Danish King Christian II in 1520. Nice to be drinking a nice cup of glogg on the spot where someone was disembowelled with a sword.
Before the 17th century Stockholm was known as a smelly, dirty hellhole that sewage systems had not yet met. But the first half of the 17th century was a period of awakening: the nation decided to get its act together. Before this time Stockholm did not invite foreign statesmen to visit. This was in case the visitors saw Stockholm and its medieval attitude to cleanliness, and the Swedes all died of embarrassment. Now it’s an intensely pretty part of town, and not to be missed at Christmas.
At Christmas, every window has an adventsstjärnor – an advent star – even work places and restaurants have them! The idea originally came from Germany in the 1930s and they were imported into Sweden…but they were metal and expensive. Then the entrepreneur who started the clothing retailer H&M brought out an advent star in Sweden in the 1940s. They had a funky Swedish design and were made of cardboard so were a lot cheaper. The red stars were punctured all over with little star‑shaped holes and were an instant success. The tradition spread quickly and it has hung around ever since. These are a beautiful spectacle at Christmas in Stockholm.
You’ll also see little staircases of seven candles in the windows. They represent the seven days of the Christmas week…they are electric now, but they look real. So, you can expect that your grandkid’s face and hair will not catch on fire. Phew.
There are so few tourists in Stockholm at Christmas, that it’s a good time to see some places that are usually heaving with visitors. One of them is a royal palace. It is the official residence of the Swedish monarch. It has been a functioning palace since the 13th Century. The original castle burned down, and the newer building was finished on the site in 1727. This beast of a palace has 1,430 rooms.
The Queen’s throne is called the Lovisa Ulrika audience chamber. We peasants can view it quite closely. And then there’s the King’s seat – The Silver Throne in the Hall of State. It was commissioned for the coronation of Queen Kristina in 1650. The throne rooms are ridiculous displays of pomp. The chairs are raised on a pedestal and even have canopies like it is about to rain. The most fascinating part is that even today, it is an actual working throne. How modernday people put up with this pompous crap is a mystery. But it is amazing to visit as a tourist, and little girls will always be fascinated by princesses. Your granddaughter will be impressed!
THE VASA MUSEUM
The Vasa Museum is my favourite museum in the whole world, and I have seen a hell of a lot of museums. It is so incredible that it’s hard to grab the words to explain the vision of it as you walk into its dedicated museum. The Vasa is a ship that was commissioned in 1626 by a Swedish king. It was to be the biggest and most powerful warship ever built. It was absolutely huge and had artwork and workmanship on it that the world has never seen the like of.
However, on its maiden voyage, looking stunning and almost God-created, it sank just one kilometre into its journey. It was an embarrassing fiasco that Sweden struggled to live down.
In the summer of 1628, before the ship set sail, there were alarm bells ringing. The captain supervising the construction of Vasa, Söfring Hansson, had thirty men run back and forth across the deck to test its stability. The ship rolled alarmingly. The Admiral, who was watching, had the demonstration stopped, afraid the ship would sink at the quay. Under pressure from the king to get the ship to sea, he ordered Söfring to sail anyway. The Vasa sets off on its first and last voyage. No one involved in its construction had the will or bravery to say to the king that it was doomed from the start. It was the shortest maiden voyage in history.
Still within sight of the shipyard where it was built, the Vasa heeled to port under a gust of wind. As it tipped, water gushed in through the open gunports. Within minutes, the ship was lying on the sea bed 32 metres below. Thousands of Stockholm´s inhabitants witnessed the tragic scene, together with several foreign ambassadors. What began in hope and ambition ended in tragedy and farce. Thirty people on board died, the rest only just escaped with their lives.
Because the ship sank into mud in Stockholm harbour, it remained preserved for 300 years. It was pulled out of the bottom of the harbour in the 1960s and was put back together with a lot of pain. It now sits in the Vasa museum and 97% of it is original. This is not a recreated ship; it’s the real deal. It is so magnificent and huge in real life, that when I saw it, I cried. It is about five storeys high and the woodwork is magnificent. It’s hard to convey just how amazing this ship is in real life.
When modern day shipbuilders look at it, they have realised that the ship was too “top heavy” … also there were two teams working on the building of it: one from Amsterdam and one from Sweden. They didn’t realise that Amsterdam feet and Swedish feet were one inch different. So one side of the ship was a different size to the other.
If it wasn’t for the fiasco, we wouldn’t have the ship today. A Swedish friend of mine said that he went to see it when he was a little boy, and it used to stink badly because of all the preservatives in the wood, needed to keep it from drying out too quickly and cracking. But now, it no longer smells. The museum also houses all the things found in it, including a skeleton with clothes and shoes still on!
If you can get a fair length of time in Sweden, try to arrive in time for Lucia Day on December 13. The event symbolises light in the midst of a dark winter. Young girls dress up and parade in all sorts of places, and it really does fire up the Christmas spirit.
Banana Curry Pizza
Yes, these are a thing. Before you recoil in horror, give it a try! The banana curry pizza is very popular and available at every takeaway in Stockholm. The combination of sweet banana, salty smoked ham, and tangy curry is amazing! DO IT!
THINGS TO KNOW
The flight time to Stockholm is 22 hours, with a break in Hong Kong in the middle. At the time of writing, this route was not available, due to Covid-19. However we hope that by the time Christmas 2021 comes, Covid-19 will be banished back to the hell it came from. Happy white Christmas dreaming, Gold Coasters!
So, you’ve just read about Christmas. How would you feel about Halloween? Click here to read about this spooky holiday!
Editor for Silver Magazine Gold Coast