Holidays in Sweden: Lighting Up The Season

Russell Kaye

The rich fragrances of cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, lightly tinged with the earthier aroma of saffron, simply envelop me as I step into the beautifully equipped and roomy kitchen at the home of Lena and Michael Isoz, deep in the countryside outside Stockholm, near the town of Trosa. The enchanting smells are emanating mainly from a pot of glogg, the Swedish winter specialty of wine mulled with spices, that is simmering on the stove. The saffron scent, however, is wafting from another source—a batch of lussekatts, plump, twisted buns, dotted with raisins and tinted gold with the precious threads, traditionally served at Christmastime.

Lena drops a few raisins and almonds into a cup and pours in some glogg. We sip the heady, aromatic brew and nibble on the old-fashioned thin ginger cookies called pepparkakor. "This is my mother's glogg," says Lena. Most people nowadays buy the wine already flavored, she explains, rather than concocting their own. With modern life keeping people so busy, she adds, it isn't easy to keep doing things in the good old ways.

Lena herself does double duty. She owns and manages a clothing store near Trosa, and also works at the family butcher shop next door—where she sells elk, boar, pigs, and deer, mostly raised or hunted on the family's 2,500-acre farm near the Baltic coast, about 40 miles south of Stockholm. Lena prepares some of the terrines, hams, and pates sold in the shop, as well as several varieties of breads—including votbrod, made with beer, and her own special bread, which contains, among other ingredients, walnuts and dates.

But she finds time at Christmas to honor many long-standing family customs—including the preparation of a sumptuous smorgasbord and the lavish decoration of her home with candles and other ornaments. In the festive kitchen, Christmas curtains embroidered with playful winter scenes cover the windows, small figurines in red felt hats adorn counters and shelves, and an Advent calendar hangs on a wall. "Christmas is important," she says, "especially for the children. It's really their holiday, though we all welcome the break in the long, cold winter. All Swedes love Christmas. We love the light so much, and in winter there isn't much of it. So for the holidays, we celebrate and light our houses up."

Frankly, Sweden had never been on my shortlist of places to visit. Friends who had toured the Scandinavian nation gushed about the beauty of its lakes and forests and its glorious archipelagoes, but they rarely mentioned the cities, and they certainly didn't rave about the cooking. Ketchup-sodden meatballs and pickled herring—my uninformed impression of Swedish food—weren't my idea of culinary treats.

When I did finally travel to Stockholm for the first time three years ago, however, I quickly discovered how much I had been missing—in terms of architecture, city life, and, especially, food. The freshness of the shrimp and crayfish was astounding, and the gravlax was rich and silky smooth. I came home from that visit craving herring, any herring—pickled with onions, in mustard, in sherry. I found myself ordering herring in cream—at breakfast. I also began frequenting the few Scandinavian restaurants in New York City. It was, in fact, after feasting on the Christmas smorgasbord at the elegant Aquavit (my favorite among them) that I decided to return to Stockholm. Only this time, inspired by that repast, I would go for the holidays. Hakan Swahn, the Swedish-born owner of Aquavit, applauded my idea and gave me some very specific advice: "You must go to the Christmas market in Gamla Stan, the old part of town," he said. "You have to try lutfisk and go to at least one Christmas smorgasbord. And you must call my friends Lena and Michael Isoz."

"Oh, yes! Hakan told me that you'd call," Lena says in near-perfect English when I telephone her from New York. "You are coming to experience Christmas in Sweden, no? Why don't you come celebrate with us? We celebrate Christmas on the twenty-fourth, but come a day early. The preparations are half the fun."

I decide to spend a full day in Stockholm beforehand, admiring the majestic but not excessively opulent capital; buying handmade ornaments and decorations at shops in the city's old town; visiting Skansen, the sprawling open-air museum of history and culture; watching elaborate mechanized figurines in the windows of the enormous NK department store (a sort of Swedish Harrod's); and, of course, eating. I peruse the aisles of the spanking clean, turn-of-the-century Östermalms Saluhall food hall, where traditional Swedish goods—fresh and preserved fish, splendid varieties of roe, and shellfish from nearby cold waters; wild game from the northern wilderness; vegetables and cheeses from countryside farms; jams and jellies made with the wild berries of the woodlands—meet under one roof.

I eat my first lunch at the casual restaurant at Lisa Elmquist, one of the fishmongers in the market, and order a Spendrup's Christmas ale (a holiday specialty), a platter of assorted fish, and lutfisk. The beer arrives cold, and the platter is heaped with sweet baby shrimp in dill-speckled mayonnaise, bright orange bleak roe on toast with sour cream, and velvety gravlax; next comes herring in sweet sherry sauce. By the time the lutfisk in cream sauce arrives, I'm not hungry. Or that's my excuse, anyway. Lutfisk is a kind of cod that has been dried and cured in lye, then soaked thoroughly and reconstituted into an unsettling gelatinous mass. I take a nibble and immediately decide that this Christmas staple must be an acquired taste—even though it has practically no taste at all!

That night, at the julbord (Christmas smorgasbord) at Gondolen—a hip, modern restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows and a panoramic view of the city—I am struck by the perseverance of customary Swedish dishes. Swedes have imported exotic foods and spices for decades, but they still cling to husmanskost, traditional Swedish cooking. Pea soup, thick and gruel-like, is commonly served on Thursdays, a practice going back to the Middle Ages (when Fridays were fast days and hearty fare was consumed the day before). And though refrigeration has made it unnecessary, Swedes continue to pickle and smoke fish and meats and to make long-lasting crispbreads. The Swedish love of combining savory and sweet flavors hails from the days when sugar was used to preserve certain foods, including salmon. Salted herring is served in a sweet mustard sauce, lingonberry jam accompanies smoked reindeer, and salty bleak roe is served atop sweet butter on crispbread.

I arrive at Åda (pronounced "O-dah"), the farm owned by Lena and Michael Isoz, on the appointed day. The imposing manor house has been in Michael's family for almost two centuries. Lena, who has short red hair and intense blue eyes, motions me into the impressive foyer. Pine-scented candles burn, arrangements of pine, poinsettia, and winter leaves decorate the table, and a porcelain stove warms the room.

Most of Sweden's Christmas customs, Lena explains, are descended from ancient pagan practices. "The lussebocken," she says, pointing out a decorative straw billy goat in the window, "is one of Sweden's oldest Christmas symbols, dating to the Middle Ages. He started out as Lucifer, the Devil. Over time, legend has it, he ended up helping needy boys beg for food. Until the late 1800s, when we adapted the German St. Nicholas into our Jultomten [Christmas elf], it was the goat that handed out presents to children at Christmas."

Lena ushers me into the kitchen, where she is busily preparing the Christmas buffet. She gathers together potatoes, onions, tins of pickled sprats (which the Swedes call anchovies), cream, and butter for the construction of Jansson's temptation, a fish-and-potato gratin that is always a part of the Isoz Christmas. This dish, like the other food Lena serves at her Christmas smorgasbord—smoked salmon, marinated herring, red cabbage salad, boar ham, meatballs, sausages, ribs—is simple. "We raise most of what we eat at Christmas," she tells me. "And though what I serve is traditional, it's also what we like. I've simplified the meal that my mother used to make. I don't make lutfisk, for example. My children don't like it." (I was secretly relieved to hear this.)

Lena pours warmed cream over the casserole and puts it into the bottom oven. Then she pulls out a boar ham that has been cooking in the top oven. "I like to prepare everything in advance," she says as she coats the meat with a mustard glaze, "so that on the twenty-fourth, I too can enjoy." She even sets the table for the next day, filling her elegant dining room with holiday-inspired items—Spode Christmas china; aquavit glasses hand-painted with images of santas, elves, and Christmas trees; dessert knives with the Nativity scene on their handles; red and green linens; and enormous angel candleholders. The prominence given to holiday themes in the Isoz home might be viewed as kitschy in the United States, but to me, the overall effect seems somehow refined and elegant.

Lena offers us a light, informal supper of quiche studded with cubes of ham from the family shop and a crisp green salad drenched in a garlicky dressing. As she prepares the meal, the front door suddenly flies open, and Michael and Lena's children—Josephina, 9, Calle, 8, Petter, 7, and Michaela, 4—come tumbling inside. In rapid Swedish, they tell their mother that they have found the most beautiful Christmas tree ever. Michael, his face flushed a deep pink by the cold, drags an eight-foot Norway spruce up the front steps into the house. "I think it's bigger than last year's tree!" he announces proudly.

The next morning, the household is up early. The children run into the living room, eyes on a mountain of wrapped gifts, to be opened that evening, arrayed beneath the tree—which has been decorated with handmade straw ornaments in the shapes of stars, bows, goats, and angels. They join their parents and their maternal grandmother, Mary-Ann Andersson (who has come from Östergotland, in the south), for a breakfast of rice pudding and warm cocoa. The grown-ups eat Lena's homemade rye bread and drink dark, flavorful coffee. When everyone has finished, Michael and the three eldest children bundle up to hunt for wild hare, as they do every Christmastime. "It doesn't matter if we find one or not," laughs Michael. "It's just to get some air and work up an appetite."

In preparation for the return of the hunters, Lena's mother warms glogg on the stove and sets out a plate of pepparkakor and raisin-studded ginger cake on a table in the living room. Michael and the children burst in, sans hare but in great spirits. After snacks, everyone pitches in to set up the Christmas buffet. "We must hurry so we can eat before Donald Duck at three o'clock," Michael says. I'm surprised to learn that an annual presentation of Disney cartoons on TV is as much a part of Swedish Christmas celebrations as the visit of Jultomten. "In the 1960s, when the tradition started, Channel 1, the only television station at the time, showed the cartoons to occupy the children while their mothers prepared the Christmas table," Michael explains. "Now, even the parents like to watch."

From the buffet, we fill our plates with home-cured gravlax and tangy herring in mustard sauce, easily the best I've ever tasted. The rye crispbread, spread with sweet butter, is a nice complement, as is the ice-cold aquavit. After a slice of pate, eaten with crispbread, we start in on the warm dishes. Prince sausages, little pork links that appear on every smorgasbord, were made at the Isoz butcher shop and have more savor than any cocktail wiener I have ever eaten. The meatballs are distant cousins of the sickly sweet ones I picked out of chafing dishes in the '70s, and the wild boar ham tastes of the earth—pure and deeply flavored.

We finish the last bites of the leisurely meal just before 3 p.m., and soon the family is giggling at the antics of Disney characters. After the show, Lena brings out a big bowl of rice pudding with raspberry coulis and spoons it out. As we eat the creamy porridge in front of the Christmas tree, the children retell the funniest parts of the cartoons, laughing again.

Thanking my hosts for having offered me the gift of a true Swedish Christmas, I leave Åda shortly before Jultomten (in the form of a neighbor dressed as Santa) arrives to hand out packages to the children. As I drive back to Stockholm through snow-covered forests glowing blue under a giant moon, I find myself reflecting on the closeness of the Isoz family and the splendors of their Christmas table. And then I find myself giggling—images of a Swedish-speaking Donald Duck and friends dancing in my head.