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Joyful Traditions

Christmas Table, 1997

In pre-christian history, the Swedish people celebrated "midvinterblot" at the time of the winter solstice. The term means "mid-winter-blood," and the seasonal rite on the longest night of the year featured both animal and human sacrifice conducted in order to gain the promise of rebirth and the beginning of a new cycle of life. This solstice sacrifice was offered at certain cult places, and today nearly every old Swedish church is built on such a site. The pagan tradition was finally abandoned around 1200 AD but the Julbord or "yuleboard" ("Yule" derives from the Norse word for "wheel") feast table is maintained. And Father Winter dressed in a red coat trimmed with fur, still makes his rounds bringing gifts to each home.

At the Crossroads

Like my mother, I prepare the Julbord, the meal which is traditional in the Scandinavian countries, at Christmas. In Sweden it is a variation on the Smörgåsbord, or, as in Denmark, the Smörrebröd - literally, - butterbread. The table is resplendant with cold meat (roast beef, turkey, ham) and fish, often sild (herring) with sour cream and onions or gravad sild (marinated herring), sardines in tomato sauce, salmon, shrimp and lutfisk - similar to codfish); breads: white, light rye, dark rye, pumpernickel and knackebrod - a thin, hard, dark crackerbread; salads: including pickled cucumbers, potato salad, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli; pickles both sweet and sour; a variety of cheeses; deviled eggs; and hot dishes - usually boiled new potatoes with dill or skånsk potatis (swedish potatoes in cream) and köttbullar (swedish meat balls), or stews. Open sandwiches made with one slice of bread spread with mayonnaise or sweet butter, anchovy butter, herb butter, parsley butter on white bread for light flavors - fish, chicken and mild cheese; light rye for strong fish or red meat; dark rye or pumpernickel for spicy mixtures, and the knackebrod for cheese, herring or sardines. The secret to the Smörgåsbord is the garnishes - plenty of dill, parsley, radishes, and berries.

The Nibbling

There are unwritten rules for eating Smörgåsbord and the children in the family learn them early. Begin with the herring, shrimps, sardines, the knackebrod and pickles. After this, start with a clean plate and head for the cold fish (sometimes salmon or trout in aspic), bread, and the cucumber salad. Then, with another clean plate you loadup on the cold meats (and bread) and eggs, eaten with a green salad and/or potato salad. Following the cold foods we find another clean plate and head for the warm dishes - the meatballs (köttbullar) and dill potatoes (and bread). Touch it off afterwards with the cheeses.
The beverage I serve is Saftglögg which is non alcoholic. To jazz up the recipe simply substitute red wine and aquavit for the Glögg.
Gingerbread House Lastly, there is dessert, with the Pepparkakshus (Gingerbread House) for the children, Swedish coffee braid, pastries or fruit salad for the adults and strong, hot coffee. The Julbord takes many days in advance to prepare and it also takes a long time to eat.

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Comments to Joan A. Andersen:
Content copyright © 1996 Joan A. Andersen;
Revised: 11 December 2000