We asked Darra Goldstein, author of Fire and Ice, and Anna Brones, author of Fika, what Christmas is like in Scandinavia—and amazingly, their answers were nearly the same. (Darra and Anna: Do you hang out on Christmas together?)
The two elements that seem paramount to a Scandinavian December: cookies and saffron buns, two things we can really get behind. Read on to learn more:
Darra: My infatuation with all things Swedish began in my childhood, when the University of Pittsburgh opened its Nationality Rooms to the public each holiday season. The Swedish room was my favorite, decorated with whimsical frescoes of the Three Wise Men dressed as dapper cavaliers. Volunteers in traditional dress handed out pepparkakor, crisp cookies redolent with ginger and cloves.
These simple pepparkakor initiated me into the voluminous world of Scandinavian sweets, which I bring into my own home all year round. As the holidays approach, I indulge more, beginning with rulltårta, or jellyroll. With its crackled surface and liberal dusting of confectioners’ sugar, rulltårta looks like a log in the snow, especially when garnished with evergreen sprigs. On winter weekends, for breakfast, I like to bake mandelkrans, a dramatic wreath of sweet, buttery dough filled with almond paste and sparkling with crystals of pearl sugar.
Anna: Raising a child far away from her home country, I think it was really important to my mother to bring me up with Swedish traditions, so holidays in our house were far more Swedish than American. In fact, the only part about American Christmas that was incorporated into our household traditions were stockings on Christmas morning; everything else was essentially Swedish.
We have always baked a variety of Swedish Christmas cookies, and every Sunday, even though we are not religious in the slightest, we light an advent candle and drink glögg (mulled wine) that my father makes. When I was younger, my mother even went to the effort of hosting adventskaffe, a gathering of friends for advent, coffee, glögg, and Christmas cookies. Wherever I am during the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, I still try to at least light a candle and make sure that there is some baked good on hand.
Darra: December days in my small New England town can turn equally dark and gloomy, so I try to extend the holiday season as much as I can. That means baking saffron buns on December 13th, St. Lucia’s Day, by the old Gregorian calendar the longest night of the year. These lussebullar (also called lussekatter), with their golden sheen, honor St. Lucia, whose very name recalls light, coming as it does from the Latin lux. Lucia’s eyesight was miraculously restored after her eyes were gouged out, but these buns are anything but gory. Not only do they brighten the holiday table, their alluring scent fills the air as they bake. In a miraculous instance of time travel, they carry me back both to my childhood and to the grownup days I’ve spent in the cold north.
Anna: When I was younger, my mother always baked lussekatter for St. Lucia’s Day. On the morning of Lucia, she would wake me up really early, and I would dress up in a long white dress with a red bow around my waist and wear a wreath in my hair. Traditionally, that's a wreath with live candles in it, but my mother was practical: We had an electric one. She would put on a cassette tape that she had from Sweden with the Lucia song, and with the saffron buns and pepparkakor on a tray, I would walk up in my Lucia outfit to my parents' bedroom and wake my father up.