If all the preparations for Christmas sound time-consuming, they are nothing compared to what they were a century ago when Scandinavia was still dominated by a storage economy and most people still lived on farms.
There is a book where a complete picture of Christmas in those days has been assembled, through the reminiscences of people who lived then.
This oral record – much of it gathered over the years through questionnaires sent out to old people – is one of the treasures of the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm and has served as a basis for a lively book (available in English).
Scandinavian Christmas Past
In this book there is a charming account of the holiday fever by a woman called Mother Bengta Nilsson, born in 1844 in Skaane. "People started their preparations for Christmas in October," she recalls as she recounts the slaughter of animals and geese. They made masses of brawns (a pressed pork roll) sausages and puddings. The walls and ceilings of the pantry were crammed to overflowing with jars, pans and barrels filled with all sorts of provisions, such as honey, butter, lard, and goose fat. Also there were large ventilated cheese cupboards.
Scandinavian Christmas Past
But that was only the beginning, she goes on to tell how next the beer was made, the aquavit distilled – in quantities so there would be enough for the whole year. The candles were dipped, and then came the big wash which lasted for several days – and what a soaking and wringing of clothes and linens that involved.
In the week before Christmas the baking was done. Great quantities of loaves were baked to serve the appetites of a large family. Often the different kinds of breads and cookies baked were amassed on the Christmas table in towering piles, one pile for each member of the family.
While the oven was still hot from the baking the meat would be roasted – "neck and spareribs of pork and legs and breast of mutton … geese and large eels …"
And on Christmas Eve, after the furniture, walls and ceiling had been scoured and rinsed with water and then dried with linen rags. Finally a fine homespun cloth was spread on the table. In the middle of the table was placed a large wooden platter, large as a trough, piled high with all sorts of tasty food, such as Christmas ham, meat sausage, leg of mutton, mock brawn, collared brawn. But this was not the meal proper, this was only the overture so to speak.
We began with bread and butter, with goose drippings and many kinds of sausage and other delicacies. The beer and acquavit were passed around constantly. Then came a dish of brown cabbage. After the cabbage a buckwheat porridge served with milk and cream. When the porridge had been eaten we had dessert, various kinds of cake and cookies. After the meal we sang and played Christmas games.