Hygge, glögg and pepparkakor... why we’re all falling for a Scandi Christmas

After the comfort food and rituals, Britons are embracing more traditions, such as the festival of Santa Lucia

From Ikea to meatballs, hygge to Nordic noir, Scandinavia’s influence on the UK has been rising steadily for decades. But this Christmas, amid the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit, enthusiasm for the region and its traditions is hitting new heights.

Scandinavian goods distributor ScandiKitchen closed online Christmas orders early this year after unprecedented demand for festive products including meatballs, glögg (mulled wine), pepparkakor (ginger biscuits), chocolate, ham and cheese.

And it’s not just food that’s popular. Britain is embracing the festival of St Lucia – a candlelit celebration held on 13 December in schools, workplaces and homes across Sweden. Community group LondonSwedes said tickets for their Lyric Hammersmith event, starring Swedish Eurovision winner Måns Zelmerlöw, sold out in two hours. Meanwhile, the Swedish Church said tickets for all of its Lucia celebrations in London and Brighton sold out weeks ago, earlier than ever. York Minster’s Lucia celebration is also fully booked.

Decorations, too, are taking cues from Scandinavia this year. Ikea reports rising interest in handmade decorations, cooking and baking as people embrace home life nearly two years into the pandemic. It said shoppers had been buying decorations “sooner than usual”.

Candlelit procession led by a young woman in the role of St Lucia, at York Minster's Swedish Lucia Festival of Light, held this year on 3 December.
The Swedish Lucia Festival of Light service at York Minster, held this year on 3 December. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The Scandinavian homeware store Nordic House said it had had a “huge rise” in demand for Christmas decorations, especially candles. Co-founder Sandie Wallman said the Scandinavian trend reflected the move towards sustainability, supporting artisans and the handmade.

“Scandi style is the opposite of a throwaway society, which people are understandably looking for now,” said Wallman. “Beautiful Scandi decorations are a calming antidote to the hectic and uncertain year we’ve had.”

Brontë Aurell, co-owner of ScandiKitchen, said: “We’re always busy at Christmas, and we always run out of capacity near the time, but never this early.”

Fears among homesick Scandinavians over travel restrictions after the government’s “plan B” announcement in response to Omicron and Brexit-related importing complications had contributed to demand, she said, as well as the pandemic generally, which she thought had increased the attraction of Scandinavian traditions and values for non-Scandinavians.

Niklas Ekstedt, a Swedish Michelin-starred chef.
Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt: ‘The holiday season is so important to keep the mood up, so we can survive another two months with the winter.’ Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy

“We have a very strong Christmas culture that is endearing – and easily sits alongside British Christmas traditions,” she said. “We are all about baking, mulled wine, hygge, being outside but also cosying up inside. And, most importantly, taking time out to be with those we love – being present. If we have all learned one thing during these past two years, it is that being together completes us as humans.”

Aurell said Britain’s relationship with Scandinavia had “moved on from Ikea meatballs and Nordic noir. The British people overall have a much better knowledge of what Nordic countries can offer and what our culture’s like. And I think a lot of people look to that.”

Charlotte Ågren, founder of LondonSwedes, said last year’s Christmas lockdown had increased demand for their events this year, which, as well as marking Lucia, also included a midsummer celebration and a crayfish party. “It feels like the culture’s just getting more exciting and interesting,” she said.

She believes the announcement of plans to open an Ikea on Oxford Street in 2023, Abba’s return and the growing presence of Scandinavian languages and culture on Netflix have all contributed.

In another sign of the region’s growing influence, Vogue Scandinavia launched this year, published in English and with Greta Thunberg photographed stroking a horse on the cover of its first edition.

Niklas Ekstedt, a Michelin-starred Swedish chef who opened Ekstedt at The Yard, his first restaurant outside Stockholm, in Westminster earlier this year, said he was pleased that Scandinavian influence was moving away from The Bridge and Ingmar Bergman. “People are seeing that there are other things in the culture than death and darkness,” he said, adding that Scandinavian Christmas festivities “travel really well to England”.

He said the oldest food on the Swedish julbord (Christmas table) – which usually includes pickled herring, gravadlax, Christmas ham and rice pudding – is dopp i grytan, a broth to dip bread into.

Scandinavia’s darker winters made Christmas extra important, he said. “When we come into this dark period of very short days and cold weather, the holiday season is so important for the family to keep the mood up. So a lot of things are really thought through to make sure that everyone is happy, the food is good, and we can survive another couple of months with the winter.”

How to have a Scandi Christmas

The fastest route to a Scandi-style Christmas is to light up your home and embrace hygge (roughly translated from Danish as “cosiness”), says ScandiKitchen founder Brontë Aurell. She also recommends making your own glögg (1 cinnamon stick, 10 cardamom pods, 20 cloves, 5-7g dried ginger, 5g dried orange peel, 80g sugar and a bottle of red wine that you heat, rest, strain and then reheat to serve with a spoonful of flaked almonds) and holding a glögg gathering with friends and neighbours on the Sundays of advent.

Or try making ginger biscuits or a gingerbread house – either from scratch or using a pre-made flatpack base.

Dates to celebrate include St Lucia, on 13 December, and 24 December, with a special meal, perhaps a smörgåsbord, and dancing around the Christmas tree.


Miranda Bryant

The GuardianTramp

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