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Earlier this week, retailer Åhléns caused a stir when it announced that there is no Swedish Christmas because Santa Claus is supposed to be "Turkish". I feel it's time for another fact check!
Conclusion: Historical. completely false
Many people have written about the strange PR campaign Åhléns launched this week, auctioning off a wall hanging for charity.
Åhlén's message: there is no Swedish Christmas, or as they wrote: "Swedish". Their justification, which they give in the conversation with Ann Heberlein that I linked to below, is that our Swedish Christmas is in fact just a big concoction of foreign traditions.
Ann Heberlein, a doctor of theology in ethics who called up Åhléns to ask how they thought about the campaign, summing it up as "moral education of their customers". The always sensible Thomas Gür call it "total gibberish". Mohamed Omar categorizes it as "national masochism".
It has also been noted in several places that Åhléns has changed the text since its publication, which in its original form had a tone that appears to be directly condescending to the culture of the Swedish majority population:
The aim is to "dispel" the "myth" of Swedish Christmas. One can almost believe that Åhlén's head of communications has read and been inspired by my article on "punching holes" in the Nordic cultural heritage. I won't spend any more of this fact-check rating Åhlén's actions, many others have already done that. I just note that this year they are the first in the traditional and highly unhistorical diminishment of our Swedish Christmas, and we can say that Åhlén's message was not received very well.
Year after year, at all our major traditional celebrations, we see similar outbursts that ridicule and belittle Swedish culture, or even deny its existence. I wrote about it Christmas 2015 here on the blog, and I will certainly have the opportunity for more fact-checks in 2019.
But now for the fact check!
Is our Swedish Santa Claus actually Turkish?
Åhléns has announced that its wall hanging refers to Saint Nicholas of Myra, better known as Saint Klaus. St Nicholas is the patron saint of children, known for his generosity, and is one of the historical figures that has been incorporated into the modern Santa Claus. But not the only one, as we'll explore soon.
Then of course there is the embarrassing detail that Nicholas was Greek, not Turkish. Nicholas was Archbishop of Myra and was born around 280 in Patara. At that time there were no Turks in Myra, which was then part of the Roman Empire. As Thomas Gür points out in his commentary, the first Turks appeared first 800 years later when they conquered the homeland of the Greek "plot" by force. Of course, this does not make Nicholas Turkish, any more than it would make our Nordic Santa Turkish after a hypothetical Turkish conquest of Sweden.
You might think that a company like Åhléns, which had a turnover of almost 5 billion in 2017, could afford to fact-check its own texts, but that might have something to do with the fact that they made a loss of 68 million SEK last year - I don't know.
In summary: No, not in any form is the Swedish or any other Santa "Turkish".
The truth about Santa Claus
There is no disagreement among folklorists that our modern Swedish Santa Claus is a mixture of many different traditions and figures, originating both in our own Nordic folklore and abroad.
From abroad, we have the influence of Saint Nicholas, and of course America's great "Santa Claus", popularised by Coca-Cola's advertising that has gone viral since the 1920s. To my surprise, I have now learned that Coca-Cola's world-famous Santa Claus as we know him today was created in the 1930s by Haddon Sundblom, who had a Swedish mother and an Ålander father.
What about our own Swedish Santa Claus? Well, it belongs to the old folklore about the little the farmstead or Nissen found among the Germanic peoples.
Our resident Santa Claus is an ancient supernatural creature who lives on the farm, on plot (hence the name), and brings good fortune and wealth to the people of the farm. He may also live under the farm's spring trees or in the giant's mound. This idea of the plot as a so-called dragnet belongs to northern European agricultural culture and is common to Germans and Slavs. This was not a big, jolly Santa Claus with a white beard, red outfit and reindeer, quite the opposite. The farm gnome is small and dressed in grey woollen clothes, sometimes even a red cap.1
Putting out a bowl of porridge to Santa Claus or Nissen on Christmas Eve under the loft stairs, in the loft or in some outbuilding is a well-known and long-standing custom throughout the Nordic countries, to which many legends have been linked.
In some parts of the country, the farm's Santa Claus was also given new clothes. In Uppland, Celander mentions how he was given a leather coat and a red cap. In western Värmland, it is said that a special "Santa's bed" was made on Christmas Eve, and it is said that it was clearly visible that he was lying there. It was also customary to make an offering to the farmstead by pouring Christmas beer on the water tree (tree of care) or the giant mound.2
We know that the folklore of Santas is old in Sweden from the oldest evidence of the word tomte. It comes from one of Saint Birgitta's (1303-1373) revelations where she talks about tompta gudhi. The people "worship and honour idols and do not go to church", she states plaintively3. The oldest evidence for our Nordic Santa Claus is therefore historical evidence from the 14th century of the Christian fight against the old folklore.
The link between our little farm Santa and the Christmas gift-giving Santa we know today happened in the late 19th century, and we can largely thank the author for that Viktor Rydberg (1828-1895) and the cartoonist Jenny Nyström (1854-1946) for.
Rydberg's much-loved children's book Little Vigg's Christmas Eve adventure was first published in 1871 with illustrations by 17-year-old Jenny Nyström. Rydberg's poem Santa Claus from 1881 further helped to shape the image of the Swedish Santa Claus over time, along with Jenny Nyström's warm illustrations of Swedish Christmas celebrations with Santas, Christmas goats, happy children and Christmas trees.
Santa = Odin?
One last interesting connection I came across with regard to the origin of the plot, a theory put forward by, among others, the folklorist Margaret Baker4, is that the plot is Odin himself, Oðinn, the Norse god. He is the oldest, greatest and wisest of the Asa gods and had many names, over 200 it is said. Allfather. Elephant father. One-eyed man. The wise. The staff bearer. The high one. Julner. Father Christmas.
The name "Father Christmas" is reminiscent of the "Father Christmas" who would later represent Christmas in England. The Dutch Santa Claus "Sinterklaas" also shares similarities with Odin: Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on a white horse, while Odin rides across the sky on his horse Sleipner during the wild chase. Sinterklaas has black little helpers who stand by the houses and report to him which children have been nice or naughty. Oden has his black ravens Hugin and Munin who he sends out into the world every morning to gather information for him.
Odin, who in one guise is an old man with a long, white beard and a slouch hat, was said to visit the homes of the northerners on Christmas night. On the small Danish island of Lolland, he went by the name Goen and, according to records, came riding on his white horse "Christmas Eve" (i.e. the day before Christmas Eve) and stayed as a guest, until Christmas was over5. From Sweden, Hilding Celander:
He is then either on foot, with a silk and broad hat on his head, or on horseback, riding a tall, black walker, whose shoes are commonly spoken of in folklore as being forged of bright silver. The nights on which Odin makes these solitary wanderings or journeys, fall most notably on the old pagan festivals, such as Christmas night and the night of Holy Thursday. He does not suffer men to come in his way; for the night, and especially these nights, belong to him.
Could Odin have been the inspiration for later myths about Santa Claus, "Father Christmas", which evolved into today's modern Santa Claus? One can only speculate. But it's pretty interesting, isn't it? I am far too poorly read on Odin and the ancient Norse Christmas, not to mention that the sources are rather scarce, but future Christmases will surely give me the opportunity to return to the subject.
Now that we've learned the truth and falsehoods about our Swedish Santa Claus, what about Åhléns' two other claims, that our tradition of pretzel cakes comes from Holland and the Christmas tree from Germany?
So the claim is that saffron bread, i.e. our prune buns or lusse-cats, originated in the Netherlands. Saffron has been known as a spice since the 14th century in Sweden, but only became popular as a spice in Christmas baking in the late 19th century.6. This is what Jan-Öjvind Swahn writes in The Big Christmas Book:
But now [at the end of the 19th century, my note] saffron had a further role, namely as an ingredient in the fine Christmas buns and cakes of sifted wheat flour. To what extent this seasoning was introduced because people thought saffron tasted good, or because it looked nice with saffron in the bread, or because it meant status for the family, we may never know.
Christmas bread baked with saffron is not too old in Sweden. But so what? It's delicious! However, it is certain that Christmas bread without saffron had an important place in Christmas celebrations long back in our history.
Christmas is often remembered by the elderly as the time when people were able to eat their fill and had plenty of good bread. The custom of each person receiving a pile of bread at Christmas, sometimes with the addition of a cheese or something else, is common throughout Sweden. Domestic animals could also be given a piece of Christmas bread on Christmas Eve or at Christmas dinner.
Before the well-known S-shape, many different types of bread were baked, the most common being rye bread, but also finer wheat bread, in all sorts of shapes. They also baked cult bread in the form of various animals, such as pigs, goats, roosters, etc. Many of the shapes of the ancient Christmas bread are also recognised in Old Norse symbolism, such as the S-shapes, swastikas, sun crosses, etc.
What we recognise today as a classic S-shaped lentil bun was in fact called julgalt or julkuse before - even before saffron bread became part of Swedish Christmas. Back then it was a regular wheat bun.
Why did they bake bread in the shape of a pig? The pig has a prominent place in Christmas celebrations, as a sacrificial animal. The story of King Heidrek celebrating Christmas and bringing in a boar to be sacrificed to the fertility god Frey at the midwinter feast is told in the story of the Herharar. The folklorist Arvid August Afzelius (1785-1871) found traces of this sacrifice among the commoners in his time at the beginning of the 19th century7.
Afzelius tells of how in remote parts of Sweden the custom of baking a "julgalt" at Christmas time, which would be preserved until the first days of spring, had survived. So it was a large bread cake that replaced the live galten, not something like today's lussebulle. Christmas bread, or sokakan, was fed to the animals, eaten by the farmer and the farmhand during spring work, and mixed into the seed to give strength and a good harvest. From Värend in Småland, the ethnologist Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius (1818-1889) about the Christmas table in Värendboden in the old days:
On this domestic sacrificial altar he then places a Christmas heap of several kinds of sacrificial bread or Christmas cakes, such as lefse, limps, loaves of bread, honey-cakes, whipped-cakes, go-bread and pretzels, together with a Christmas cheese, and at the top a bread called Christmas-cake or Christmas-galt.
Today, not only do we bake Christmas altars in abundance every Christmas, but the sacrificial goat also lives on the Christmas table in the form of the beloved Christmas ham, pig's trotters, jams and sausages.
When you bake this year's alfalfa buns, know that you're baking the same bread that countless generations have made before you - you've just made them even tastier by adding saffron. Your ancestors were probably far too poor to ever afford saffron anyway, so be thankful for your wealth.
The meaning of the Christmas bread saved for spring is quite clear. It would lend some of the supernatural power of Christmas to starving animals and spring-weary people at a time of hard and exhausting work.
The Christmas tree
What about the tradition of the Christmas tree indoors, does it come from Germany?
Yes, it does. The custom of bringing the Christmas tree indoors is known in Germany from the 17th century. A Christmas tree is first mentioned around 1600 in Alsace, Germany, but without candles. It wasn't until well into the 19th century that the Christmas tree spread to the general public in Sweden.
However, Martin P:N Nilsson points out in his thesis on Christmas8 that it is very likely "to be fundamentally related to the Nordic outdoor Christmas tree". So before the tree was brought to Sweden, there was a custom of having a Christmas tree outside. The folklorist Hilding Celander also tells how the common people in western Sweden and Vestlandet in Norway used to bring in spruce branches to hang on the walls of their homes. Celander likens it to the custom at Midsummer of decorating the inside of the home with sprigs of leaves.9
So yes, the tradition of indoor trees comes from Germany. But what does it matter? It's not the origin that makes the tradition, but the people who practice it and make it theirs - generation after generation.
What Åhléns is doing here, consciously or unconsciously, is in fact pure and simple falsification of history. Vilhelm Moberg described this form of falsifying history, where the lie is created not by what one says but by what one omits - "by selection and omission".
Åhléns says that the Santa was Turkish (which in this case was of course completely wrong), but it leaves out the wealth of knowledge that exists about our Nordic Santa. They say the prune buns are Dutch (if that's even true), but leave out our ancient, indigenous tradition of Christmas bread. "Here a fact is omitted - and by omission our history is falsified", as Vilhelm Moberg wrote.
My Christmas is Swedish. But also Nordic and European. My Christmas is alsoångermanländsk, with grandma's blana on the Christmas table - made with mess butter, cream and cinnamon. None of that can be taken away from me.
My advice to those of you who, like me, are getting tired of this kind of falsification of history around our holidays is to simply skip Åhléns in this year's Christmas shopping. Boycott them. If you have already shopped there, go and return the goods and buy them elsewhere. Because Åhléns have not been kind this year. I even think they might have ended up on Santa's blacklist...
Do you want a more Christmas friendly options, you can always look into the Allmogens shop where you will find Allmogens almanac, old maps and beautiful prints to hang on the wall. The surplus from the sale will be used to continue my fact-checking at Åhléns in the coming holidays.
But also remember that Christmas has never been about spending a lot of money on Christmas presents. It has been home and family celebration, where the joyful company has always been important. As Hilding Celander described Christmas, it is "a celebration not only to annual, for annual growth and salvage, but also to Fridar, for the preservation of the state of peace which unites brothers and sisters."10
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- Cultural Historical Dictionary of the Nordic Middle Ages, vol XVIII, p 462
- Hilding Celander, Nordic Christmas, 1928, p 212
- The apparitions of Saint Birgitta, ed. G. E. Klemming, Sthlm, 1861, pp. 197-198
- Margaret Baker, Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore
- Hilding Celander, Nordic Christmas, 1928, p 234
- Kättström Höök, Lena; Lund Kristina (2016). Lucia in a new light. Nordiska Museets förlag. p. 24. Libris 19775090. ISBN 9789171085887.
- Comments on Afzelius' translation of the Hervara saga
- Nordic Culture XXII, p 47
- Hilding Celander, Nordic Christmas (1928)
- Hilding Celander, Nordic Christmas, 1928
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