Swedish Yule (Jul) traditions are not what you think they are. Perhaps you picture silent midwinter darkness, with a sleigh gliding over snow-covered fields to julotta, the Swedish church service for Christmas morning. Or you muse on traditions from an agrarian lifestyle in which nature and culture intermingled, and the peevish, unseen house gnome (tomten) helped out with the barn animals. The mother of the house put out a plate of porridge for him out of gratefulness but also to avoid incurring his wrath
These times are long gone. Modernity has shone its neon light on Swedish social life with a brightness unparalleled in most societies. Continuous social-democratic rule from the 1930s to the 1970s remade Swedish society to advance a constructivist future with square angles and inhuman proportions. The architects of the new order tore down old city centers, sanitized unruly meandering habitats, and toiled to achieve complete equality, for example, by taking away the pronoun Ni used for respectful address. Everyone became a du. Ever-increasing taxes financed these attempts at rational civilization, the principle being that the more you earn, the more you pay. In 1976 when the famous children’s book author Astrid Lindgren discovered she was to pay 102 percent of her income in tax, she wrote a fairy tale ridiculing the finance minister. That year, after forty years in power, the Social Democratic party lost the election.
Control of the media was essential to completely modernize the Swedish people. During my childhood in the 1970s and ’80s, only state TV (with two channels) and state radio (three stations) were legal. Furthermore, the politicians had outlawed commercials on TV, so we could only see government announcements like “don’t forget to put on your life vest when going out with the boat,” and “please submit your tax declaration on time.” Still, we were treated to propaganda “commercials”—that is, small stories about two government officials going from door to door with a large antenna to sniff out whether you had a TV in your home. These so-called pejlare carried a list of those who had not paid the obligatory TV license fee that financed Swedish Television. It was the ultimate naughty list.
The dreaded moment in these videos was when the state representative knocked on the door of the unlucky culprit who, naturally, tried to excuse himself in “funny” ways. “Beware!” was the message, and it always finished with the warning: “Next week we will come to the following neighborhoods.” If yours came up, you had better pay your license or the man with the antenna might come knocking on your door. And he, as the state infotainment made clear, did not fall for easy excuses.
The media monopoly meant that for us absolutely equally deprived Swedes, the only time we could watch Disney movies on TV was once a year: on Christmas Eve at three o’clock in the afternoon. Every year, state television showed the same clips from various Disney movies suffused with a Christmas mood and orchestrated by the minute Jeremy Cricket, who toward the end of the show sang “I Wish Upon a Star.” To our excitement, we were treated to something new every year: a single clip from a Disney movie soon to appear in cinemas.
Now, when we have access to gazillions of videos and the Disney Channel in our homes, it is hard to imagine the impact this program had on the Swedish psyche. But this Christmas potpourri, comprised every year of the bull Ferdinand, Snow White, and Chip ‘n’ Dale, became the prime Swedish Christmas tradition. On Christmas Eve, everyone sat down in front of the flickering TV set (as Swedes do not celebrate Jul on Christmas Day), teary-eyed after having eaten their smorgasbord of boiled pigs’ feet, ham, meatballs, and generous quantities of snaps (vodka). When the obligatory piece of entertainment was over, jultomten (the Yule gnome)—suitably outfitted in a red, Americanized Santa Claus costume—would come bearing gifts. The real gnomes of Old Sweden were gray and small and to my knowledge did not climb chimneys. And it was the Yule Goat who brought the gifts. In fact, the town of Gävle constructs a giant Yule Goat of straw every year. The tradition is that someone, I suppose a young daring person, then burns it down as quickly as possible—even if it is strictly illegal and the authorities try to prevent it as best they can with guards, webcam surveillance, and flame retardants. I have no idea what this might symbolize, but it’s probably not anything Christian.
Instead, I think the most appropriate way to characterize a typical Swedish Yule celebration is as a mixture of old and new pagan elements repackaged in a commercialized American sparkly costume, and centered around the holy center of the home, the Television Set—nowadays an enormous flat screen challenged by an army of smaller mobile ones.
To evangelize such a dystopian, forced gaiety requires measures equal to those of Saint Boniface, who vigorously cut down the sacred oak of Thor. Come to think of it, maybe that is the spirit that makes the giant Yule Goat go up in flames despite the best efforts of the local authorities. There might still be hope in the Dark North.
Clemens Cavallin is a senior fellow at The Collegium Institute of Catholic Thought and Culture.