In the middle of the 19th century the Swedish Christmas still had the atmosphere of a gay carnival. In many quarters, it was one long round of festivities, with endless drinking, games and dancing. The many contemporary accounts of Christmas customs in the Nordic Museum and other records of Swedish folk life tell us that it really was like this. It was during the 1800s that people began to take an interest in writing down the traditions handed on by word of mouth in stories, legends and the like, and in describing older manners and customs. While our knowledge of the Swedish people's daily life before the 1800s is scanty and is derived from travel books, memoirs and descriptions of the countryside, there is a wealth of information about that past century and our own, and those to whom the greatest credit is due are not so much the scholars at the museums and archives, as the Swedish people themselves.
Festivals have, of course, a tendency to preserve features of older manners and customs, and many of what we now call Christmas traditions are the relics of a past century's discarded way of life. But such time-honored customs must nevertheless be practicable if they are to survive. Gone now is the big home slaughter of cows, calves, sheep and pigs. No longer does a housewife gather together workers for a several-day-long, wash, when scoops of lye water were poured over the white clothes throughout a whole night, and the next day everything had to be rinsed and beaten in an ice cold lake. Home distilled aquavit is prohibited, home-brewed beer is too much bother to make. No one has to set to work to bake great batches of bread and cakes to provide for the household over Christmas; many still do, but not to the extent that was once necessary.
A thorough Christmas cleaning is still very much of a reality in many homes and as far as food and drink are concerned, the old idea persist that one should eat and drink more than at any other time of the year. Beer and aquavit, bread dipped in the broth from the boiled ham, ham, brawn, rice porridge, and even pig's head along as much to the Christmas table now as they did a few hundred years ago. Even the smell of Christmas is much the same. “In every nook and cranny there is the smell of Christmas, that is to say, cinnamon and saffron.” wrote Adolf Törneros, an Uppsala University lecturer, to a friend on 23rd December, 1824.
But the greatest changes in the Christmas celebrations are due to the fact that Christmas is now a family gathering, whereas it used to be more of a collective festival. It was most of the young people who wanted to spend Christmas away from home. School boys used to tramp through the towns and villages, singing Christmas carols and performing Christmas plays to earn a little money towards their next term's keep. There were pranks in connection with the Lucia celebrations in Western Sweden, when the young people disguised themselves and roamed the streets, larking and making a noise, all forms of begging to collect for a communal party: going 'round with the Christmas straw goat, the Staffan ride, the Star Boy plays. And throughout it all, the aquavit flowed in a fashion that we can only that we can scarcely imagine, for since those days there has been a change of attitude owing to the temperance and revivalist movements.— From the book, “Christmas in Sweden 100 Years Ago,” 1964
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