I have atheist friends who refuse to celebrate Christmas because it’s Christian, and socialist friends who grumble at it because it’s commercial. It’s certainly the latter. But one of the advantages for me, as an agnostic, of celebrating it in Sweden is the almost entire absence here of any Christian connotations: no cribs, baby Jesuses, wise men, or stars in the East. I imagine you see these in churches, but not, in my experience, in the streets, shops or homes. Instead the prevalent iconography features Tomtes (miniature Santas), trees, and goats. I think the goat was the animal that Odin, the original Santa Claus, rode around on at “midvinterblot”, distributing gifts. There’s a huge one made of straw erected every year in a small town called Gävle (below: thanks, Tilda), which is burned down by hooligans every time within a few hours. The Swedes find that rather funny.
It’s the irreligious aspect of a Swedish ‘Jul’ – their pre-Christian name for it – which I go for. Here Jul was always a people’s festival, celebrated by a multi-theist society – far preferable to single-god ones, which are apt to be more dogmatic and aggressive – until it was stolen from us by the Christians. Pagan festivals are always more fun than religious ones, even with the human sacrifices taken away. (‘You can’t get the virgins, you know.’)
OK, the commercialism is still pretty vulgar; and the food isn’t as toothsome as in the UK: ham and cold smoked mutton instead of roast turkey and the trimmings. But one can develop a taste for anything after a few glasses of aquavit or glögg – or preferably both. And the Swedes celebrate it early, on Julfaton (Xmas Eve), rather than on the day itself. That reduces the waiting, allows Santa to see his way (he comes in daylight), and dissociates it further from our ‘Christmas’. I’m looking forward to it, tomorrow. God Jul.