Julbord – one thing you can not miss out on if you’re looking to soak in Christmas celebrations in Sweden. Literally translated to ‘Christmas table’, the julbord is a buffet of traditional Swedish eats, and a window into the land’s culture, habit, craving and identity.
Written by our content writer, Nidhi Dhingra
The Swedish julbord is a thing of beauty: a long table brimming with robustly flavoured local meats, fish, cheeses, and breads, embodying the Nordic palate. The julbord on Christmas day itself (December 24) is reserved as an intimate family meal to be enjoyed in a private setting. Families travel distances to be with each other, with sometimes 3-4 generations getting together under one roof. Prior to that, from mid-November until just before Christmas, julbords are offered in eateries across Sweden, and are gaily enjoyed with friends and colleagues.
Statistically, 70% of the employed in Sweden are invited to a julbord by their companies — that’s over three million guests at restaurant tables! If you’re new in Sweden, it is a perfect table around which to build or strengthen bonds, for the mood is jolly and hearts joyous with the anticipation of year-end holidays just round the corner.
The history of julbord
The julbord tradition is believed to date back to the early 1100s, with ties to the Catholic advent fast that ended on the 24th December. With tables set up in community spaces, it was a meal inviting all; putting out all the food before it went bad, and ensuring that no one went hungry, be it the rich, poor, or homeless.
In the 1500s, upper-class gatherings known as the ‘aquavit buffet’ became common. A separate table would be set up in a side room to entertain travellers and guests, with savoury bites that could be enjoyed while standing, along with glasses of aquavit (made from potato or grains and cured with herbs like caraway, dill, fennel, coriander and anise). Johanna Kindvall, writer and illustrator of the book ‘Smörgåsbord’, says it’s possible that this tradition was borrowed from the Russians who liked to mingle around eating caviar, herring and vodka.
From the mid-1800s the julbord began its transformation into its present avatar — that of a big smörgåsbord meal. The reason most likely was the invention of the iron stove, that changed the art of cooking dramatically. Previously, the food was always cooked, but now the stove gave the option to roast and bake in a whole new way. This gave way to common households making a variety of foods and snacks, often to accompany their aquavit.
Not long after, as many Swedes recall, mothers and grandmothers would be spending the entire December cooking. In a ritualistic manner, they would pick their own herring, bake their own cakes, cookies, and ham from scratch.
By the late 1800s high-end restaurants began serving smörgåsbords. In 1912, at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, the world was introduced to this Swedish specialty. Though it was in 1919 that the Swedish Academy mentioned the word “julbord” for the first time. In 1939, the Swedish Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York presented it outside of Sweden; and the julbord was here to stay.
What you find at a traditional julbord
An extensive spread, the julbord begins with glögg (mulled wine with blanched almonds and raisins), and typically has five courses of food — pickled herring, fish course, cold meats, warm course, and desserts.
The conservative julborders have their meal in this very order as a strict rule. You may mix them up; however, just keep in mind that not all dishes go well together.
Swedish food culture has been immensely impacted by the abundance of fish. The pickled herring is served in varieties; the senapsill (herring in a creamy mustard sauce) now being the most common. It comes from the age-old tradition of preserving raw fish with salt to endure the long winters. Once seen as poor man’s food, it now has a place of pride on the Christmas table. In fact, ask any Swede and they’ll tell you that a julbord without at least 2-3 varieties of herring is unthinkable!
The fish course consists of salmon, cod, crayfish and prawns. A distinct preparation is the lutfisk (dried cod), said to have been around since the days of the Vikings. Though it is now more held onto as a concept, than food.
The cold spread of cured meats includes ham, pork, elk, reindeer, moose; often paired with cheese and knäckebröd (crispbread). The obligatory julskinka, or Christmas ham, is the show stopper — boiled with aromatics and baked with glaze and breadcrumbs.
Historically, pigs were the most common domesticated animals as they populated fast and could be fed relatively inexpensively. In the 1800s, when all else was preserved meat, farmers began to hold back a few pigs for slaughter to serve them fresh at the Christmas feast. What a treat! To this day, Christmas is a very significant time of the year for the pork business in Sweden.
Swedish meatballs, sausages, pork ribs, janssons frestelse (creamy potato casserole) and dopp i grytan or dip in the pot (a broth made from liquid in which the ham was cooked) are some of the warm dishes that follow. These are served with cabbage (red, brown and green), potatoes and beets.
The desserts are no less varied (where’s the room for more food though?!) — from cakes, cookies (almond, cinnamon, chocolate, caramel), and chocolates to semla buns, ris a la malta (rice pudding with whipped cream) and risgrynsgröt (rice porridge dusted with cinnamon and sugar, served with a hidden almond. According to folklore, whomever gets the almond in their risgrynsgröt will be married in the coming year.
While the dishes remain classic, ingredients vary locally with significant dishes special for different parts of the country.
This king-size meal is most often accompanied by wine, julöl (a dark beer brewed for Christmas), or julmust (a non-alcoholic Christmas beverage) for kids. Several million litres of julmust are consumed in Sweden during December; more than any soft-drink competitor can beat.
I was frankly baffled by the dizzying variety I saw on my first julbord — in Liseberg, Gothenburg. The trick is to go easy, keep to the order of the courses, and not overload your plate, so you can make it to the desserts. Luckily, I was with friends who could guide me on the must-try; for there was no way I could’ve even tasted every single dish.
Booking a julbord
Quintessential to a Swedish Christmas, the julbord starts to get booked way in advance, sometimes as early as October. So make sure to get yourself a place before it’s too late.
Find one here, or here.
When you begin your search on the julbords to try around you, remember not to be overwhelmed by the choices; the average Swede will feast on a julbord more than once during the season, and so can you!
Changing trends in the classic julbord
Even though Christmas, like all other festivals, is about tradition for most Swedes, new trends are slowly finding their way into Sweden’s classic julbord. For instance, one of the biggest changes in the last decade has been the emphasis on using organic, fair trade and locally produced food. In response to this demand, organic glögg, sill and mustard are now easily available, while smoked eel is rarely included in the buffet, as it is an endangered species.
Apart from this shift, time and tastes have made way for a wide variety in julbords today, apart from the traditional.
Types of julbord and where to find them
Vegetarian and vegan julbord
Over the years, with more and more people choosing to cut out on meat consumption, the demand for vegetarian-friendly julbords has increased, leading to organisers including vegetarian alternatives in the traditional Christmas buffet. In some cases, the entire table may be created as a vegetarian meal.
Some vegetarian dishes in the julbord include vegetarian meatballs, marinated tofu or grilled turnip pâté as an alternative to the ham, mustard eggplant in place of the mustard herring, and pickled squash to replace the pickled salmon.
With a coastline extending over 3,000 kms, seafood preparations in Sweden are varied and delicious. If that’s your food of choice, look up restaurants known for their fish; chances are that they’d be offering julbords with a focus on seafood.
Fish julbord in Stockholm
Julbord on a cruise
Imagine enjoying your julbord while afloat on a cruise in the Swedish archipelago — enjoying the winterscape outside while the golden-hue lights and candles inside hold you warm in a feeling of ‘mysigt’.
Here’s where to find a julbord on a cruise.
Julbord with a show
If it’s music and laughter you like with your food, go for a julbord with a show. There’s numerous options to choose from, and something for everyone. You may dig into the feast while cracking up over a stand-up comedy, wafting to some jazz, enjoying a play, getting nostalgic over 90s music, or maybe nodding to some rock and roll.
Find one here:
Julbord with a show – in Stockholm
Julbord with a show – in Gothenburg
Hosting a julbord at home
If you’re feeling brave enough, you could host your own julbord and invite friends over.
Daunting as the idea may be, there’s but one thumb rule to keep in mind cooking: Focus on quality, and not quantity. For, a smaller number of tasty, well-prepared dishes will go down better than a large spread of average food, and it’ll be less stressful too.
Here’s a handy link with some staple Swedish julbord recipes. Just pick your favourites from each category and get started!
Remember to serve some glögg to start with, and stock up on some wine and beer to go with the food. You may also look up mumma, an old-fashioned Swedish Christmas cocktail made of four types of alcohol; available at Systembolaget. A low-alcohol alternative to it would be svagdricka, a malt drink that’s dark, sweet, and still made by a few breweries.
Whether you enjoy a julbord in a restaurant or at home, either way, try it you must, for ‘you have to taste a culture to understand it’.
E-learning book: ‘Beyond Fika’: The A–Z of Swedish Habits Demystified
In an easy to navigate A-Z format, ‘Beyond Fika’ is an encyclopedia of common Swedish terminology, history and contemporary life and habits. A handy guide to making you feel at home in Sweden.
Written by Mattias Axelsson, an acknowledged expert on Swedish holidays and traditions, it is the perfect companion for anyone curious about life in this Nordic country.
Buy the book here.
About the Author
Hej hej! I’m a writer and illustrator originally from India; and now call both India and Sweden home. I have had a 2-year stint in Gothenburg — easily the best two years of my adult life. An explorer at heart, I travel often; armed with a curious mind, a sketchpad, notebook to scribble in and my taste buds – exploring by-lanes, discovering treasures, gaining new friends and experiences.