Look at me having Internet! Good thing, since I have this gluttonous Christmas tradition to tell you about.
You might think you eat a lot on Christmas. There’s fruitcakes and pies and stuffing and chestnuts and the turkey or ham or whatever your main dish of choice is. There’s everything you get at Thanksgiving, plus some more delicious seasonal snacks and sweets.
Can’t you just feel the weight gain happening as you read this?
But get this. If you were living in Sweden you could have upwards of 100 dishes on the table at Christmas. That’s because Sweden, land of the mythical smörgåsbord, goes all out on Christmas eve and celebrate with the Julbord – the Yule Table.
I think before I start explaining this meal, I’ll give you a little smörgåsbord background.
The word “smörgåsbord” is a mash-up of three different words: smör, meaning butter; gås, meaning goose; and bord, meaning table. So the word “smorgasbord” literally means “buttergoosetable.” That sounds delicious.
But there’s an explanation for this word. Smörgås is the Swedish word for open-faced sandwich. It comes from a time when people churned their own butter. As they savagely beat barrels of milk into buttery submission, small blobs of butter would float up to the surface and drift around like geese. Those little pieces of butter were perfect to put on a slice of bread, which is in essence and open faced sandwich. So smörgås means “butter-geese,” which means open-faced sandwich.
It’s sort of a weird explanation.
Anyway, the smörgåsbord meal itself has its roots in a 16th century tradition called brännvinsbord, whose literal meaning is “schnapps table.” It was a Swedish upper class tradition of serving spirits and five small appetizers to the gentlemen before the meal. It included several kinds of flavored spirits of aquavits, such as caraway, anise, wormwood, lemon, and whatever else they could think to infuse vodka with. The snacks varied, but options were different breads, butter, sharp cheeses, fishes (like good old herring), sprats pickled in a spiced marinade, sausages, and pretzels or small rusks spiced with anise seed, fennel seed, and/or bitter orange peel.
The brännvinsbord was served on a separate, smaller table and guests would serve themselves and eat standing up. As the number of appetizers grew, it was moved onto the dinner table. In the 19th century it morphed into the smorgasbord. The most epic of all the smörgåsbord is the aforementioned Julbord, also known as the Stuff-Your-Face-Until-It-Explodes-athon.
Traditionally, there is an order to this Julbord meal, which can last upwards of five hours. The meal was eaten in different plates. The first was seafood, including pickled herring, salmon, eel, and occasionally shellfish.
The second plate would be smothered with cold cuts, like julskinka (Christmas ham), roast beef, or turkey. There would also be julost, or “Christmas cheese” (usually Edam) and butter and vörtbröd (a sweet dark bread flavored with cloves, cinnamon, raisins, ginger, and cardamom).
The third plate would feature hot dishes, such as meatballs, prinskorv, red cabbage, boiled potatoes, lutefisk, revbensspjall, Janssons frestelse, beetroot salad, green cabbage, and so on. (All the italicized stuff is explained below).
These days, following this order isn’t that common. It’s more of eat what you want when you want. Each time a diner goes to get another plate of food, they grab a fresh, clean plate and take a little bit of whatever tickles their fancy. It isn’t unheard of to go back up 4 or 5 times.
I’ll give you a second to loosen your belt buckle a notch.
Here’s a list of dishes that are commonly served at a Julbord, also known as the Holy-Crap-My-Pants-Shrank-Ten-Sizes-Just-Now-athon.
I’m really sorry, but there’s no rhyme or reason to this list. It’s just everything I read. I thought about alphabetizing it, but that was after I wrote it all out and I was tired. Don’t judge me.
- Inlagd sill – pickled herring flavored in several different ways, including mustard and dill (traditional) and lingonberries and orange (not so traditional)
- Julskinka – Christmas ham
- Dopp i grytan – translates to “Dipping in the Kettle.” Commemorative of a famine years earlier. Dip dark bread in a pot containing drippings from the Julskinka and roast beef.
- Revbensspjall – roasted ribs
- Grisfötter – pigs trotters
- Sylta – brawn or headcheese. The Swedish website I checked out said it was a dish made by boiling meat with its broth and leaving it to harden, usually eaten with beetroot salad. I’m pretty sure this isn’t a real headcheese but I’m not complaining.
- Rodbetssallad – beetroot salad
- Gravlax – cold poached salmon
- Slabs of rye knäckebröd (crispbreads) with white cheeses such as Jarlsberg or Prastost
- Salmon roe paste
- Lutefisk – codfish treated with lye and served with a white sauce and seasoning
- Liver pâté
- Baked vegetables
- Omelet with creamed mushrooms, asparagus, and peas
- Janssons frestelse – Jansson’s Temptation is basically a potato gratin. It contains julienned potatoes layered with anchovies and onions. It’s topped with breadcrumbs and cream and cooked until brown and bubbling. There are a couple origin stories for this one. Some say it was named after Erik Janson, a 19th century religious zealot who founded a colony called Bishop Hill in Illinois. He was so tempted by the creamy, potatoey dish that he threw his religious principles aside so he could eat some. It’s also said that it was named after a Swedish opera singer, Pelle Janzon, or after a Swedish film by the same name.
- Köttbullar – mini meatballs made with a combo of beef, pork, or veal and breadcrumbs, seasoned with a little nutmeg and allspice. They’re usually served as a main course with egg noodles or mashed potatoes, but at Christmas they are considered a warm appetizer.
- Brown sauce and lingonberry jam for the meatballs
- Prinskorv – prince sausage
- Risgrynsgröt – rice pudding, also described as a porridge made with rice and milk. Some serve it at breakfast on Christmas Eve morning rather than as a dessert, with extra milk, caster sugar, cinnamon, and an almond hidden within. The person who gets the serving with the almond will have good luck for the rest of the year or be married by the end of the coming year. They are also required to invent a short rhyme, which often hints at a gift. The one served as a dessert is topped with meringue.
- Smoked fish
- Postatissallad – potato salad
- Gräddsås – cream sauce
- Boiled potatoes with butter and salt, sometimes with dill
- Rödkål – red cabbage
- Grönkål – green cabbage
- Edam cheese
- Boiled green peas
- Kardemummkarans – bread flavored with cardamom
- Pepparkakor – literally means, “pepper cake.” Thin ginger cookies cut into Christmas shapes
- Julmust – a drink whose flavor comes from malt, hops, and other spices. It tastes similar to root beer and is only available at Christmas.
- Snaps – schnapps. Duh.
- Glögg – a warm, spiced drink made with red wine, sugar, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, and almonds. Some people eat the raisins and almonds out of the bottom of the glass with a spoon.
I’ll give you a second to loosen your belt another two notches.
Here’s an actual meal I found online. Seriously, someone served all this.
- Pickled herring
- Smoked oysters
- Smoked salmon
- Sliced roast beef
- Beef pastrami
- Hard salami
- Summer sausage
- Caraway cheese
- Smoked gouda
- Baby Swiss
- Cheese ball (literally a ball of cheese with Worcestershire sauce and coconut, which seems like the weirdest combination of all time)
- Jansson’s Temptation
- Cucumber salad
- Pickled beets
- Gelled fruit or vegetable salad
- Shoepeg salad (peas, shoepeg corn, green beans, celery, red onion, green pepper with a vinaigrette)
- Red cabbage with apples
- Limpa bread (flavored with molasses, anise, and orange peel)
- Pumpernickel bread
- Sourdough bread
- Rye bread
- Crackers and chips
- Christmas eve punch
- Flavored coffees
- Christmas bars and cookies
- Peanut butter coconut fudge
- Star of Bethlehem cake
Did your belt just explode?
Then get this. The biggest Julbord ever was over 200 dishes.
Yea, I heard the seam of your pants rip. Don’t be embarrassed, though. Mine did ages ago.
The Finnish have a similar tradition, only they call theirs Joulupöytä. It could have salmon, ham, herring, lutefisk, assorted casseroles, liver pâté, mixed fruit soup with cinnamon, joululeipä (Christmas bread), joulutorttu (Christmas fruit pastry), piparkakut (ginger cookies), korvapuustit (cinnamon buns), glögg, and rice pudding with its almond.
One more quick tidbit about the Swedish Julbord. Before eating, everyone sits down to watch….
It’s actually the “Walt Disney Christmas Show,” containing clips from classic Disney films. The Swedes call it Donald Duck because he’s the most popular Disney character in Sweden. The show is one of the highest rated in Swedish television and most Swedes can recite bits of it by heart. It’s shown every Christmas at 3pm. Afterwards, they eat.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Webster, Ruth Marvin. “A Swedish Christmas: Smorgasbord That Marks Christmas Eve Goes beyond Those Meatballs.” North County Times – Californian. North County Times, 20 Dec. 2007. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. <http://www.nctimes.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/article_dd7193b7-4413-56e7-9989-3ffc47c65e2b.html>.