Xmas in 18th Century Sweden

Not many more Christmas scenes and books on the blog: today, a look at a hard winter in Scandinavia

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

published 2015

Wolf Winter 2

[set in 1717]

Back in Ostrobthnia, their Christmas celebrations had begun with Mass and were followed by a bath. Paavo would make a fire beneath the big iron tub in the barn and fill it with snow. They’d take turns to sit down in it, wash their hair, scrub their bodies, the girls squealing with horror that was really joy….
Maija rose and went to take out the parcel she had hidden underneath the bed.

In August, Maija had made wool thread, dyed it Wolf Winter 3the clearest blue and wove cloth on the loom in the barn. The colour she’d created amazed her. It was like having a piece of the sky in their barn. She had sewn the dresses during the late autumn evenings.

‘Ah!’ Dorotea said when she saw it. ‘Can I try it on? Please?’

Seeing her joy, Maija had to laugh. Frederika stroked the cloth of the dress with her hand.

commentary: This seasonal extract does not give a truly representative view of the book – maybe you were thinking this was some kind of Little House on the Lapland Prairie, lovely tales of childhood joys in a harsh landscape, but it is far from that.

Christmas is a happy break, but the rest of the story is a fairly unrelenting list of the horrors of living on Blackasen Mountain, way out from the nearest settlement, in what was in the past called Lapland in northern Sweden (the Lapp people are now known as Sami). As well as the natural difficulties of scraping a living in an unforgiving climate, there is something mysterious going on: bodies and deaths, the cold hand of religion and the fear of witchcraft, and one turn which was revealed well into the book, but seemed obvious from the first mention – I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be.

The book is set in 1717, in the reign of Charles or Carl XII, and his relentless military campaigning is threatening these remote people, with his need for money and conscription. This is Carl here:

Wolf Winter 1

The whole story is harsh and sad and bitter. There is a most compelling section where the family and a visitor are trapped in their house by a storm and are always on the point of being buried by snow and stuck without food.

So make the most of these happy moments of Christmas… it is a readable but gloomy book. Thanks to Izzy R for recommending it.

Ekback has revealed that she tried writing Wolf Winter in a number of different time periods before finally settling on the early 18th Century, which is surprising as the story does seem locked into its background. But I used this fact to choose two pictures which are wildly out of time for the book (if she can do it so can I), but are Swedish, both by the wonderful artist Carl Larsson, from the turn of the 19/20th century. That’s his daughter Brita, both in the blue dress and in the red dress for the Christmas edition of a magazine called Idun (named after the Norse figure of Iduna, whom Brita represents in this picture).

Christmas picture by Carl Larsson 1901

King Carl XII of Sweden by Michael Dahl.

Little girl in blue by Carl Larsson.

All from the Athenaeum website.


  1. It does sound harsh, Moira, but also compelling. I think it's easy for us to forget just how unforgiving that climate could be, especially before modern conveniences and technology. I'm glad Ekback didn't fall into the trap of unrelenting, unreadable bleakness.

    1. Yes, Margot, the reader really enjoys the good moments when they come.

  2. I thought I recognized those pictures as Carl Larsson's. One of the few artists whose work is recognizable to me.

    1. I have a Larsson picture up as holiday wallpaper -- I think of him as the Scandinavian Norman Rockwell . . . .

  3. Oh - the Swedish connection again, hooray! Carl Larsson is even more iconic than Jenny Nyström and enjoys a more serious reputation, though he too is considered a bit too idyllic by many people. I wouldn't call him the Swedish Norman Rockwell exactly - more like the Swedish William Morris, I think. The Carl Larsson house (now a museum) is most Swedes' dream of the perfect home. Though quite a lot of it and definitely all of the textiles were made by his wife, Karin, rather than by Carl. (But that would be true about the Morris family too, wouldn't it? I mean that the women made a lot of the textiles.)

    As for "Wolf Winter", I found it mesmerising up until the last 10% or so. Then it fizzled out a bit, I thought. But up until the finish Ekback gave a haunting rendering of the extreme cold, the relentless hard work, the lack of food and the isolation of life in the north of Scandinavia at that time. And not least what all those wars for no real reason but royal vanity really meant to ordinary people, who were hauled out of their lives to provide cannon fodder.

    1. I was thinking of you and hoping you would comment!
      Carl Larsson is much-better known outside Sweden, I would think? I love his pictures. I bought a book of his domestic scenes and used to look at it with my children, a kind of idealized life I suppose, but we all loved it.

      I found the book hard going at times, but it did seem wholly convincing, you had the feeling it really would be like that to live that way in those times.

  4. I think the setting - 1717 puts me off and anyway, no more books, no more books, no more.....

  5. Even though the people are usually called Sami nowadays, the region is still known as Lappland.


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