Our Man in Malmö | Santa wears a mask in Sweden
Unlike America’s mysterious Santa, who meets you at the shopping mall and then covertly visits on Christmas Eve while you sleep, Sweden’s Santa arrives at your front door.
Pragmatic Scandinavian reasoning prevails as this avoids explaining how an overweight elderly man fits down a chimney. Sweden, after all, elevates children’s status in general, so naturally its Christmas holiday focuses mainly on children, and Swedish children focus mainly on Santa’s arrival.
On Christmas Eve, the assembled adult family members decide who will portray Santa. Gender is not an issue, as facial features will be disguised by the mask. Yes, in Sweden, Santa wears a Santa Claus Halloween-type mask – the kind that only convenience store hold-up men dare to wear. The kind that would make any non-Swede think: “That’s not Santa. That’s a guy in a mask.”
Yet in Sweden, Santa’s magic exists not in his flying reindeer, or his ability to fit down chimneys or to travel the globe in one night, but the reality that whoever wears the mask instantly transforms into Santa Claus. No questions asked.
With the exception of the introduction of commercialised Santa outfits in recent years, the standard Swedish Santa outfit remains simple, consisting of any old red jacket, the option of a cane, a large sack and, of course, a mask.
True, acceptable costume deviations exist. If you show up wearing a serious beard and department store-bought costume, children will buy into it. Yet most importantly, if you show up in a mask, then you are indeed Santa.
Santa traditionally arrives on foot after sundown to optimise the lantern approaching in the distance carrying his lantern, a wooden cane and a sack of gifts. The sighting of his lantern in the distance triggers a frenzy. Running from window to window, the children follow his trajectory as he dramatically circles around the house before knocking on the front door. (Apartment living obviously presents variations on this procedure.)
When he enters he asks the mandatory question: “Are they any kind children here?” or (“Finns det några snälla barn?”).
The children answer “Yes!” in unison. Of course if the kids conducted a head count, they’d realise Santa’s identity. But they ignore all reality as excitement fills their heads and sometimes their pants or diapers.
The family then welcomes him in, sits him down and gives him cookies, porridge and whisky. Since he’s not driving a sleigh, there are not any drink-driving concerns. When satisfied he gives out gifts, says goodbye and creeps out of the door.
So Sweden’s Santa arrives on foot, carrying a cane and a large sack, wearing an old coat and a store-bought creepy mask, circles the house holding a lantern, stalking it like an axe murderer, knocks on the door, asks to see the good children, and extorts from them cookies, porridge and whiskey in exchange for presents.
Sounds like a job for me. Where do I sign up?
When he’s not touring, American writer and performer Steven Karwoski, a resident of Malmö since 2008, likes to document the quirks of his Swedish life at www.swedishfishtofry.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevenkarwoski