Celebrating Christmas at the edge of religion in Scandinavia

Christmas is the most important celebration of the year in the Nordic countries, but it is celebrated in a way that goes beyond its original Christian origins. It develops in areas that are not religious per se, such as in shopping centres, schools and in public and private broadcasting. These non-religious spaces become bearers of cultural traditions and religion. Christmas, like religion, is often considered to be something fixed and defined that can be imposed on others. In fact, it is messy, multifaceted, pluralistic and in constant movement, as well as being frequently up for negotiation.

2019.12.11 | Kirstine Helboe Johansen, Elisabeth Tveito Johnsen

Religion unfolds in non-traditional spaces at Christmas time. Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash.

Christmas in the Nordic countries can be understood in different ways. It has Christian roots and is generally seen as the foremost celebration of the year, but it is shared and celebrated in a way that goes far beyond its established Christian significance. In Denmark, for example, schools and public service media are required by law to incorporate Danish culture and history (and therefore by default Christian heritage) respectively in their curricula and programming. However, how this is done in practice is often up for debate. School boards and head teachers in all the Nordic countries have been heavily criticised for cancelling Christmas church services out of respect for non-Christian students and staff. In Norway, regulations set out that schools have to offer an equal alternative to pupils who do not want to be part of Christian celebrations of Christmas, and it is no longer a tradition in Swedish schools to attend Christmas services in church.

‘At the edge of religion’

Religion unfolds at least as much in areas where religion is not the dominant understanding, such as, courtrooms, airports, shopping centres, hospitals as well as schools and TV. The French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger understands ‘religion as a chain of memory’ - also the title of her well-known book ; it is handed down from generation to generation and therefore kept alive. In traditional societies, the primary actors in this chain are family members. Through family life, celebrations and activities, new generations learn religious traditions that then become theirs. This is supported by religious leaders and communities, such as a church. In modern society, this chain is often broken and families do not pass on religious traditions in the same way. Churches and other religious communities are thereby left to undertake this task more and more. However, this also implies that other public institutions are increasingly becoming bearers of a common religious tradition and cultural heritage, including Christmas activities in schools and on children’s television, for example. Similarly, British sociologist Kim Knott and American anthropologist Courtney Bender highlight a need for religious research to move to the ‘edge of religion’ and focus on how religion unfolds there. Only a limited picture of religion can be seen today if research is only undertaken within groups and institutions that are defined as ‘religious’.

Advent TV shows (julekalender/julkalender):  In several Nordic countries, there is a tradition for Christmas TV series to be broadcast every day during advent, produced by both public and private broadcasting corporations. They tend to be family shows and may or may not have an element of spiritual or contemplative subject matter, however, there is always some connection to Christmas and/or Christmas traditions.

The influence of practice theory on theology

When religious research moves to the edge of the traditional religious field, activities are not predefined as ‘religion’ by the place where they unfold, or by the religious leader who oversees them. Instead, researchers must investigate religion in practice: as something people do together or as activities that are shared, for example, the practice of prayer. Practice theory is a wide-ranging field of theoretical positions that all emphasise practice as essential to understanding how people interact in and around one another (their sociality). Recently, this theoretical area has been very influential within practical theology. From this perspective, religious and cultural practices are cluttered, multifaceted, pluralistic and in constant movement and up for negotiation. Christmas and Christian heritage is not something that is there already, but, on the contrary, is something that arises in the things people say and do, and pass on to others.

Practice theory focuses on how materiality creates and shapes social contexts. It can illuminate how spatial contexts, concrete things, like candles and Santa costumes and people’s actual bodies, support, influence and challenge concrete forms of practice.

If such an approach is taken, different ways of handling Christmas in a multicultural context can be identified. Three types of response were identified by a pilot study in the city of Oslo in 2019:

  • The first can be described as ‘transference’. By making small adjustments, the usual activities can be transferred to a new context so that any minorities can take part. Instead of meeting for a ‘Christmas lunch’ then, it can be called a ‘winter lunch’, for example.
  • The second approach can be understood as transformation. From this perspective, the aim is to make sure that Christmas activities support the larger goal of creating an inclusive school with values ​​such as community and mutual respect despite differences. The normal Christmas traditions are transformed so that they actively support these values ​​rather than just adjusting a little so everyone can join in.
  • The last approach we have called translation. Here, it is about re-telling the meaning of Christmas in a way that encompasses everyone across cultural and religious differences. The crucial thing is not the Christian Christmas story per se. On the other hand, the meaning of Christmas is translated into selected core messages, such as love and fellowship, and these core messages are retold through other stories, including through TV programmes leading up to Christmas.

It can be illustrative to view religion in a less fixed way than is commonly understood, stepping outside established religious institutions and considering how religion unfolds in spaces whose primary agenda is something else entirely.

Christmas is not fixed, as it first appears, but it is messy, incoherent and in constant movement - just like how life and other types of lived religion are. In some political debates in the Nordics, particularly to do with integration, Islam and immigration, it is easy to get the impression that Christian heritage can be imposed on others, but what ‘Christian heritage’ consists of is constantly evolving and must be researched as such.

Further reading: