Christmas TV in Scandinavia

It's "hygge," but is it honest?

In the U.S., network TV schedules during the weeks before Christmas are dotted with old favorites – A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and so on. In Norway, most of the traditional small-screen holiday fare is saved for December 23 – when the TV schedule always includes the 1963 British comedy sketch “Dinner for One” (which has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas but is inextricably bound up in Norwegian minds with the holiday season), and December 24, when the TV offerings invariably include a 1973 Czech Cinderella story, a sampler of Disney cartoons, a live performance by a certain men’s and boys’ choir, and a 24-minute animated Swedish film, Sagon om Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton (Karl-Bertil Jonsson’s Christmas Eve). 

I just spent my twentieth Christmas in Norway, and for years I’ve been meaning to write something about the Karl-Bertil film (which is also, unsurprisingly, a Yuletide staple in Sweden). Directed in 1975 by Per Åhlin and based on a 1964 story by Tage Danielsson, it tells the tale of an upper-middle-class fourteen-year-old Stockholm boy who idolizes Robin Hood. Working part-time at the post office during the pre-Christmas rush – when, as the narrator tells us, companies did even more business than usual, thus making the rich even richer – the dreamy, nerdy Karl-Bertil conceives of an idea. 

He’s been sorting packages containing Christmas presents that various rich people are sending to one another. Why not set some of them aside and give them to poor people instead? Fortunately for his purposes, the addresses on the packages include job titles. So while he allows gifts being sent to construction workers or nurses or seamstresses to reach their intended destinations, he loads those intended for CEOs or bankers or managers into a big sack and hands them out to people in, as the narrator puts it, the “dreadful slum quarter that existed in the period when this story took place.”

And when does this story take place? The narrator says it was “long ago, when one could still see poor people on the streets.” There’s a nineteenth-century feel to Karl-Bertil’s tale, a Dickensian feel. And the fact is that through much of the nineteenth century, Sweden did have considerable poverty. But in the 1930s, the nation’s Social Democratic government introduced the welfare state and the idea of folkhemmet – the nation as one big “people’s home” – a program that involved extensive slum clearance and the elimination of poverty and homelessness. By the time the Karl-Bertil film came out, serious poverty, homelessness, and slums were a distant memory in Sweden. 

And yet the film doesn’t seem to be set in the nineteenth century. Karl-Bertil’s father watches TV (Sweden first got TV in 1956); one of the waylaid gifts turns out to be a copy, in French, of Sartre’s 1964 work Le Mots. Weirdest of all, and this is one I’ve been puzzling over for twenty years, at one point we see, very briefly, a car antenna to which has been tied a cheery string of little flags, including those of Sweden, Britain, France, the U.S., and – believe it or not – Nazi Germany. (Yes, swastika and all.) 

So let’s just say that Karl-Bertil’s story, like the musical Hamilton, is set in a distant past into which more recent social and cultural phenomena have been introduced, presumably in order to make it feel more contemporary. In any event, the aim of Karl-Bertin Jonsson’s Christmas Eve is clear: although it seeks to associate its guiding values, via Robin Hood, with the medieval courtly tradition and, of course, with the spirit of Christmas, it’s essentially a thumbs-up for socialism. 

Yes, one of the story’s jokes is that the gifts Karl-Bertil redirects are of the sort as to be of little or no value to their new recipients: the bum who gets Let Mots surely can’t read French, old widow Blomquist has no use for aftershave lotion, and the last thing the penniless Herr Ljungström needs is a set of napkin rings. But the point here isn’t to criticize the redistribution of wealth; it’s that random, once-a-year acts of charity by would-be Robin Hoods are no substitute for a comprehensive national policy that provides people with the things they actually need. 

Karl-Bertil’s story is, in short, a slickly packaged piece of political propaganda – an apologia for the Scandinavian welfare state that continues to be broadcast every year by the state-run TV networks in both Sweden and Norway. Every Christmas Eve I’ve wondered about the people who made this film, but by the time I got home, after having eaten too much ribbe and consumed too much akevitt, the question seemed less pressing. This year, however, I finally looked up Tage Danielsson (1928-85), the author, and, sure enough, it turns out he was an ardent socialist, a writer for Arbetaren (an anarcho-syndicalist paper), and an ardent flack for the Social Democratic Party (until he decided it was insufficiently radical). 

Propaganda it may be, but I still find the Karl-Bertil film sweet sweet and charming and poignant – an irreplaceable part of the experience of Christmas in Norway, which itself falls under that currently trendy category of Scandinavian coziness that the Danish call hygge. (In Norway, the word is kos.) Perhaps the most poignant thing about the Karl-Bertil story, alas, is that in the Sweden of 2017, poverty and homelessness are no longer a part of the distant past. 

On the contrary, thanks to the welfare state’s high tax levels, the relentless expansion of the public sector and destructive exploitation of the private sector, and – not least – the readiness, in the name of the folkhemmet ideal, to supply armies of Muslim immigrants with free homes, incomes, cars, and much else, poverty and even homelessness among once proud native champions of the folkhemmet have grown apace. As I noted in a recent article, the Christmas season in Sweden now means that on bitterly cold winter nights churches are turning away homeless native Christians – whose ancestors built those churches – in order to provide sleeping space for recent arrivals from Middle East.

When Karl-Bertil goes to the “slum quarter” to hand out presents, he encounters an assortment of drunks and floozies. They may be poor, but they’re harmless – benign, in fact. Friendly. Comradely. In today’s Stockholm, the closest equivalent to this experience would be a visit to a Muslim “no-go” area, where Karl-Bertil would be gang-raped, beaten up, and/or stabbed to death – whereupon the police, after a brief pretense of concern and flurry of meaningless paperwork, would quickly close the case and his family, friends, and neighbors would bury the kid pronto, then return to normal and, terrified of being seen as Islamophobes, keep their heads down and their mouths shut. 

No, it wouldn’t be the most suitable family Christmas fare. But at least it would be honest. And it would help prepare Scandinavian children for a frighteningly near future in which income inequality will be the least of their problems and the celebration of Christmas will itself probably be a distant memory.