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Since the 19th century, some of Sweden's most famous writers and artists have contributed to shaping Swedish Christmas. The poetry and prose of writers like Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the illustrations of artists like Carl Larsson helped define Christmas through the distribution of jultidningar (Swedish Christmas magazines). The jultomte (a.k.a. the Swedish Santa) was introduced and popularized with the publication of writer Viktor Rydberg's poem and short story, and the accompanying illustrations of Jenny Nyström.
Among these and countless other creative contributors to Swedish Christmas, most were confined to expressing themselves using just one art form. Few managed what Elsa Beskow accomplished in combining her dual talents as both an illustrator and a writer.
From her first illustrations in the Swedish Christmas magazine Jultomten in 1894 to the publication in 1947 of the children's book, Peter and Lotta's Christmas (Petter och Lottas Jul), which she wrote and illustrated, Beskow's creative output left a lasting impression on Swedish Christmas.
One of Elsa Beskow's illustration for Swedish Christmas magazine Jultomten. Photo: Public Domain
Peter and Lotta's Christmas, the last book in a series about two children living with their three aunts, is a Christmas classic in Sweden, where it was adapted as part of a television series and a 1968 film. More recently, a popular version of the Nutcracker ballet combined with Peter and Lotta's Christmas has been performed at the Royal Swedish Opera since 1995. Like much of Beskow's body of work, the book has been translated into 14 languages, spreading Swedish Christmas traditions like the julbock (the Swedish Christmas goat, which we'll cover tomorrow) around the world.
As with Jenny Nyström, Beskow's many illustrations of jultomtar, julbockar, and cherubic children and happy families sledding and celebrating Christmas, continue to appear in a variety of modern contexts, from Christmas tree ornaments to greeting cards to serving trays. It is a testament to Beskow's tremendous talent that these images have not only stood the test of time, but have also inspired modern artists like Swedish designer Katharina Kippel to adapt and incorporate them in their own work.
Though Elsa Beskow's contributions to Christmas in Sweden are in many ways particularly Swedish, they also have a much broader appeal that, as the publisher of the English language versions of her books notes, "transcend nationality and time".
Each day until Christmas Eve, we're looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series HERE.