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Cookies, candles and family time: Scandinavian Christmas traditions on the Front Range

“Christmas is a big deal,” says a baker bringing Norwegian flavors to Denver
Karin and William Strook Swedish Christmas
Posted at 9:30 PM, Dec 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-26 10:56:26-05

DENVER AND MORRISON, Colo. — When we think of Christmas in the U.S., the little ones may think of Santa and toys, while the grown-ups can't wait to see family they haven't seen in a while. But what's it like for cultures closer to the North Pole?

“Christmas is a big deal,” said Ana Fanakra, owner of Ana’s Norwegian Bakeri. “Growing up, it was a huge family thing, and it's always good food.”

From spiced rolls and cakes to gingerbread cookies known as pepperkakker, Fanakra said sweets with the aromas of cardamom, cinnamon and vanilla bring back memories of home.

“I try to bring that here. So that people feel like they're part of a family away from family,” she said.

Fanakra grew up in Norway. When she moved to Colorado, she couldn’t find those familiar flavors. "One of the biggest issues I see with American baked goods is too much sugar, everywhere. And so you can never actually get a full flavor profile," she said.

That’s why she started baking herself. Now she has bakeries in Centennial and Denver’s 16th Street Mall.

Ana's Norwegian Bakeri
At Ana's Norwegian Bakeri, Coloradans can taste the flavors of Scandinavia: cardamom, cinnamon and vanilla with just a touch of sweetness.

Most of Fanakra’s recipes come from her family, like the apple cake developed by her Mormor or grandmother. “It’s taken a long time to figure out what works at high altitude,” she said.

Scandinavians – northern Europeans hailing from Denmark, Norway and Sweden – were among the wave of immigrants who came to the Front Range in the late 1800s. Fanakra, and others who have come to Colorado more recently, keep those traditions alive, especially at Christmastime.

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Karin Strook moved to Colorado in the 1970s, but she still celebrates Christmas the Swedish way.

“I always told our children that Sweden is so close to the North Pole, so Santa Claus comes to Sweden first, and the Scandinavian countries, and then he goes across the ocean over here,” she said.

She and her husband William are members of the Swedish Club of Denver, which helps them stay connected with those traditions.

From November through January, the Strooks decorate every room in their home with handmade wreaths, wooden figurines and candles.

“Sweden is so dark in the winter. The days are so short. People have candles everywhere,” Strook said. “You need something that feels good.”

A large red candelabra in her living room has been passed down in her family for more than 120 years.

She arranges wood figures, known as tomte, in small vignettes around the house. She said they “look like little Santa Clauses,” but have a mischievous myth. They’re said to live year-round hidden behind the baseboards. “Sometimes if you lost something, you blame it on these guys.”

Swedish Christmas figurines
Karin Strook decorates each room of her home with traditional wooden figurines.

For the Strooks and other Swedish families, Christmas starts on December 13 with the celebration of St. Lucia, wearing a crown of candles.

“I really don't know how to celebrate Christmas as an American anymore,” said William Strook, who enjoys the foods and family time most. He said Karin starts baking months ahead of the holiday. On Christmas Eve, they enjoy a feast of herrings, salmon, ham, Swedish meatballs and many other delicacies.

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Then, after Christmas, there is another celebration known as julgransplundring, when they throw out the Christmas tree and pass out bags of fruit and candies to the children.

The Strooks and Fanakra have found comfort sharing their traditions with other Scandinavians in Colorado. But no matter where you come from or how you celebrate, they hope those family values of spending time together over a good meal can be shared by all.

"I love that we've come together with the community that I started [the bakery] for,” Fanakra said. “But my favorite part of all of it is that we are very inclusive.”

Cookies, candles and family time: Scandinavian Christmas traditions on the Front Range