The slap of the clear “dough” made up of boiled sugar, water, and vinegar on the baking table is a curiously pleasing thing. As the artisan stretches his creation out midair and slams it back down on the hard wooden surface, a satisfying clap punctuates his movements, which are done in such a fast fashion it’s difficult to look away. Mesmerizing is the word, and as a sweet, minty scent fills the air and my nostrils while he works, I am just that.
An impromptu ASMR experience was not on my Christmas-in-Stockholm bingo card, but it’s what I got at the Polkagriskokeri, perhaps the most Christmassy shop in all of the Stockholm’s Gamla Stan (Old Town), where they make candy canes daily.
This Scandinavian city is known for its ABBA connections and the midsummer sunshine that lasts almost all the way through the night. But in winter, it’s a somewhat overlooked destination; the stalls of Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt in Germany or the ultra-Instagrammable Viennese Dream Christmas Market in Austria call the crowds come December, while Stockholm remains relatively quiet when it comes to tourists.
However, the festive season here is just as enchanting as its southern neighbors—think long dark nights that allow the city’s Christmas lights to shine (40 streets across the city are lit up with millions of LED bulbs, but head to Kungsträdgården for the most impressive), Christmas markets brimming with handmade candles and tree decorations, and ostentatious shop window displays featuring unusual takes on traditional Christmas scenes that could put Bergdorf Goodman to shame. Plus, it offers an opportunity to embrace one of Sweden’s greatest but most underrated exports: the candy cane, or in Swedish, the polkagris.
The candy cane’s origins are a story of tragedy and triumph—and Sweden’s first female entrepreneur. Born in 1824 but orphaned at age 10 after cholera killed her entire family, Amalia Eriksson was no stranger to hard work—she had to work as a maid for much of her younger years to support herself. After she married, her hard work should have turned to raising her twins, but one was stillborn, and a week after her surviving daughter entered the world, her husband passed away, too.
She began baking bread and funeral sweets to help support her family of two while living in Gränna, around 155 miles south of Stockholm. Folklore says that when her daughter, Ida, had a cold, Amalia decided to add some peppermint to a small batch of the sweets, and thus was born the polkagris, or candy cane. Eventually, in 1857 she acquired a license to make the product and set up her bakery in Gränna as Sweden’s first female business owner.
“They weren’t always shaped like a cane though,” explains Anna Ernemar, the manager of the Polkagriskokeri shop in Stockholm’s Old Town. “They used to be straight, like sticks.” Another local legend has it that the hundreds of residents from Gränna who emigrated to the USA in the early 20th century took the polkagris with them, and at Christmas they began to make them into a J shape, for Jesus. “Then, someone turned it upside down to hang on a Christmas tree and it became a candy cane,” Ernemar says.
You might say Ernemar is like a modern-day Amalia Eriksson. Hailing from Gränna herself, where polkagris is now a major industry, she has worked on sweet production her entire life: “If you grow up in Gränna, your first summer job is packing sweets. So when I was 13 or 14 and I wanted to do something in my summer holidays, that’s what I did. And I’ve just never stopped.” After working in the sweet shops in Gränna, she moved to Stockholm to bring the production process to the masses, allowing visitors to come and watch, or even have a go.
I decline to have a go at making my own candy cane but I watch on as my fellow visitors roll and twist their sticks to create that barber-shop stripe. Afterwards, I fill my pockets with Anna’s peppermint sweets—the perfect snack for the airplane home—and wander through the narrow, cobbled streets of Gamla Stan to the main square, Stortorget. In December, the air here can be so cold the chill enters your bones, but fortunately Sweden’s oldest Christmas market has the solution: gingerbread and glögg (mulled wine).
Between the soft, sugary gingerbread biscuits, the Swedish tradition of fika—which involves indulging in sticky pastries and coffee—and the addictive polkagris sweets, it’s a wonder the Swedes have any teeth left. Washing it all down with a glug of glögg, I resolve to brush mine extra hard this evening.
If I were flush enough to bring home Christmas presents for my friends and family, I’d head to Nordiska Kompaniet, the city’s leading department store, where you could easily fill several suitcases with swish Swedish design items (and empty your wallet). The window displays here are the best in the city: There’s a three-story Christmas tree in its atrium, the building’s grand exterior is draped in twinkling lights—it’s enough to make even me feel festive, and I’m something of a secret Grinch.
I do finally find my festive groove later that day at a Christmas-themed brunch with a difference at the Royal Djurgården’s Cirkus theater: instead of mulled wine it’s champagne, and instead of Santa Claus, there’s a drag queen singing sexy Christmas classics and flirting with my fellow diners. This is much more fun than mistletoe and mass.