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On Christmas Eve, Swedes Gather to Watch Donald Duck

Three years ago, I went to Sweden with my then-girlfriend (now-wife), to meet her family and celebrate my first Christmas. As an only partially lapsed Jew, I was not well-versed in Christmas traditions, and I was completely ignorant of Swedish customs and culture. So I was prepared for surprises. I was not prepared for this: Every year on Dec. 24 at 3 p.m., half of Sweden sits down in front of the television for a family viewing of the 1958 Walt Disney Presents Christmas special, From All of Us to All of You. Or as it is known in Sverige, Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul: “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Kalle Anka, for short, has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time on Sweden’s main public-television channel, TV1, on Christmas Eve (when Swedes traditionally celebrate the holiday) since 1959. The show consists of Jiminy Cricket presenting about a dozen Disney cartoons from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, only a couple of which have anything to do with Christmas. There are Silly Symphonies shorts and clips from films like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Jungle Book. The special is pretty much the same every year, except for the live introduction by a host (who plays the role of Walt Disney from the original Walt Disney Presents series) and the annual addition of one new snippet from the latest Disney-produced movie, which TV1’s parent network, SVT, is contractually obligated by Disney to air.

Kalle Anka is typically one of the three most popular television events of the year, with between 40 and 50 percent of the country tuning in to watch. In 2008, the show had its lowest ratings in more than 15 years but was still taken in by 36 percent of the viewing public, some 3,213,000 people. Lines of dialogue from the cartoons have entered common Swedish parlance. Stockholm’s Nordic Museum has a display in honor of the show in an exhibit titled “Traditions.” Each time the network has attempted to cancel or alter the show, public backlash has been fierce.

Kalle Anka (pronounced kah-lay ahn-kah) gets its name from the star of the show’s second animated short, a 1944 cartoon called Clown of the Jungle, in which Donald Duck is tormented by a demented Aracuan Bird during a luckless ornithological expedition. The short is typical of the random violence of many early Disney cartoons. The sadistic Aracuan (regularly mistaken in Sweden for Hacke Hackspett, or Woody Woodpecker) sprays Kalle with seltzer, bashes his head in with a mallet, blows him up with an exploding cigar, threatens to kill himself simultaneously by hanging and gunshot, and ultimately drives the infuriated Kalle insane.

Watching Kalle Anka for the first time, I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters. My soon-to-be father-in-law, a burly man built like a Scandinavian spruce, laughed at jokes he had obviously heard scores of times before. Nobody blinked at the antiquated animation, the cheesiness of the stories, or even the good-old-fashioned ‘30s-era Disney-style racism.

Most families plan their entire Christmas around Kalle Anka, from the Smörgåsbord at lunch to the post-Kalle visit from Jultomten. “At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you can’t to do anything else, because Sweden is closed,” said Lena Kättström Höök, a curator at the Nordic Museum. “So even if you don’t want to watch it yourself, you can’t call anyone else or do anything else, because no one will do it with you.”

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Jeremy Stahl is Slate’s social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

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