Sweden is a country where “lunch” is not just a meal but a concept of time. Meetings are booked either “before lunch” (11am) or “after lunch” (1pm) – except on Christmas Eve, when everything is different. First, not many people book meetings on Christmas Eve. Second, people may skip lunch altogether and rely on a heavy breakfast to carry them through to the dinner feast.
At Christmastime, Swedes use another concept of time. It’s used only once a year, and it’s not an actual time, either, but it does dictate the movements of an entire nation.
It’s called “Kalle Anka.” You may know it as Donald Duck.
At 3 pm on Christmas Eve, Sveriges Television, the Swedish public service television broadcaster, airs a 65-minute cartoon special, officially called “Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul” – Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas – but commonly known simply as “Kalle Anka.”
Originally, the show, called “From All of Us to All of You,” was Disney’s first Christmas-themed special. It ran in 1958 as an episode of the Disney TV hour, known as “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
Now, more than half a century later, that Disney special still stops the country in its tracks. Christmas Eve can be divided into three time periods: Pre-Kalle, Kalle Anka, and post-Kalle. All three are exciting in their own way. Pre-Kalle is all about preparation for the day, and post-Kalle is about anticipation of Santa’s arrival and the rest of Christmas. But Kalle Anka is the time when family and friends gather around the Disney campfire.
Nothing else matters when you have your near and dear ones close to you, and these include Jiminy Cricket, who hosts the special, Mickey Mouse, Chip and Dale, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Mowgli and Baloo, Goofy, Pluto, and of course, Donald Duck, all with Swedish voiceovers.
As you sit down in front of the TV, time stands still. The cartoons are the same as the year before, except for the previews of upcoming Disney features, the exciting new element each year. The world outside may be in a constant state of change, but for 65 minutes Jiminy and his buddies hold the fort for you. We feel safe in our nests watching a show in which everything is exactly the way it’s always been.
Then again, for an institution that’s not supposed to change, Kalle Anka has evolved quite a bit over the years, starting with the fact that only four cartoons have made the journey from 1960 to 2015: Santa’s Workshop, scenes from Cinderella getting her dress fitted, Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti, and Snow White singing with her animal friends. Pinocchio was on only once, and Bambi had to wait until 1983 to get back, only to be yanked out again the year after that.
All in all, Swedes have been entertained by 19 different cartoons since 1960, not counting the previews of upcoming features, an annual ritual as well. Since 2000, though, the lineup has been consistent. It includes 10 cartoons: Santa’s Workshop as the opening number, followed by Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Snow White, Pluto’s Christmas Tree, Donald Duck – Clown of the Jungle, Mickey’s Trailer, The Story of Ferdinand, The Jungle Book, and Robin Hood.
Most of them, even Santa’s Workshop, the mainstay of the special, have undergone cuts over the years as well. Santa has had several items removed from his workshop, the happy camper Goofy no longer sticks his fork into an electric outlet (but his corn still turns into popcorn), and Donald has to do without a machine gun in his battle with the Aracuan bird that he’s trying to photograph.
Even the now-holy start time wasn’t set at 3pm until 1976 – it changed almost every year, from 4pm to 2pm to 2:45pm to 3:10pm. Each change, though, has been met with a big public outcry and threats to boycott the show.
But the threats have been mostly empty. In 1960, when the show first aired, it was truly special. Back then there was only one channel in Sweden, and programming was limited to 25 hours a week (up from 10 hours when broadcasting began in 1956), and Santa’s Workshop ran in a black-and-white version until 1978. Cartoons were on TV only on Christmas Eve, and if you missed it, you missed it: there was no DVR or YouTube, or even a VCR to record it with.
In 2015, though, most of the people who station themselves in front of the TV and wait for Jiminy Cricket to arrive have seen the cartoons before, and a big portion of the audience has even seen the same ones in the same order just a year earlier.
And yet, Kalle Anka still hangs in there. Since 1994, it’s been Sweden’s most-watched show of the year six times – including last year when it attracted 3.7 million viewers, about 40 percent of the population – and the second-most-watched show another eight times.
Of course, not everybody in every family watches the whole show. While a core group parks itself on the couch – often children and others young at heart, or people who just want to avoid last-minute preparation work ¬– others scurry between the kitchen and the TV, and still others pick and choose which cartoons to watch. “Tell me when Ferdinand’s on,” says one, and disappears somewhere – since it’s Christmas, no questions are asked – while another member of the family gives up her spot when Ferdinand’s on because she finds it boring.
But Kalle Anka is the glue that holds it all together.
“From All of Us to All of You” is broadcast in other Nordic countries as well, but it’s the Swedes who have really held on to their Kalle, and phrases from the cartoons are now part of Swedes’ everyday vocabulary. A political analysis can easily be titled “Hey, who’s driving?” – a question Mickey poses to Goofy and Donald in Mickey’s Trailer. Just a few weeks ago, the Expressen newspaper made a reference to Ferdinand the Bull in a piece on Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
This particular Disney special is still special enough never to have been released on DVD, at least not in Sweden or Finland. It’s a true Christmas special, a fact I learned the hard way. Twelve years ago my wife and I were living in Helsinki, starting a family of our own, and I wanted to make her Christmas feel as homey as possible, since I was living in my home country and she was not.
I bought a DVD titled “Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse and Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas” and proudly presented it to her on Christmas Eve morning, only to find out it wasn’t the right one, and therefore not really good enough. (We did watch it together at Kalle Anka o’clock, and in my wife’s defense it must be said that she’s brought my blunder up only once, and lovingly even then.)
The Swedes don’t have a great relationship with Donald Duck outside Christmas. In many countries, small-time, underachieving or chaotic organizations or operations are derided as “Mickey Mouse.” But in Sweden, when things aren’t going the way they should or are handled in an unprofessional way, the Swedes call it a “Kalle Anka” outfit.
But on Christmas Eve, Kalle Anka is as good as it gets. Nothing beats him. Well, except that pesky Aracuan bird.
First published on Scandinavian Traveler on Dec 18, 2015.