I didn't travel all the way to Gothenburg to seek the spirit of Christmas in an amusement park. Commercialisation was what I'd hoped to leave at home: lights up after Halloween, mince pies in the shops come November, Christmas sales begun before the partridge even settles in the pear tree. The Swedes, I'd heard, showed more restraint. And yet here I was, 12 days before Christmas, standing at the gates of Christmasland. Or rather, Jul på Liseberg. Christmas at Liseberg. "Liseberg amusement park has the largest Christmas market in Scandinavia!" chirped our guide. "Our display uses five million fairy lights! Last weekend we welcomed over 47,000 guests!"
Fantastic. Prepared for the worst, I stepped inside. Rather irritatingly, it was beautiful. It helped that it was a Thursday afternoon, and the sparse crowds comprised happy, well-behaved children and smiling, well-dressed adults. Helped, too, that the park is filled with trees, that its oldest buildings date from the 18th century – and that velvety, forgiving darkness falls early in these parts at this time of year. But more importantly, it was done so well, from the smart red and white huts of the cleverly laid-out market to the pretty bower where good old jul tomta listened to earnest children reciting Christmas wish lists.
Fire pits and torches burned bright, casting dancing shadows across the canal, the ice rink, and the Laplander tepees. Reindeer wandered along the park paths, towing beaming tiny tots on sledges. Even the ice bar, which, let's face it, was created in a giant fridge (it rarely snows in coastal Gothenburg), managed to pass the ambience meter; the drinks, at the very least, were beautiful: luminous berry concoctions served in carved frozen tumblers. We passed on dinner and opted for sweets instead: a giant Toblerone bar the size of a large infant, won on the wheel of fortune. Fuelled on sugar, caffeine and victory, I forgot my earlier misgivings. Surely all Christmases should be about screaming madly on the carousel, and taking on 12-year-olds on the bumper cars, no?
Such joys were just the beginning of this Christmas immersion. Strolling back into town, we stopped at yet another ice rink to warm our hands by the fire pit, our gullets with hot glögg (spicy mulled wine) and to pick up decorations from a charity-run market hut. Charity scored again at the indoor market at Kronhuset, the city's oldest building, where the not-much-younger gentlemen of the local Lions Club charmed us with hot dogs, whisky-infused mustard and yet more glögg; shopping on Oxford Street was never as much fun.
The culinary highlight of the trip, however, was not the hotdogs, nor the glögg, nor the pepparkakor ginger-snaps proffered by every shop and market stall. It was the Julbord. Like a smorgasbord, only with added Christmas, this was the mother of all meals. Ensconsed for the evening in the elegant dining room of Wasa Allé, surrounded by groups of smart Swedes enjoying their office Christmas celebrations, we faced down seven courses of organically grown and locally sourced Swedish tradition. Seven courses is a misleading description, given that each "course" consisted of an entire buffet; the herring course, for example, included 10 types of pickled herring, boiled potatoes, soft cheese and bread.
We rolled back to our hotel along the "Lane of Light", 3km of illuminations. Gothenburg bills itself as "Scandinavia's Christmas city", and each year unleashes a themed barrage of audio-visual displays. "We all need light," explained Kristina Hulterström, art director of these extravaganzas. "It's a dark country."
In fact, in Scandinavia the light bit of Christmas is so important that it gets its own day. We awoke the next morning to a thankfully small breakfast of saffron buns, or lussekatter; the official sign, along with the light-bearing Saint Lucia herself, that the Christmas season has begun. Officially 13 December, though in practice celebrated for most of that week, the tradition features processions of softly singing white-robed blondes led by a Lucia with candles in her hair.
There are Lucia processions in schools and offices; Lucia sing-alongs on television, and popular Lucia services in church. My favourite, though? The SAS staff choir at the airport, calmly weaving through the departures area. As the crowds heard the familiar notes of the Lucia song, they parted reverently and fell silent, until the choir passed beyond the baggage reclaim area. Enchanting.
Travel essentials: Gothenburg
n VisitSweden's new city-breaks site, visitsweden.com/citybreaks, includes the "Brilliant Christmas" package to Gothenburg, starting at £112 per person. This includes one night in a double room, breakfast and a GöteborgPass – which covers public transport, Liseberg entry and a host of other benefits.
Sleeping & eating there
Julbord at the Restaurant Wasa Allé (00 46 31 13 13 70; wasaalle.se) is SK395 (£34) per head at lunch, SK595 (£52) in the evenings, and must be booked in advance.
Liseberg Amusement Park: 00 46 31 400100; liseberg.se
In Stockholm, find Lucia celebrations (13 December) and a Christmas market at Skansen (00 46 8 442 82 70; skansen.se), a living heritage museum. Lucia is also in Malmo ( malmocity.se). Note that this year's festival coincides with the climate change summit in Copenhagen, Malmo's Danish neighbour.