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Swedish traditions – old and new

Swedish traditions are firmly rooted in history, yet constantly changing. Some customs and traditions are maintained for the sake of the festivities, and the importance of clinging on to something familiar. Others are new imports that Swedes have embraced with open arms.

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The seasons set the tone

Some customs are so old that we have forgotten their origins. But we still observe them, because we have always done so and because we have come to enjoy them. They have grown to be a part of our life cycle, giving shape to our lives and giving us a sense of time, and also lending the year a seasonal rhythm.

In Sweden, many customs are closely associated with the changing seasons. Swedes celebrate summer with an intensity that can only be found in a people who have just endured a long, dark winter. They light candles at Advent and pay homage to a white-clad Lucia with a crown of candles in her hair.

Swedish food tends to be influenced by the seasons. The way it is spiced and cooked often reflects the storage needs of the peasant communities of the old days, as in the case of pickled herring, freshly salted or smoked meat, or dairy products that have been curdled, boiled or left to mature.

Several of Sweden’s traditional festivities are linked to the farming year – to spring tillage, to the hunting and fishing season or to harvest time. But as noted above, their original significance may have been lost in the mists of time and replaced by some other import.

Many old Swedish customs and traditions reflect the farming year and the changing seasons.

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Headlong into the modern era

It is not simply about the passage of time and human forgetfulness, however. The Swedes are split in their image of themselves: while they are proud of their own history, they also become uncomfortable when confronted with that which is deemed continental and internationally acceptable.

When the opportunity arose, Sweden flung itself headlong into the modern era. Its remote position on the map, its remarkable capacity for staying out of wars and its endless supply of timber and ore made Sweden both a rich country and an unusual one by international standards.

While other countries experienced conflicts and class divisions, Swedish citizens enjoyed a consensus of opinion and a belief in the future.
At times, belief in innovation, in the welfare society – what came to be known as the folkhem in Sweden – and in growth was so strong that the country forgot its history.

Old customs and traditions were suddenly thought useless. Young people closed their ears to the stories of their elders and refused to look back. The future was just on the horizon and it was simply a matter of getting there as quickly as possible.

In the decades after World War II, Swedish society grew and expanded at record speed. From having been a farming nation in the European margins, Sweden climbed to the top of the growth table. New communities developed, roads were widened and the countryside was opened up. Concrete buildings mushroomed everywhere. Sweden gained prosperity but lost touch with its history.

It has taken a long time for Swedes to restore a balance. In modern Sweden, the old and the new live side by side, sometimes in the form of two parallel narratives, sometimes – but less often – as an integrated whole. The same could be said of all that comes into the country from other parts of the world: people, trends and modes of expression from other cultures and spheres.

International influences

Immigration has brought with it new customs and traditions that in time will become woven into the fabric of what we call Swedish society.
By the same token, the ‘new Swedes’ take up old Swedish traditions, and it is often the children who introduce them into the family. Daycare centres and schools exert a considerable influence in the social sphere. The result – at best – is cultural cross-fertilisation.

Most Swedes already know what the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, involves. Several new traditions have found their way into Swedish life in recent years, usually via the media or as a result of commercial pressures. Valentine’s Day and Halloween have now become a feature of the Swedish calendar as well, albeit with some modifications.

A few generations from now, the origins of these customs may have been forgotten, for as soon as a people absorb something in the form of a custom, where it actually originated becomes a matter of little interest.

The Swedish Santa Claus is German, but many Swedes believe in him all the same. Lucia was a Sicilian saint, and St Martin’s Day takes its name from a French bishop. This does not make any of them less enjoyable.

Indoors or outdoors?

Most traditional customs are celebrated in the home, with the family. The only real exception is Midsummer, when Swedes, regardless of the weather, want to be outdoors, to meet others and to greet the arrival of summer. But then Midsummer is an occasion with pagan roots.

The Lutheran church was not particularly fond of communal festivities and processions, and Sweden’s scattered population in combination with the chilly climate meant that celebrations were moved indoors and became a family affair.

Times change, however. Visitors to Sweden in wintertime may find the streets deserted, but summer visitors encounter a completely different scene. A wide range of festivals and street parties have become a feature of the Swedish summer in recent years, bringing people together to listen to music, eat and enjoy one another’s company.

Numerous ‘fiddlers’ meets’ are held around the country in summertime, focusing in particular on Swedish folk music. The violin or fiddle arrived in Sweden in the 1700s and quickly spread among the peasantry.

Indigenous folk music, which is often in triple time, was usually played by a lone fiddler at dances. This musical culture has survived, and the summer meets often attract large numbers of visitors.

Summer is festival season in Sweden. From north to south, music lovers can enjoy anything from folk music to heavy metal.

Photo: Rodrigo Rivas/
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Don’t forget the word ‘tack’

The Swedish summer is also a time when many couples marry, as the weather allows them to travel to church in an open pony-and-trap or to wed in a simple ceremony on a rock in the archipelago.

Church weddings are still the most popular type of marriage ceremony, despite the fact that the Church of Sweden – which was ‘wed’ to the state until very recently – is losing both members and visitors. Most people also prefer to hold funeral ceremonies in church.

Christening ceremonies are still a feature of contemporary life in Sweden – again, mostly in summertime – although naming ceremonies of a more homespun character are becoming increasingly popular.

Confirmation in the Church of Sweden is still prevalent, but nowadays usually in the form of a summer camp where bible studies are combined with social and other activities.

The elderly sometimes mutter about a loss of values when young people go their own way. Marriage, christenings and confirmation in church used to be rites of passage en route to adulthood and a place in the community. Nowadays, most people do as they please.

Swedes are like most others: the street scene is becoming increasingly continental, and manners and customs increasingly international. If you are invited for dinner with a Swedish family today, there is little etiquette to breach. Just remember to say thank you – tack! Swedes do it all the time. It’s like the English ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ rolled into one:

‘Could you pass the salt, please?’ – Kan du skicka saltet, tack?
‘Here you are.’ – Varsågod.
‘Thank you!’ – Tack!

Last updated: 25 March 2014

Po Tidholm & Agneta Lilja

Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic based in the province of Hälsingland. He regularly contributes to Swedish dailies Dagens Nyheter and Aftonbladet, the magazine Filter and Swedish Radio. His texts about society, culture and history often revolve around the Swedish countryside and the north of Sweden. Tidholm has written the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today. | Agneta Lilja is a lecturer in ethnology at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. Her doctoral thesis, The Notion of the Ideal Record, was a critical examination of collection strategies at an archive specialising in the documentation of customs and traditions. Her research has also included the study of songs and festive customs, and she has written a book about All Saints’ Day and Halloween. At present, she is engaged in gender research. She also writes reviews and appears on radio and tv. Agneta Lilja wrote the sections about the history of Swedish traditions and festivities.