Ten Swedish Festivals, Holidays and Celebrations

Feb 21, 2010

The Bottom Line This is a description of and advice on Ten Swedish Festivals that you may want to participate in if you visit Sweden at the time of the festival.

In this essay I will describe ten Swedish holidays that in some sense are uniquely Swedish or Scandinavian. One purpose of this essay is to make you aware of the existence of these holidays so that you can take the opportunity to experience them if you visit Sweden during these holidays. Another purpose of this essay is to give some suggestions for where to go to experience these holidays, and how to best experience these holidays.

If you want to read about other Swedish customs, for example, how to act in homes at hotels etc, then click here.

I have included a few holidays that are celebrated in many countries around the world while leaving out other holidays and festivals that are celebrated in Sweden as well as elsewhere. The reason is that some of the holidays are celebrated in ways that are really special for Sweden. There are some uniquely Swedish elements to Swedish Easter celebrations, for example, children dressing up as Easter witches and walking the neighborhood asking for candy. However, in my opinion, that is not distinct and unique enough for me to put the Swedish Easter on this list. Swedish Christmas celebrations on the other hand have several unique elements to it that you may find interesting. In any case, most holidays on this list are uniquely Swedish or Scandinavian.

Walpurgis Festival

The Valborgs festival or the Walpurgis festival, as it is called in English, is held on April 30th. In the evening on April 30th towns and villages around the country build large bonfires and shoot fireworks. There are quires singing to welcome the spring and children are exploding little bombs (fireworks), rolling suns, whistlers, and small rockets. When I was a kid I was told that the fireworks and bonfires were there to scare away the witches. It is a big party day. To see bonfires, listen to Swedish singing and see fireworks you just need to ask at the hotel where the local valborgs festivities are being held. These are typically open to anyone.

However, if you want to experience really memorable valborgs festivities, then you should visit one of the student cities (Uppsala, Lund, Umeå, Linköping, Luleå, Stockholm, or Gothenburg). Uppsala is by far the city with the most interesting festivities. 10AM in the morning there is carnival like decorated float race down the river that goes through Uppsala (Fyris River). I can add that I was once one of the float racers going down the river. Unfortunately our boat broke into pieces in the last waterfall so we had to swim into goal (we had wet suits). At 1PM 50,000 students and others who want to participate run down from the largest library in Europe (Carolina Redeviva) down the hill pass Uppsala castle and into down town screaming, singing, and throwing hats in the air. Thereafter there are student parties and other parties starting all over the city and in the evening there are bonfires and singing in various places around Uppsala.

May first festival

The day after the Walpurgis festival is another day of festivities, the May first festival. Workers are celebrated (similar to Labor Day) and essentially everyone have the day off. Families traditionally go on picnics of have special meals on May first. Once again you can listen to quires singing songs welcoming the spring in plazas and parks. However, as in many other countries with a strong socialist past it is also a celebration of the worker and socialism. People gather to listen to political speeches and there are demonstrations and parades everywhere. Don't worry, there is no revolution going on, it is just May 1st. If you like to play the accordion or a flute or a trumpet or you just like to wave red flags you could always participate in a May parade. All kinds of signs are typically accepted unless they are offensive. A friend of mine walked with the sign "don't kill the mosquitoes and they will not kill you" and another with the sign "support the Silver Surfer".

Swedish National Day (June 6)

The Swedish National Day is June 6th in memory of when Gustav Vasa ascended the throne in 1523 (on June 6). Sweden had just separated from the Nordic union (Kalmar Union) dominated by Denmark. Unlike July 4th, June 6th, has traditionally not been a big day of celebration. It has been a flag day but it was not until 1983 it officially became the Official National Day. Now a day people have the day off on June 6th and many take some time to quietly celebrate the day. The celebrations are focused on the display of Swedish flags (blue with yellow cross). The king of Sweden, Carl XVI and his Brazilian born Queen Silvia will appear on Skansen (a large open air museum), in Stockholm, on this day which you may want to check out.

Midsummer nights

Midsummer is celebrated on the weekend closest to June 24. Around this time Sweden is a country with nearly continuous day light. June 21 is the day on which day light last the longest. Sweden is located quite far north and in the far northern Sweden the sun will not set (midnight sun) for days or weeks, while in the rest of the country you have day light almost until midnight.

The Midsummer Day and the Midsummer Eve is one of the biggest festivities in Sweden. During the day people meet up to dance around the maypole and listen to music and children decorate their hair with flowers and rings with flowers. Some people also dress up in traditional (old time) Swedish clothing, which is quite colorful. Girls who pick nine different kinds of flowers and put them under their pillow you will dream about your their groom to be. Well, hardly anyone gets married anymore so it would be future partner instead.

In the evening there are dinners and parties, sing and dance, and much drunkenness. Many young people stay up all night on Midsummer's Eve. Buildings (government buildings, churches, etc) as well as people's homes are often decorated with flowers during Midsummer. According to the book "1,000 places to see before you die" you should visit Tallberg in Dalarna for Swedish midsummer festivities. However, in my opinion there are many places where you could experience midsummer festivities so I suggest that you ask at your hotel.

Fermented Herring Festivities

Fermented herring festivities or sour herring festivities are held primarily in Northern Sweden (where I am from) on the third Thursday in August. However, the tradition has spread to other parts of the country as well. The festivities are typically held the following weekend for practical reasons but there are fermented herring parties on the third Thursday of August and for several days after the third Thursday in August.

Sour herring or fermented herring is Baltic herring that is salted and set aside for fermentation for a long period of time. The herring is placed in cans that typically expand (swell out) because of the fermentation gases. You eat the sour herring with small boiled potatoes, sauce, onions, and you may put the herring on thin bread (similar to Matza or Pita bread). Many Swedes drink beer or strong liquor with the herring, for example, aquavit, brännvin, vodka and other drinks. Singing and dressing up with party hats is common at fermented herring parties.

When you open the cans a pungent aroma is released which most people (Swedish and non-Swedish) find unpleasant. I grew up with this aroma and when someone tells you they like it you should take that with a grain of salt. However, the aroma (odor) is quite different from the taste. For some odd reason the aroma that comes out of the can is not a good indicator of how the fish tastes and it keeps people from trying it. I should say that a serious Swede (as opposed to a prankster) would not expect you to try the fermented herring but would offer other dishes as well. Pickled herring is another Swedish delicacy which should not be confused with sour herring since it is not fermented (but pickled).

However, fermented herring parties can be fun to participate in. When I was an exchange student in the U.S. we held a sour herring party in Cleveland Ohio and the other students participated. The American students rushed to the windows for fresh air as soon as the cans were opened but they thought it was a strange and fun party so they ended up having fun (drinking and eating other things). Afterwards an American student ran around the dorm and placed fermented herrings in the ventilation drums, which was mildly appreciated. I admit I assisted him by supplying him with herrings which I probably should not have but that's mistakes you do when you are young.

Crayfish Parties

The crayfish parties are similar to the fermented/sour herring parties except they are mostly held southern Sweden even though I've participated in a few in northern Sweden as well. At these parties you often drink (beer, aquavit, brännvin, and vodka), sing, and wear party hats. Crayfish is something that Americans eat as well so they are easier for an American to fully participate it. Both crayfish parties and sour herring parties are typically private. Unlike most other Swedish festivals they are therefore not as easily accessible to foreign visitors. However, if you know someone Swedish you may want to ask if you can participate. It is not impolite to ask. Also some hotels may organize such festivities as well (ask about it).

Swedish Advent

The Swedish Advent is the start of the countdown to Christmas. It is the first of the four Sundays before Christmas and is either at the end of November or beginning of December. After the first Advent comes Second Advent (second Sunday), third Advent (third Sunday), and fourth Advent (fourth Sunday) and then comes Christmas. An old Swedish tradition is the Advent Calendar which is a calendar that counts down the days to Christmas. Every day children get to open a lid on a count down calendar that may contains just a fun picture or a candy or a small present (depends on calendar). There is also a TV program centered on the countdown to Christmas.

On the Swedish Advent people hang luminous stars in their windows and the many other Christmas decorations are also put up in homes and around cities. The Christmas markets open up and here you can buy things, look at decorations and taste Glögg. Glögg is a drink that is a mix of spices, raisins, almonds, and wine or liquor. The churches are decorated with candles and Advent is among the few occasions in the year when Swedes actually go to church. If you visit Sweden during this time you may want to visit a church just to listen to the music and see the candles and decorations and Swedes pretending to believe in God for a day.

Santa Lucia or St. Lucy's Day

The Santa Lucia day or St. Lucy's day is on December 13. It is celebrated in the commemoration of a Sicilian Saint. The Santa Lucia Day might be Sweden's most exotic holiday. In the morning hospitals, company buildings, hotels, schools and other institutions are visited by a long train of singing girls dressed in white robes. They are carrying candles and have decorations in their hair. The leader of the train is Santa Lucia. She has a crown of candles in her hair and red belt around her white robe. Behind the train of girls there are also some boys also dressed in white robes and they have cone shaped hats with stars on them. The Santa Lucia and her Tärnor (the other girls) serve coffee, chocolate, cookies, ginger snaps, and saffron buns to the spectators. You may also see a few red gnomes (looking like Santa Claus). These are called Tomtar in Swedish. In the morning the homes that have girls also typically make a little Santa Lucia train.

There are also Santa Lucia parades throw the cities and villages of the country. Pretty girls are sending in their pictures and much like a "Miss Xxxx" competition they are selected by judges or voters. The winner becomes the cities Santa Lucia and she will be riding on top of a car or on a horse through the town while all the girls who did not win follow her on other horses or on cars. Naturally all the girls are dressed in white robes. It used to be that the competition favored blondes. However, today any hair color and any skin color can win and become the Santa Lucia.

I can add that most people enjoy watching white robed singing young women slowly descend upon them with various goodies, but not everyone. It is a tradition in Sweden that the Nobel Prize winners get an unannounced visit from Santa Lucia early in the morning of December 13. In certain Asian countries white robed women sneaking around at night is associated with bad stuff (remember the grudge). This has caused some incidents in the past. If you are in Sweden on December 13 you should definitely go and see the local Lucia parade.

Christmas Eve and Christmas in Sweden (December 24)

The Christmas celebrations are held on Christmas Eve (December 24) in Sweden. People come together for a Christmas meal and the giving of presents, just like in the U.S. on December 25 in the U.S. However, there are some notable differences. First the dude that comes to give out presents is Tomten or a gnome. He looks like Santa Claus and the modern Tomten is very much a copy of Santa Claus. However, a Tomte is traditionally a small forest creature and there are many Tomtar, not just one Santa Claus. He also rarely comes through the chimney but from the outside. In the olden days there were Tomtar around at Christmas time, however, it was a goat that delivered the presents and you left porridge on the porch for the Tomten. Tomten was very much transformed by the American image of Santa Claus.

Another difference is the "julbord" or Christmas smorgasbord. These are decorated extra special smorgasbord. Almost every respectable Swedish hotel and many larger restaurants will feature Christmas smorgasbord around Christmas. Typical items are ham, cold cuts, meatballs, pickled herring (no fermented herring), sausages, pates, potatoes, fish, breads, fruits, desserts and many other buffet style items. If you visit Sweden in Christmas time you certainly don't want to miss the "julbord".

King Knut's Day

The Twelfth night of Christmas and King Knut's day or twentieth day Knut is a quite unique Swedish holiday that is celebrated on January 6th and 7th. It is the day you throw out the Christmas tree and you often have your last Christmas meal on this day. Children are still on holiday from school and it is common that adults are off work until this day too. This is not a big holiday. However, if you visit Sweden at the beginning of January this holiday might make it possible for you to catch some late Swedish Christmas festivities.

Final Word

If you come to Sweden at the time of one of these festivals then I suggest that you look into participating. Hopefully, this essay has been helpful in deciding whether you want to participate in the festival and have provided some useful tips for you on how to participate.

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