Neil Shipley on Swedish culture – the strange, the special and the sublime
Author: Neil Shipley's watching the Swedes
Since 1994, I've been watching the Swedes. Not in a creepy, obsessive way, but like an adventurer in unknown territory who carefully observes his surroundings.
I run a training company with my American business partner in Stockholm. We hold seminars and workshops in Cultural Awareness and Communication.
For more info about this check out www.keytraining.se
During the mid to late 1800’s, a staggering 1.2 million Swedes emigrated to the USA for a better life. Based on the 1950’s novel series by Vilhelm Moberg, the 2021 film ‘The Emigrants’ depicts this period.
It is hardly surprising then that Swedish DNA is mixed into the diverse genetic melting pot in America.
With this in mind, there are many stars who are proud of their Swedish heritage. Some, you could guess their ancestry by their names. Others not so much. But all of them certainly inherited the beautiful Swedish gene. Here are ten of them:
Julia Roberts – het great grandmother was born in the county of Värmland
Matt Damon – his grandmother was Swedish
Kirsten Dunst – has several generations of Swedes on her mother’s side
James Franco – has Swedish roots on his father’s side
Jake Gyllenhaal – his great grandfather was Swedish. He is also a part of a Swedish noble family.
Emma Stone – had a Swedish grandfather
Michelle Pfeiffer – her great grandmother emigrated from county Småland
Uma Thurman – her grandmother was Swedish, from county Skåne. She also speaks some Swedish.
Once a year, with exception of the last two pandemic years, there is a summer politics week in Sweden. The week is happening now, the first since 2019. It takes place in a park called Almedalen on the Baltic island of Gotland, and attracts heavy media coverage.
During the week, the leaders of the eight parliamentary parties deliver speeches – their view of Sweden’s future. This year is especially interesting as there is a General Election in September. The Economy, Crime and Punishment and Education seem to be the top issues so far.
The Almedalen politics week started when legendary Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme spoke publicly, from the back of a truck, during a summer visit to Gotland. It was at the end of the 60s and there was an audience of a few hundred people. It very quickly became a tradition.
Now Almedalen politics week attracts thousands of participants and is intended to involve the man on the street in politics and to protect the strong Swedish value of democracy and free speech. The idea is that at Almedalen politics week, we meet each other in debate. And in debate and discussion, we influence each other and our environment.
However, Almedalen Politics Week has also been heavily criticized for being elitist. The event has become a popular opportunity for businesses to meet and network with each other.
In a parallel existence, some people go to Almedalen only for this purpose and not to participate in any political activities. Social media has, in previous years, been awash with images of participants mingling, drinking rose wine, partying, dancing and taking drunken groupies.
Post Covid, we all have an opportunity to make changes. We don’t have to go back to the way things were before. The pandemic was a kind of system crash. It will be interesting to see how Almedalen politics week renews itself this year.
Today, 2 July, marks 15 years since the death of the Swedish actress, singer and femme fatale Git Gay. Born in Karlshamn in 1921, she went on to become one of Sweden’s most popular and notorious prima donnas.
A classically trained concert pianist, Git Gay made her name as an extravagant review artist and larger-than-life tv host. She was given her stage name in 1949 by review artist Karl Gerhard, who undoubtably thought it was more showbiz than her real name Birgit Agda Carp.
By the end of her career, she had appeared in many films and shows as well as recorded numerous records, and the name Git Gay was synonymous with glamour and glitz. In fact, the word ‘kalaspingla’, roughly meaning party babe, is said to have been of her making.
After her death, in accordance with her will, a foundation was set up in her name to give cash awards to working Swedish musical and theatrical artists. The last award was given in a grand gala, Git Gay style, in 2018.
With Midsummer arriving tomorrow, it is time to start planning for your survival. Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers. As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself.
Since we are not fully out of the pandemic, it is important to wash hands regularly and keep a physical distance. Apart from these guidelines, here are a few more hacks to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.
Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way is to stand 1-2 meters away, look directly in their eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. You might even give a small wave or shake hands if you are comfortable doing so. If you are feeling adventurous, follow up your ‘Hej’ with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.
Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the strawberry dessert has even been put on the table.
Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs.
If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of skinny dipping when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.
Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. To survive these activities, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.
Protect yourself. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the many babies in Sweden are made on this day. It you don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put it on before you put it in.
Throw in the thermals. It looks like it might be super sunny and warm this Midsummer’s Eve. One of the warmest ever! But it is good to be prepared. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.
Don’t expect culinary miracles on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small summery exceptions – strawberries, cream, dill and new potatoes. Remember to use hand disinfectant before you attack the buffet.
Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs. Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion. For me, ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’ works every time.
Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.
Take pills. Of varying types. Allergy pills are good because there are flowers everywhere: on the table, in the maypole, on peoples’ heads. Pain killers are good as a lot of snaps is consumed. Indigestion pills are good as the food is oily, fatty, acidic, smoky and rich. The after day pill is good, well… because…
That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden.
Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!
Midsummer’s Eve is possibly the biggest public celebration in Sweden, and it’s happening this week on Friday. Swedes gather to eat, drink and be merry together.
So, what are the origins of Midsummer and why is it celebrated? Well, according to authors Po Tidholm and Agneta Lilja, the origins of Midsummer date back as far as the 6th century:
‘In agrarian times, Midsummer celebrations in Sweden were held to welcome summertime and the season of fertility. In some areas people dressed up as ‘green men’, clad in ferns. They also decorated their houses and farm tools with foliage, and raised tall, leafy maypoles to dance around, probably as early as the 1500s.
Midsummer was primarily an occasion for young people, but it was also celebrated in the industrial communities of central Sweden, where all mill employees were given a feast of pickled herring, beer and snaps. It was not until the 1900s, however, that this became the most Swedish of all traditional festivities.
Ever since the 6th century AD, Midsummer bonfires have been lit around Europe. In Sweden, they were mainly found in the southern part of the country. Young people also liked to visit holy springs, where they drank the healing water and amused themselves with games and dancing. These visits were a reminder of how John the Baptist baptised Christ in the River Jordan.
Midsummer Night is the lightest of the year and was long considered a magical night, as it was the best time for telling people’s futures. Girls ate salted porridge so that their future husbands might bring water to them in their dreams, to quench their thirst. You could also discover treasures, for example by studying how moonbeams fell.
Also that night, it was said, water was turned into wine and ferns into flowers. Many plants acquired healing powers on that one night of the year.’
There is still an element of magic in the otherwise well-organised Midsummer celebrations of today. One example is the erection of a large phallic flower-clad maypole, and the dancing around of said pole. This is an ancient fertility rite. Related to this, is the association of love to the festivities of Midsummer. In fact many Swedish babies are made around this weekend.
Another example is the gathering of 7 types of summer flower to place under your pillow at night. It is said if you do this, then your future husband will appear to you in your dreams.
And then there’s the light. On Midsummer’s Eve is doesn’t really get dark. Depending on where you are in Sweden, it ranges from a dim glow in the south to full on daylight in the north. In Stockholm, where I live, it is a magical dusky twilight that conjures up associations of witchcraft, druids and paganism.
So while today’s Midsummer might be a well-orchestrated gathering of friends and family, there is still some magic to be found if you look hard enough.
On 6 June 1523, Gustav Vasa was crowned King of Sweden. He was one of the few survivors of the Stockholm Bloodbath, in which his father and 80 other nobles were murdered, Game of Thrones style.
He ruled the country until 1560. During his reign, he released Sweden from the Kalmar Union consisting of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. He also turned Sweden from a catholic country into a Protestant one, with the monarch and not the pope as head of the church.
6 June is another significant day in Swedish history – on 6 June 1809 the country signed a new constitution. This lay the foundation for Sweden’s current status as an independent democracy and was in place until 1974.
The constitution returned political power to the parliament after King Gustav IV Adolph was deposed in a military coup in 1809. He was the last Swedish monarch to rule over Finland. After him, the crown passed not to his children but to his uncle, Charles VIII. Charles had no legitimate heir, which set into motion the quest for a successor. This was found the following year in the person of Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the first monarch of the present royal family.
For these two reasons, Sweden celebrates its National Day today – June 6th. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005.
The day is celebrated with various events up and down the country.
Britain’s Queen Elisabeth celebrates 70 years on the throne this weekend. An amazing, unparalleled, feat being celebrated up and down the UK with public holidays, street parties, spectacular events and lots of bunting.
To celebrate the event in Sweden, a competition was launched amongst Swedish bakeries to create a celebratory jubilee cake. I’m happy to say that my local bakery Delselius Bakery won the competition!
The cake will be served at the jubilee event at the British ambassador’s residence in Stockholm, and in selected places in the UK.
It is also being sold in the Delselius cafés for a few short weeks! As one famous queen once said, ‘let them eat cake!’
In Sweden, and in many other countries, May 1st has been embraced as the International Workers’ Day. In 1938, May 1st became Sweden’s first non-religious public holiday and has been an important celebration of labourers and the working classes since then. When it lands on a weekend, like this year, the day off work is ‘lost’ as no public holiday is replaced in lieu.
But why specifically May 1st?
The answer is found in a massacre in the USA. On 1 May 1886, laborers in Chicago went out on strike for an 8 hour working day. On 4 May 1886, Chicago police and the demonstrators clashed and 11 people died.
The event is called the Haymarket massacre. Seven of the demonstrators were sentenced to death, despite lack of evidence. To commemorate the massacre, the socialist organization suggested that 1 May should become day of demonstrations every year.
Around Sweden, traffic is shut off, huge flag-waving demonstrations are held and people gather to hear speeches from their politicians and representatives. The demonstrations represent people from various parties. However, since most of them are from the political left, the streets are awash with bright red flags and banners.
Contrary to the stereotype, not everybody in Sweden supports left wing political groups. Many Swedes lean towards the centre or the right. For them, today is just a day off work – an opportunity to perhaps nurse hangovers from the festivities of the previous evening or to relax, watch Netflix, go for a walk and enjoy the day.
Today, 30 April, is Walpurgis Eve, called Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish. The name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century Saint Walburga, and in Sweden this day marks the arrival of spring.
On this evening, Swedes usually gather to celebrate together.
The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. Essential celebrations include lighting a large bonfire, listing to choirs singing traditional spring songs and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season. Walpurgis bonfires are an impressive thing to see and are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis, cattle was put out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators.
The weather is often unpredictable on Walpurgis Eve. It can be sunny and warmish, or it can still snow on 30 April! Despite bad weather, Swedes still shiver around the bonfires and ironically celebrate the arrival of Spring.