Why is May 1st celebrated in Sweden?

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.

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 – most commonly from the political left.

Contrary to the stereotype however, 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, meet friends and enjoy the day.

Nowadays, there is always a racist shadow over May 1st celebrations. According to the Swedish law, even their right to demonstrate is protected. This year, the extreme right-wing Party ‘Nordiska motståndsrörelse’ will also be marching in the small towns of Ludvika, Fagersta and Kungälv. This inevitably means a counter-demonstration will occur and a potentially violent exchange of opinions will develop.

If you’re in Stockholm, head to Humlegården or Medborgarplatsen around 12.00 ish to catch the start of two demonstrations.

Walpurgis Eve – when spring arrives in Sweden

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 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. This year looks like it could be a warm evening, and some bonfires have even been forbidden due to fire risk after the exceptionally dry April that has passed.

However, it’s not unusual that it snows on 30 April! Despite bad weather, Swedes still shiver around the bonfires and ironically celebrate the arrival of Spring.

Where does the Swedish word for Easter -‘Påsk’- come from?

The English word Easter has a mythical etymology. It originates from the Germanic goddess of fertility – Eostre. Prior to the 300’s, pagan festivities were held in her honour in the month of April. These festivities were slowly replaced by Christian traditions from the 400’s to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – and given the ‘recognisable’ name Easter.

But what about the Swedish word for Easter – Påsk? Where does that originate?

During the same period as Easter, the world’s Jews celebrate a holiday of Passover to mark their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the ‘Book of Exodus’, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. The name of this celebration is ‘Pesach‘.

Originating in this word ‘pesach’ is the Aramaic word ‘paska‘. And from ‘paska’ comes the Swedish word ‘Påsk‘.

So, interestingly, the more secular country of Sweden actually has the most religious origin of the word Easter.

The night I lost my sight in Sweden

Last night some friends and I had an interesting dining experience in Stockholm. We went to a place called Svartklubb – which translates as ‘black club’ and is also the Swedish word for a speak-easy. The name of the place is a clever play on words, because the entire dining room is actually plunged into darkness, and the waiting staff are blind.

The purpose of the restaurant is to provide guests with the experience of how it is to be without sight. And it’s an interesting, and humbling, way to spend a few hours. The dining room was pitch black, you were guided through the darkness to your seat, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your own face. An unknown three-course meal (delicious) and drinks were served to you and you had to navigate the use of cutlery and glassware without spilling on yourself, smashing glasses or spraying your neighbours. You had no idea what your environment looked like, what the other diners on the next table looked like or even how far away you were sitting from each other.

The thing that I found most disturbing was the noise level in the room. When sight is removed, our other senses increase, and to me it felt like people were screaming and shouting. This was a surprising insight into how it must be for blind people on a daily basis.

Once out of the dining room, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the bar, a sense of relief swept over me. At last my sight was back. And again the realization hit me that, for blind people, their sight doesn’t come back. What we just experienced for a short time is the reality for them 24-7. It certainly gave me a sense of reverence.

In Sweden, there are approximately 100,000 people registered as blind or visually impaired. According to the WHO, there are 253 million people globally who are visually impaired – 36 million people of them who are fully blind. That number will increase to 115 million people by 2050. The majority of these are in developing countries, and the tragedy is that roughly 75% of blindness could be prevented or cured with a simple operation.

If you are interested in donating some money to help, then check out the organization http://www.sightsavers.org

If you are interested in trying out Svartklubben, you can book a table at http://www.svartklubben.com or via Ticketmaster.

Who is Sweden’s Patron Saint?

Last night I was at a party (not the picture above). I was clad in green, and wearing a green sign saying Lucky and depicting a pot of gold. Over the speakers, a mix of folk music, U2 and the Cranberries blasted out. Offensive green-coloured beer was served.

Today, 17 March, is St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is being celebrated all over the world. And just like me last night, people are donning green clothes, dancing to fiddely-diddely music and downing beer.

Out of curiosity, I wondered who Sweden’s Patron Saint is. So I researched and I have to say the answer wasn’t totally clear. One Saint in particular kept popping up, but in only one case did I see her referred to as the Patron Saint of Sweden. She is however one of Europe’s 6 Patron Saints.

Do you know who I’m referring to?

I am referring to Saint Brigit, known in Swedish as Saint Birgitta. She is definitely the most celebrated saint of Sweden. Born 1303 into a wealthy noble family, she entered a Catholic convent after the death of her husband. By this time she was 41 and had 8 children. In 1350, she went to Rome to meet the Pope and there she remained until her death at the age of 70. Her feast day is 23 July, the day she died. Brigit established the Swedish religious community which was to become the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, or the Brigittines at the Swedish town of Vadstena.

Brigit is known for her many influential visions. In her first, at the age of 10, she saw Jesus suspended on a cross. Ages. Her visions of the birth of Jesus came to affect nativity art for centuries to comethe infant Jesus lying on the ground and emitting light himself, the Virgin as blond-haired, a single candle attached to the wall, and the presence of God the Father above. Her visions were recorded in Revelationes coelestes (“Celestial revelations”) and made her a revered and controversial celebrity in the Middle

In Sweden people know vaguely who Birgitta is. I wonder if many know that she is the Patron Saint of the country. She is fairly far from the minds of most Swedes and, unlike the Irish St Patrick, or the Welsh St David, not at all integrated into Swedish identity.

Probably because of her ‘invisibility’, I actually haven’t heard of annual celebrations in Sweden to commemorate Brigit. I’m guessing it’s a low-key affair for the converted. I’m guessing it’s about prayer, meditation and reverence. I’m guessing it’s not about dressing in a unified colour and dancing the jig. And I assume very little beer guzzling is involved.

Friday nights in Sweden = ‘Fredagsmys’!

 

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I was just in my local supermarket doing a quick bit of food shopping. Although the place was relatively empty at that time of day,  I noticed that a few of the aisles were the most popular. Throngs of people gathered in the TexMex aisle, the soft drinks aisle and the aisle displaying crisps.

Of course, I thought! It’s Friday! And in Sweden, that means Fredagsmys!

‘Fredagsmys’ is loosely translated as ‘Friday Cosying’, and it is a relatively modern ritual in Sweden established in the 90’s. Prevalent up and down the country, ‘fredagsmys’ is when friends and families gather together to mark the end of the working week. it’s mostly associated with families and children and traditions differ family to family. However,  one common denominator seems to be that food should be easy and quick to make. In other words, Friday night is a huge night for tacos and pizza in Sweden.

Gathering around food for cosy family evenings has a long tradition in Sweden. In the 1800’s and 1900’s something called ‘Söndagsfrid’ (Sunday peace) was popular. Then in the 1970’s ‘kvällsgott’ (Evening Goodies) became a concept.

The concept ‘fredagsmys’ became popularised in a high-profile advertising campaign for crisps. With the perky slogan ”Now it’s the end of the week, it’s time for Friday cosying”, (really, it’s perky in Swedish), they captured the Swedish market and encouraged the consumer to devour potato chips on Friday nights. In 2006, the word ‘fredagsmys’ entered the Swedish dictionary.

So how does your Friday night look?

What kind of cosying are you planning?

Diverse Sweden Part 1: Swedish Sikhs

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I remember when my parents visited me in Sweden and remarked in surprise that there were a lot of ‘dark-haired people’ here. Somehow, it didn’t match their stereotype of the Swede as being tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed Christians.

It’s interesting to see the response on people’s faces when they realise who is in fact Swedish. Sure, Alexander Skarsgård, PewDiePie and Robyn all fit the mould. But that Seinabo Sey, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neneh Cherry are Swedish is often met with a surprised gasp. Stereotypes really are hard to shift.

Sweden is a fairly diverse country – ethnically, religiously and culturally. About 25% of the population is born abroad or has both parents born outside of Sweden. Extend that to one parent and the number increases to around a third of the Swedish population.

I am a true believer in cultural diversity. So, to celebrate the plurality of this kingdom in the north, I am starting a series of posts that will shine the light on various religious and ethnic groups that exist amongst people with Swedish citizenship. My hope is that it will dispel some of those stereotypes of Swedes that exist and that it will broaden your mind regarding what it means to be Swedish.

First out…..Sikhism

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Growing up in the multi-religious UK, as I did, I saw a lot of Sikhs. What distinguished them from others was the fact that some of them wore a turban (known as a ‘dastaar’). Sikh bus drivers, police officers, doctors all wore their dastaar together with their uniforms, and today they are exempt from wearing helmets when riding a motor bike. I remember it causing great debate in the media and the discussion revolving around the ‘ridiculousness’ of this head gear. What ethnic British people failed to realise, and many still do today, is that the Sikh dastaar is not just a means to keep the head warm. The dastaar is an integral part of the unique Sikh identity, representing piety, self-respect, honour and purity of mind. Under the dastaar, the Sikh keeps the hair uncut as respect to the Gurus and to God – the idea being that hair is part of God’s creation and therefore should be kept as God intended it.

In Sweden, Sikhism is a small minority of an estimated 4000 people but in the world there are 30 million Sikhs, mostly living in Punjab in India. Sikhism was founded in the 16th century by Guru Nanak and is based on his teachings and those of the 9 gurus who came after him. The Sikh religion is a hands-on religion – believing in doing good deeds rather than merely carrying out rituals. For a Sikh, the concepts of honesty, generosity and equality are strong corner stones. In Sweden, Sikhs have their places of worship – a Gurdwara – in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö – and anybody is welcome to these places of worship, regardless of religious belief. The Sikh religious scripture is called the Guru Granth Sahib. Interestingly, Sikhs consider the book a living Guru and it is therefore treated in the same respectful manner that a person would be.

Sikhs try to avoid 5 vices, in order to live better lives. These vices are something we could probably all think about avoiding: lust, greed, attachment to things of this world, anger and pride.

In a couple of weeks on 14th March, it is ‘Vaisakhi’ – the Sikh New Year. This year it will be year 551 (time begins at the birth of founder Guru Nanak).

Sikhs started to emigrate to Sweden in the 1970’s. Some came as job-seekers, others as refugees. The Sikh population is often referred to as an example of successful integration into Swedish society – as most Sikhs secured good employment and invested in the higher education of their children.

 

 

For more information about population statistics in Sweden, go to https://www.scb.se/en

For more information about Sikhs in Sweden, go to http://www.sikh.se

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