Something surprising about Swedish Midsummer

These days, Midsummer Day is a flexible holiday practically celebrated on a Saturday sometime between 20 and 26 June. This means that Midsummer Eve, one of the biggest festivities in the Swedish calendar, is always on a Friday. In the case of 2021, that’s tomorrow.

Bit did you know that this has only been since 1953? Prior to 1952, Midsummer Day was always celebrated today – the 24th June – coinciding with John the Baptist’s birthday. This was regardless of the day of the week it landed on. So today’s strong association with Midsummer being a long weekend is actually only around 70 years old

John the Baptist was a person who foresaw the birth of Jesus. He is considered a prophet in several of the world’s religions. He was a prolific preacher whose severed head was notoriously presented on a silver platter to Salome. His birthday has been celebrated since 300 AD on June 24 in many countries around the world.

An interesting fact is that Midsummer Day is still associated with John the Baptist in the other Scandinavian countries. For example, in Finland it is not called Midsummer but Juhannus. In Iceland, it is Jònsmessa. And in Denmark and Norway – Sankt Hans.

Swedish National Day – a new king, an old king and a new constitution

On 6 June 1523, Gustav Vasa was crowned king. 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.

The 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.

Normally, the day is celebrated with various events up and down the country but this year much is cancelled, due to the ongoing pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.

As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. It can be seen at facebook.com/swedense from 10.00 CET. Check it out!

Swedish ‘Pingst’

This weekend is ‘Pingst’ in Swedish – known as Pentacost or Whitsun in English. Today is Pingst Eve, and tomorrow Pingst Day. Monday used to be a public holiday in Sweden, as it still is in many other countries. However, in 2004, the Swedish Government removed it, and replaced it with the secular National Day on June 6.

So although it is still an official ‘holiday’ in the calendar, it is no longer a day off. Consequently it has been forgotten by many and is just an ordinary weekend for most people, other than those with religious convictions.

The name Pingst, as the name Pentecost, comes from the Greek word for 50, and refers to the feast of 50 days in Jewish tradition. This is also known as Shavuot and celebrates God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. In the Christian faith, Pentecost commemorates the descent and appearance of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles of Jesus as they celebrated this tradition. By many historians, this moment is considered to be the birth of the Christian religion.

In Sweden, this is popular weekend to christen babies and to get married, sometimes both at the same time.

Swedish museums

Today, 18 May, is Museum Day. While most are still closed down due to the pandemic, some are open with restricted hours and pre-booking. In total there are around 170 museums in Sweden, many with free entrance. Stockholm has over 100 museums, making it one of the most museum-dense cities in the world. According to statistics from Sweden’s Museums, here were the top 5 most-visited in Sweden in 2019.

1. Vasa Museum – the restoration project of a large galleon that sunk in Stockholm’s harbour in 1628. Amazing place, and my personal favourite.

2. Skansen – Stockholm’s open air museum depicting Sweden’s historical architecture and culture. Has also a zoo and a large stage for outdoor concerts.

3. National Museum – Sweden’s art and design museum, situated opposite the Royal Palace.

4. Nordic Museum – museum about how people in the nordics have lived, eaten, dressed throughout the centuries

5. Natural History Museum – biology and geology museum with a popular 760 meter dome shaped cinema screen.

All of the above are in Stockholm. Outside the capital, the most visited museums were Frilufts Museum in Linköping, Malmö Museum in Malmö, Wadköping in Örebro, Dunkers in Helsingborg and Gotland Museum on the island of Gotland.

There seems to be a museum for most things in Sweden. Some unusual examples are the Matchstick Museum, the Abba Museum, the Spirit Museum, the Lenin Spa Museum, the Newsagent Museum, the Thermos Flask Museum, the Amber Museum, the Leather Museum, the Cannibal Museum and the Video Game Museum.

Whatever your preference there is a museum to suit everybody in Sweden. Once the doors are open again, I strongly recommend a visit to at least one of them!

Christ Flying Day – a Swedish holiday

Today is Ascension Day, and it is a public holiday in Sweden. The Swedish word for today is Kristi himmelsfärdsdagen or Kristiflygare, which translates loosely as Christ Flying Day. Yet another example of the literalness of the Swedish language, this day signifies the bible story of Jesus Christ ascending (or flying) to heaven.

Unlike some countries that moved the celebration to the following Sunday, Sweden celebrates Ascension Day on the actual Thursday. This gives rise to another Swedish concept – the ‘squeeze day’. Since Thursday is a holiday, and Saturday is a work-free day for most, Friday gets squeezed between them and is also taken as a day off by most people. That makes this weekend a lovely long weekend, often signifying the beginning of summer. In previous times, today was also called ‘barärmdagen’ – or ‘bare arm day’ – as women started to wear clothes that exposed their arms.

This weekend is not religiously observed by most Swedes. Being a secular country, time is usually spent outdoors if the weather permits. Some Swedes go to their summer houses, or sail the waterways on their boats. Others meet friends, sit in outdoor cafes, or carry out sporting activities. In years when travel is permitted, this is also a popular weekend to fly off for a four-day break in, for example, Barcelona, Nice or Palma.

Gun salutes in the UK and Sweden

To mark the recent death of the UK’s Prince Philip, a 41-gun salute was held across Great Britain yesterday. For many, it seemed like an odd number. So, why 41?

In both the UK and Sweden, gun salutes mark special royal occasions and the number of rounds fired depends on the place and occasion. The basic salute in both countries is 21 rounds.

In the UK, however if fired from a royal park, an extra 20 rounds are added – making 41. At the Tower of London 62 rounds are fired on British royal anniversaries (the basic 21, plus a further 20 because the Tower is a Royal Palace and Fortress, plus another 21 for the City of London.)

The most shots have been given from the Tower when the late Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday (62 shots) coincided with the Queen’s official birthday (62 shots). This gave a total of an annoying 124 shots booming out over the city.

So, does Sweden always have 21 shots?

No, not always. When a Royal birth takes place and the infant is the firstborn to either the reigning monarch or to the heir to the throne, an extra 21 rounds (for a total of 42) are added to the normal salute. Additionally, 19-gun salutes are used for heads of government, cabinet ministers and ambassadors.

Another gun salute consists of two rapid gunshots only. This is used by the military and was fired to identify a Swedish ship entering a harbour or on the battle field to identify the Swedish troops. This signal is called the ‘Svensk Lösen’ – the Swedish Signal. This salute is today fired on special occasions, usually within the armed forces.

21-gun salutes in Sweden occur on:

  • 28 January – the King’s Name Day
  • 30 April – the King’s birthday
  • 6 June – Sweden’s National Day
  • 14 July – Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday
  • 8 August – Queen Silvia’s Name Day
  • 23 December – Queen Silvia’s birthday.

So, why is 21 standard?

Well, it originated in British maritime tradition. Historically, ships would fire 7 shots as they approached a foreign harbour. As ships usually had seven cannons on board, this was to show they had disarmed themselves and declare the vessel to be no threat on entry.

The military on land could store more gunpowder and therefore could reload their cannons more quickly. The tradition became that they would fire three shots for every one shot made at sea – hence 21 shots – as a sign of welcome and peace.

Interestingly in Sweden’s neighbouring country, Denmark, the gun salute given to majesties is 27. Could this be based on the same thinking? 3 x 9 shots?

‘Long’ Friday in Sweden

Today is called Long Friday in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’. It commemorates the long day and the long suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, according to Christian teachings. It is a public holiday, and for many years, everything was closed in Sweden making the day long and boring for many people. Now, most things are open, even the middle of a flaming, raging pandemic.

Good Friday is a day of cooking, shopping and going for walks. Some people attend church services. Tomorrow, Easter Saturday, is the normal day of celebration when Swedes gather to eat from a bulging smörgåsbord. Typical food includes variations of salmon, egg, herring and lamb. Dark Easter beer is consumed and snaps is knocked back.

In English, this day used to be called Long Friday also, but at some point in history it changed to Good Friday. Good in this context means Holy. According to the Daily Mash this is ‘still stupid. You don’t get much worse days than being flogged, nailed to a cross, then stabbed. And that includes your annual performance review. It’s like calling funerals ‘Happy Burying Nana Day’.

Sweden’s Clean Thursday

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Today is ‘Skärtorsdag’ – meaning Clean Thursday. So, why ‘clean’? Is it to do with spring cleaning? Or window cleaning? Or the art of Swedish death cleaning? No, it has a much more biblical relevance.

If you know your bible stories, today is the day when Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper. On this day, he introduced communion, and was later betrayed by Judas, condemned to death on the cross and ultimately resurrected. Prior to the Last Supper, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And he washed them clean – a symbolic metaphor for purification and the washing away of sin.

In fact, in English ‘Maundy Thursday’ also relates to the same act in the bible – the act of ritual cleaning of the feet is known an The Maundy. The word ‘maundy’ is said to come from the Latin word ‘mondatum’ which means commandment. During the Last Supper, Jesus issued a new commandment – ‘to love each other as I have loved you.’

However, for most people in Sweden, today isn’t about washing feet – it’s more about witchcraft! This is celebrated by children dressing up as witches, rather like we do in the UK and USA on Halloween. This tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that Skärtorsdag was the night of the witches, where these wicked hags would climb onto their broomsticks and fly to a mountain called Blåkulle. It was a night of danger and evil, and Swedish people would bar their doors to their houses and barns and leave outside gifts that would make the witches’ journey easier – food, milk, clothes, broomsticks. Today, that translates into the Swedish version of trick or treating.

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So if you dress up as a witch and eat candy – you’ll be kicking off your Easter the Swedish way!

In the middle of Sweden’s ‘Tranquil Week’

Did you know that today is ‘Dymmelonsdag’ – Clapper Wednesday? It is part of Sweden’s ‘Stilla Veckan’, which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’. It is historically intended to be a week of reflection and melancholy leading up to Easter. In English this week is known as Holy Week and every day has a special name.

Last Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday. According to scripture, it commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The crowds threw palm branches in front of him as he approached.

The Monday before Easter is commonly called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday – although it can have other names. The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally four weeks before Easter. At some point in history, they were moved to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. Since White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, it probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.

That takes us to today – the Wednesday before Easter – ‘Dymmelonsdag’. This literally translates as ‘Clapper Wednesday’. The clapper that this is referring to is a wooden clapper that was traditionally put inside the church bells on this day so that the chimes would have a more subdued, mournful sound during Easter weekend.

The Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. This translates as ‘Clean Thursday’ and refers to the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. In English, this day is called Maundy Thursday.

The Friday is called Good Friday in English – from an obsolete meaning of the word good as being holy. In Old English, this day was called Long Friday, which is the name that was adopted in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’.

And finally, the weekend arrives consisting of Holy Saturday which is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish – Easter Eve. Then comes ‘Påskdagen’ – Easter Sunday, and ‘Annandag påsk’ (literally second day Easter) – Easter Monday in English.

So Clapper Wednesday is not about fervent clapping, or going like the clappers, or getting the clap. Instead, take a moment of quiet reflection on this, the most holy of Wednesdays.

Swedish water – in rich supply

Yesterday, 22 March was World Water Day. It was inaugurated in 1993 to focus on the importance of fresh water.

According to the UN, World Water Day ‘’celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water. It is about taking action to tackle the global water crisis and support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.’’

Sweden contributes to this work via its Stockholm International Water Institute and, under normal circumstances, the annual World Water Week is held in the Swedish capital city. During the week, the organisation awards water prizes to researchers and institutes who work to improve water quality, accessibility and sanitation around the world.

Sweden itself is blessed with water. About 9% of the country is covered with water. Sweden is the EU country that has the most lakes – in fact, 40% of the EU’s lakes are located in Sweden. Lake Vänern, at 5655 square km, is the EU’s largest. Interestingly, Sweden’s total coastline including archipelago, is 48000 km, which is slightly more than a lap around the globe.

Much of Sweden’s freshwater is potable. Most Swedes have the privilege of uninterrupted access to drinking water, with occasional problems in rural areas during summer months. Even the water in the toilet is drinking water, not that anyone drinks from that particular vessel!