Celebrating your birthday in Sweden

Today is my birthday, but it’s not the first time I’m celebrating in Sweden. I must have had at least 20 birthdays here. This year is a bit special since big parties are not allowed, so it got me thinking what is typical about celebrating birthdays in Sweden?

1) Wake up call – Swedes who do not live in a single household are usually woken up early in the morning by friends or family coming into the bedroom with bubbly, breakfast, and gifts. The breakfast tray is often adorned with a candle. This is a lovely way to wake up, unless you’re not a morning person that is.

2) Singing – Swedes love to sing, in general, and they usually sing when they carry out the morning wake up call. The Swedish birthday song is a cheerful melody entitled ‘ja, må han/hon leva’. This translates as ‘yes, may he/she live (for a hundred years)..’ Curiously, there’s no mention of birthday in the Swedish song, unlike the English ‘Happy Birthday to You.’ After the singing, there is traditionally a ‘hurra’ at the end of the song. In most of Sweden, there are four ‘hurras’ but in the county of Skåne only three – hurra, hurra, hurra!

3) Green cake. A popular birthday cake is a green, marzipan clad cake called a ’Princesstårta’. Full of whipped cream, it’s a sickly treat. It seems ungracious but in Sweden, the celebrant themselves is responsible for bringing their own cake with them if they want to be celebrated in the work place.

4) Gift giving is usual in Sweden when somebody has their birthday. Usually, gifts are unostentatious such as flowers, chocolates, wine or something small and meaningful. Gifts for children tend to be more plentiful. A common group gift is to take the celebrant out to a restaurant. At some point during the dinner, a slightly self-conscious ‘Ja, må hon/han leva’ is sung.

5) The round number. Birthdays that end with a ‘0’ tend to be celebrated larger than others in Sweden as they are seen as a milestone. Swedes will often have a big party or will travel away with friends and family to warmer climes. Since neither are currently permitted in the shadow of the pandemic, birthdays with round numbers are celebrated in a smaller fashion or postponed to a later year.

Celebrating birthdays in Sweden became popular during the 1600’s in the Royal Court. Towards the end of the 1800’s it made its way into the general population. Important birthdays that are celebrated a little extra are 18, when a person comes of age, 20 when a person can legally buy alcohol and 65, when they retire. At the age of 100, Swedes receive a telegram from the monarch. According to Sweden’s Statistic Agency, the most common birthday in Sweden is 15 April. The least common, other than 29 February, is the 21 November.