Currently, many places in Sweden are experiencing warmer summer-like temperatures. The sun is shining, the air is warm but the leaves on the trees are golden brown. Known in English as Indian Summer, this brief, warm spell in the autumn is, in Swedish, called a ‘Britt Summer.’ It has nothing to do with Britain as you might assume but something completely different.
To be an official Britt Summer, the warm spell has to roughly coincide with the 7th October. This date is known as Birgitta Day, or Britt Day in the Swedish calendar – hence the name. The day celebrates the canonisation of Swedish Saint Birgitta. Legend has it that Saint Birgitta thought the temperature in Sweden was too cold so she prayed for the citizens of the country. And the Lord answered her prayer by providing everybody with a few extra days of summer!
These warm, sunny days are very welcome – the last throws of summer, before we are plunged into darkness and winter takes us in its grasp.
Interestingly, and oddly, Britt Summer is also known as ‘Fattigmanssommar’ (Poor man’s Summer) and Grävlingsommar (Badger Summer).
If anyone knows the reason why, please share it with us!
Right now in Stockholm we are between the bird cherry and the lilac. This Swedish expression ‘Mellan hägg och syren’ is used to describe this short period between when these two bushes blossom. At the moment the bird cherry is blossoming, but not yet the lilac. The period reflects the early days of summer and for many Swedes it is the most delightful time of the year. A friend of mine nostalgically said yesterday that ‘it smells like end of school’.
So where does this expression come from? Well, the common theory is that it was first used by a cobbler who put a sign up in the window of his shop. He had decided to take a brief holiday, and the sign read ‘closed between the bird cherry and the lilac’.
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.
Every summer in Sweden, there is a wonderful tradition. This tradition began in 1959.
Every day for 6 weeks or so, at 1pm, there is a summer talk on Swedish radio channel 1. This might sound mundane, but it is, in fact, an integral part of the Swedish summer.
Each day, a different person is responsible for the talk. This person shares their life stories, perspectives, life lessons, experiences and sometimes their tragedies. They play music of their choice. It is 90 minutes of pure relaxation, with a big dash of voyeurism. Some of the talkers are celebrities, some are politicians, or authors or activists, or influencers, or actors or philosophers or soldiers or priests or even ordinary people.
The talks are in Swedish, although the speakers can originate from outside of Sweden. It is considered an honour to be asked to hold a talk. I would love to do one. I’d share by life story and my perspectives on Swedish culture from my outside perspective. Oh and I’d play music by Kate Bush and The Smiths! What a self indulgent treat!
This year so far we have heard State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell share his story. We also heard climate activist Greta Thunberg. She actually did her talk twice – both in Swedish and English. It is a really inspiring, and somewhat frightening talk about the climate crisis we are in. If you’d like to listen to it, and I urge you to do so, here is the link:
So listen and enjoy a piece of Swedish summer tradition.
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.
This year it is important to wash hands regularly and keep a physical distance from others. 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 in corona times 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 touch elbow to elbow. 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. This year, the activities are hopefully adapted to corona. 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 most babies in Sweden are made on this day. It remains to be seen, however, if this year people are keeping their distance. If you don’t keep your distance, and 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, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.
Please share this post to help others get ready for the big day!
Usually at this time of the year, a common sight on the streets of Sweden is students on trucks, as seen in these pictures. Dressed in traditional white caps, and bolstered with alcohol, the students jump up and down to the booming music from loud speakers concealed in the vehicle. They scream and shout and spray beer on each other and sometimes unsuspecting pedestrians.
They are celebrating the end of their school career. Most of them are 19 years old and have just graduated from Sixth Form College/High School. Every year the media reports accidents and injuries, which is not entirely unexpected. And trucks have been banned from certain roads and areas in the towns.
In Sweden, graduating or doing ‘studenten’, as it’s called in Swedish, is a major rite of passage into adult life. The youngsters finish their last day at school, come running out of the building to be greeted by waiting parents and families. They then climb aboard their trucks for their lap of honour. After that they go around to each other’s homes where each family usually arranges a reception to honour the newly-graduated student.
This year though is a bit different. Due to COVID 19, the trucks are banned. Parties are cancelled. Parents are not allowed to gather in large groups. It is a necessary action to try to stem a pandemic, but highly disappointing for the affected youths.
However, people are finding other solutions. Trucks may be banned but cars aren’t. The streets are full of young people screaming around in cars, flying their flags and cheering themselves on. Boats float around the city waterways with groups of less than 50 graduates, drinking sparkling wine and dancing to their booming music. The parks are full of picnicking revelers, huddled on shared blankets but socially distanced from other groups.
Proof that people will always find a way. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
Today is Sweden’s National Day. It was declared in 1983, and was first celebrated as a public holiday in 2005. Prior to that, the 6th June was known as Swedish Flag Day to commemorate that Sweden has its own flag – a celebration introduced in 1916 after the dissolution of the union with Norway in 1905.
Swedes celebrate National Day on 6 June in honour of two historical events: Gustav Vasa being elected king (6 June 1523) and the adoption of a new constitution (6 June 1809).
Normally, the King and Queen of Sweden take part in a televised ceremony at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum, on National Day. The yellow and blue Swedish flag is run up the mast, and children in traditional peasant costume present the royal couple with bouquets of summer flowers.
Otherwise, it’s a bit of a weird day, National Day. It’s celebrated with organised events in parks and squares. Buses fly the flag on their rooves, people hang up the flag on poles and people gather in large crowds to wave the flag. Other than this, many people don’t really know what to do. There is no collective memory around the 6th June, such as independence or winning a war, to pull people together. No sense of achievement. Or historical pride. So, the day is usually appreciated as a day off work to, for example, meet friends, or play golf, or day drink or sunbathe or go to Ikea.
One interesting event that happens on this day is the Citizen Ceremony. All new citizens up and down the country are invited to their town hall to participate in a ceremony to welcome them to Sweden as new Swedes. Usually, the mayor proceeds over the event and it’s followed by the most Swedish thing of all – Fika (coffee and cinnamon buns). When I participated 9 years ago, Crown Princess Victoria was actually there also. It did feel very official, with participants from all over the world dressed in their best clothes such as elegant saris, busutis and kanzus. Personally, I wore a blue jacket with a yellow handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket.
Due to the current pandemic, lots of celebrations are cancelled this year. As a replacement http://www.sweden.se are carrying out a digital event. This is what they write:
‘Sweden live: National Day @ home
Make yourself comfortable and join us as we celebrate Sweden’s National Day. In this 24-hour livestream Swedish artists will play for you from their living rooms, chefs will cook with you, museums will dazzle you with their exhibits – and you might also get the chance to spot some moose… Enjoy! Here’s the link!
Last week I was in the Swedish county of Dalarna – where it was 3 degrees and hailed! That was extreme, but also fairly typical of this summer so far.
After last year’s mega warm and long summer, expectations were high for this year. These expectations have been crushed. Cold winds, low temperatures and rain have been the melody of summer 2019 and people are not happy.
There’s a great Swedish expression – ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’. I wonder how many people agree with that saying at the moment. Summers like this are filled with reluctant book-reading and crossword solving and not so much sunbathing and swimming.
I guess it’s early days still. The weather can change and August could be amazing. That’s what we all keep telling ourselves.
And that takes us to another great Swedish expression -‘Hope is last thing to abandon us’.
Once a year, there is a summer politics week in Sweden. The week is happening now, and takes place in a park called Almedalen on the Baltic island of Gotland, and attracts heavy media coverage. Every day of the week belongs to a specific party that has a seat in the parliament. This year there are 8 parties.
The Alemdalen politics week started when legendary Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme spoke publicly. It was at the end of the 60s and there was an audience of a few hundred people.
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.
The Almedalen week has been heavily criticized, and just seeing social media can explain why. The event has become a popular opportunity for companies and organizations 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 is awash with images of participants mingling, drinking rose wine, partying, dancing and taking drunken groupies.
Live and let live I say. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s choices. I just wonder how far away from the original concept of democracy politics week will go.
And how long before your average Swede sees it as elitist, excluding and irrelevant?