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 the world.
In 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. There are 8 political parties, of which only 2 have a self-proclaimed left-orientation. If you ask a Swede if they are demonstrating, you will either get a ‘yes, of course!’, or as I got yesterday when I asked someone, ‘Hell no! I’m not red!‘
This means that for many Swedes, today is just a day off work – an opportunity to perhaps nurse a hangover from the festivities of the previous evening or to relax, go for a walk and enjoy the day.
Today, 30 April, is Walpurgis Eve, called Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish, or ‘Valborg’ for short. The name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century Saint Walburga, and in Sweden this day marks the arrival of spring.
In a cold, dark country like Sweden, residents have suffered through a long, miserable winter. So it is no surprise that the arrival of spring is an occasion to mark. On the evening of Valborg, Swedes usually gather to celebrate together.
The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. However, 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. Some of the traditional spring songs are titled ‘Beautiful May – Welcome!’ and ‘Longing for the countryside – winter rushes out’. You can see a clip below.
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! Today looks like it’ll be a cold one.
Despite bad weather, Swedes still shiver around the bonfires and ironically celebrate the arrival of Spring.
Given recent provocative manifestations, some people are starting to question Sweden’s freedom of expression laws. This criticism is even being used as a way to prevent the ratification of Sweden’s membership of NATO.
English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in her biography of Voltaire – ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. This phrase is frequently used to describe the principal of freedom of speech.
Sweden’s democracy is built on the principle of freedom of expression. It is a fundament of society, together with freedom of information, freedom to demonstrate and freedom of assembly. The individual’s right to freedom of religion is also strongly protected by the Constitution. Freedom of Expression is also enshrined as Article 10 in the Human Rights Act.
There are people in Sweden with, in my opinion, disgusting views, who manifest these in public demonstrations. However, under Swedish law, they have a right to express what they believe. I don’t have to agree with what they believe – that is also my right.
Sweden’s freedom of expression is a ‘constitutionally protected right including the right to express thoughts, opinions and feelings through speech, writing or images without interference by the authorities.’
Freedom of expression does not however mean the freedom to always say practically anything at all. For example, this freedom ‘does not extend to slander or committing an act involving threats or agitation against a national or ethnic group. On the other hand, religions as such are not protected against expressions of opinion that challenge religious messages or that may be perceived as hurtful to believers.’
To be honest, I would probably prefer some conservative opinions not to be expressed, as I feel they are deliberately provocative and lead to agitation and unrest. However, without a doubt, I would rather live in a country where individuals are free to express what they think, than in a country where religious or political powers suppress this.
If we start to limit freedom of expression, and censor opinion, we are dismantling our democracy. And where does it end? We don’t have to look very far to get the answer…..
Long before the Christianity swept over Europe, the Norse people celebrated the Midwinter Solstice in a festival called Yòl. (Yule/jul). Eventually this festival blended with Christmas and gave us many of the traditions we have today.
So, what are 5 ways in which the Norse traditions impacted Christmas?
1) Father Christmas – Odin, King of the Norse Gods, was a bearded old man in a hat and cloak. He rode Sleipnir – an 8-legged horse – across the night sky and delivered gifts to those below. This morphed into the Christian St Nicholas, and 8 reindeer to complete the saga of Santa.
2) The Twelve Days of Christmas – the ancient Norse celebrated their midwinter festival for twelve days, beginning on the day of the winter solstice. It was believed that Odin rode the sky for these 12 days so it was forbidden to hang out laundry in case he got entangled. This was known as ‘the Great Hunt’.
3) Christmas Tree – many of us know that the indoor Christmas tree originates in Germany and was made popular in the Victorian era. However, it in fact pre-dates this. The Norse people believed that evergreens were the divine plant of their sun God Balder (the son of Odin) because they remained green though-out the winter. They took this as a sign that spring was advancing. To encourage the oncoming season, they would decorate the branches of the trees with ornaments, runes and offerings of food. With Christianity, these decorations became stars, and other biblical symbols.
4) Christmas Elf – no story of Santa’s workshop is complete without his little helpers. In Norse mythology, there is the ‘nisse’ or ‘tomte’. These little creatures were small, bearded and wore little pointy hats. They were believed to live in the barns in the farmstead and they would guard the property and the inhabitants, and even fix broken things. They were loyal and industrious but you had to treat them with respect, otherwise their vengeance would be swift and angry. They also loved playing practical jokes and mischief, rather like the elves in Santa’s workshop. The word ‘elf’ comes from the Norse word álfar, which means ‘concealed people’.
5) Mistletoe – ever kissed somebody under the mistletoe? In doing so, you have fulfilled a Norse legend. In the legend, the God Balder had been prophesied to die. His mother, Frigg, in desperation, secured an oath from everything that they would not hurt him. However, she forgot to ask the mistletoe. The envious God Loki carved an arrow out of mistletoe and killed Balder. Frigg’s tears of sorrow fell onto the mistletoe turning the red berries white, and resurrected her son. She then vowed to kiss anybody who passed underneath it, and the plant came to represent love and renewal.
Another Norse influence on our Christmas celebrations is the Christmas Goat. The goat has lost its significance in most countries, but is still a symbol in Scandinavia, where it is a decoration made of straw. The goat originates in Norse tradition from the kid goat that was sacrificed in honour of Njord, the God of the Sea, the Weather and Prosperity. Later on, in Sweden, the Yule goat was believed to be an invisible spirit that would appear before Christmas to make sure that the holiday preparations were done correctly. Eventually, the goat took on the role of the gift giver, instead of or together with Santa Claus (called Jultomten in Swedish).
Other traditions that originate from the Norse jòl are the Christmas Ham, the Yule Log, the Yule Wreath, and Christmas caroling, or ‘wassailing’.
So, while the message of Christmas is the Christian story, many of the surrounding symbols and traditions are in fact from another source altogether.
While the English word Christmas (Christ’s mass), and the German Weihnachen (Holy Night) are clearly connected to the celebrated Christian birth, the Swedish word ‘Jul’ has a much more vague origin.
Like with the English word ‘yule’, experts do not fully agree on where it originates. However, it is deemed likely that it comes from the Proto-Germanic word ‘jehwla’ which could have meant ‘party’ or ‘celebration’.
The word was taken early into the Nordics via the Old Finnish language in the form of ‘juhla’ meaning ‘festival’, and then again as ‘joulu’ meaning ‘jul’. There was already a big celebration of the winter solstice and the winter hunt around this time that was given the name ‘jol’ in Old Norse.
After the surge of Christianity through Europe in the 900’s, England and Germany aligned their word for Christmas, but in the Nordics they kept word ‘jul’. Instead they scheduled their pagan celebrations to occur at the same time as the Christian one, and eventually the two melted together. In the Nordic countries, we still see elements of the pagan ‘jol’ at Christmas time with the ‘Christmas goat’ for example.
In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Christmas is called ‘jul’. In Finland, it is called ‘joulou’. In Iceland it is called ‘Jol’ and in Estonia, ‘joulud’.
‘Don’t feel sorry for me, Gothenburg’ is a very popular song by Swedish artist Håkan Hellström. In Swedish, the track is called ’Känn ingen sorg för mig Göteborg’. It was released in 2000 on his solo debut album of the same name, selling platinum in Sweden.
Håkan Hellström is one of the Swedish artists who can sell out concerts in venues that hold 75,000 people. Very few other singers epitomize Gothenburg quite as much as Håkan, and the song has become synonymous with the singer and Sweden’s second city.
What other songs do you know that are about Sweden or a Swedish town?
There have been many songs written about Sweden and Swedish towns. In this series, I will share a few with you.
In 2002, the Swedish rock band Kent released a ballad called ‘Sverige’ (Sweden). it quickly shot up the charts and has, since then, become a popular track praising this country in the north. Many people feel that the song should be Sweden’s national anthem.
The song, written by Joakim Berg, includes a chorus with lyrics such as, ‘Welcome, welcome here, whoever you are. Whatever you are.’
In the last 20 years, the song has been covered by many other Swedish artists and continues to be successful in the Swedish charts.
There have been many songs written about Sweden and Swedish towns. In this series, I will share a few with you.
The second is a song in Swedish called ‘Stockholm inatt’, which translates as ‘Stockholm tonight’. The original song was released in 2007 by artist Peter Jöback, and is about a night out in central Stockholm. The lyrics take in classic locations and venues in the city.
However, it was covered in 2021 by soul singer Cherrie in a tribute show where artists interpret each other’s songs. She modernized the lyrics and placed the song partially in the suburbs of Stockholm. This re-working gave the song a huge renaissance, and a hit for Cherrie.
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.
Today is UNESCO World Book Day, to celebrate books and promote reading. The 23 April is a significant day as it commemorates the death of many famous writers such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.
Every year a World Book Capital is nominated. The first one, in 2001, was Madrid, Spain. This year it is Guadalajara in Mexico.
So today is a good day to buy a book, or to gift one. If you know anybody who is interested in learning about Sweden, or planning on visiting Sweden, then my guide book is a good match! I published it in 2021.
You can buy it on Amazon, Bokus, Akademibokhandeln and Adlibris amongst other online stores. Sweden, by Neil Shipley, published by Kuperard 2021. You can also buy it straight from the publisher at http://www.culturesmartbooks.co.uk
I still have a few copies left, so if you’d like to buy a signed copy, just let me know!