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10 Traditions That Make Sweden One of the Best Countries to Live In

by Claire Litton Cohn Oct 12, 2017

Most Swedish traditions seem to involve either celebrating Christmas or eating lots of pastries. You too can be an honorary Swede if you celebrate the following holidays; just make sure to get out your waffle iron and dust off your candles (and book that Stockholm Airbnb in advance)!

1. Cinnamon Bun Day — October 4th

Invented in 1999 by the Swedish Home Baking Council (yes, that’s a real organization in Sweden), Kanelbullens Dag is exactly what it sounds like: the chance to stuff your face with as many delicious pastries as you can fit. Swedish cinnamon buns are less sweet than North American ones and are flecked with “pearl sugar” (large chunks of sugar that look like rock salt) rather than doused with thick frosting. They are available in every cafe and grocery store, but it’s always a good idea to make your own and have them for fika.

2. Glögg — Christmastime

Gently simmering red wine with some spices makes a sweet and pungent drink that makes your insides toasty when winter hits in Sweden. Sometimes, Swedes add raisins or slivered almonds to their glögg…or dress it up with different kinds of alcohol. We took our toddler to see the lights at the Tivoli last Christmas, and you could buy glögg inside the amusement park; their version was red wine with a shot of brandy. That made the hordes of tourists clustering around the festive displays a lot more bearable.

3. Midsommar — the Summer Solstice

On the longest day of the year, Sweden grinds to a halt. Everyone takes to the nearest parks to make flower wreaths and eat pickled herring while dancing around a pole and pretending to be frogs. This is the most important holiday, and it centers around family and celebration of the Sun — in a country with some of the darkest, longest winters in the world, it makes a lot of sense. Swedes lose their minds as soon as it starts to get a little sunny out, and everyone is lounging on the closest patio wearing only tank tops and short shorts. Midsommar is the chance to drink, make merry, and celebrate that the Sun won’t go down until 11 PM.

4. Santa Lucia — December 13th

Part of the Swedish Christmas celebration, sort of, the Feast of Santa Lucia is beautiful and easily recognizable by its distinctive dress. Typically, girls dress up like the saint herself, wearing long white robes and leafy wreaths decorated with long white taper candles. Boys are encouraged to dress as “Star Boys”, carrying wands with stars on the end, and wearing long conical hats decorated with stars. The traditional songs they sing are beautiful, and seeing the candle headdresses in the darkest heart of winter is a nice reminder that not everything is gloomy and frozen.

5. Valborg — April 30th / May 1st

If you like fire, this holiday is the one for you. King Carl XVI Gustaf celebrates his birthday on Valborg, and you’ll see a lot of Swedish flags around. While it used to be a way of fending off evil spirits, most celebrants now just like lighting things on fire; there are large bonfires in city centers (mostly public parks), but private citizens may have smaller bonfires with their families, especially if they have a lot of garden waste to burn up. Singing choral songs of springtime is very common, also.

6. Christmas markets — Christmastime

Swedes are nuts for Christmas and love Christmas markets, where booths and stalls with vendors sell anything from glögg to sausages to Kanelbullens. There will sometimes be themed displays with animatronic robots, people selling handicrafts like sheepskin slippers or knitted sweaters, and a variety of Santa-related activities. There are often opportunities to see performers, do crafts, and take your children on carousels.

7. Waffle Day — March 25th

Våffeldagen is not just celebrated in Sweden, but Swedes have made it their own by perfecting the art of crispy waffles (like flat ice cream cones), which they top with whipped cream and jam. Waffle irons in Sweden look like four hearts stuck together, producing a beautiful scalloped edge to these tasty treats. The idea behind the holiday is to eat as many waffles as possible, washed down with coffee. That’s it. Holidays are pretty simple here.

8. Julbock (Yule goat) — Christmastime

If you think there are a lot of Christmas traditions, you are absolutely right. The straw Yule Goat is a festive decoration that is commonly placed, in small versions, in people’s houses, on their lawns, or near their Christmas trees. Large versions are traditionally built in the capital…and just as traditionally, burned down by vandals, every year. Building a large flammable decorative item that someone commits arson against has become a tradition.

9. Death Cleaning (Döstädning) — any time

This peaceable and thoughtful practice is designed to allow you to get your house in order and your clutter under control so that your family won’t have to deal with it after your death. Octogenarian Margareta Magnusson wrote a book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning that is starting to gain popularity, especially with anyone whose parents have spent a lifetime packing their homes to the rafters. It’s a sad truth that everyone will end up dealing with the possessions of their loved ones after death, and döstädning is a meditative and lagom (more later) process that allows the elderly to reach peace with their legacy.

10. Lagom — any time

Everyone loves to say “moderation in all things”, but the Swedes take it to a cultural level and feel it in their bones. Lagom means “just enough”, and informs everything from opinions on politics to the amount of fermented herring you might like on your plate (in my case, the correct amount is none). This concept of calm moderation encourages everyone to find their own middle ground and is a useful tool to incorporate into any lifestyle — as long as you use it, too, in moderation.

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