Sweden is a country that goes crazy for baked goods on Cinnamon Bun Day in the fall and Holy Waffle Day in the spring. We have days off for holidays (both Christian and pagan) that are so old that no one even knows what we’re celebrating anymore.
When kids graduate from the Swedish equivalent to high school (gymnasium), their parents rent them a TRUCK and hire a driver to chauffeur them in very slow loops through the city while they (1) play techno music at full volume (2) scream and/or dance along (3) get drunk.
So you would think that National Day, with its great symbolic importance for the country, would be kind of a big deal.
Well…. sort of.
Up in Stockholm, this is one of the days when you can count on seeing the Royal Family in traditional garb at Skansen (check out Lola’s photos from last year).
In Malmö, they’re holding a huge festival in two locations with parades and local choirs and, of course, fika on the house. (11 am – 4 pm in Stortorget for anyone who’s interested). There’s also a special ceremony to honor new Swedish citizens at the Opera House.
In Helsingborg, they’re doing much of the same—song and dance presentations from different groups, speeches, poems, and a flag ceremony.
These festival-like events are being held in practically every community throughout the country.
All the same, even though there are definitely festivities going on, when I check my Facebook wall or Twitter, there are a lot of comments like, “Happy National Day!! So what are we supposed to do…?”
Or there’s this take on the holiday from comedian Al Pitcher:
*See below for a list of festivities in different areas.
Sweden, the empire-builder
One reason why people are at a loss as to how to celebrate National Day is that the holiday is extremely new, especially for Sweden. It only became an official holiday as “National Day” in 1995. Before that, it went through longer incarnations as a lesser holiday—Swedish Flag Day and Gustav Vasa Day.
When you start looking at different countries’ national days, you see that they’re usually celebrating some sort of unlikely victory at a crucial point in history. The 4th of July in the US, Bastille Day in France, Independence Day in India… they’re all celebrating hard-won freedom from an external power.
The thing is, Sweden has never really been in the position of the rebel underdog.
Sweden’s last war was in 1814, when it invaded Norway following Norway’s declaration of independence from Sweden. Up until the 1900s, Sweden has been a regional aggressor with claims to Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, and beyond at different periods of time. (To be fair, Denmark did its fair share of aggressing, especially around Skåne, which changed hands dozens of times.)
Sweden even had colonies—one in present-day Delaware, USA, a few in Africa, and a few in the Carribbean. Sweden owned Saint Barthélemy (St. Bart’s) for just under 100 years until the government sold it to France. I’m going to go ahead and say that that was probably a bad real estate decision.
So the major question for people who want to have a day set aside to celebrate the country of Sweden has been this—what are we going to celebrate and when are we going to do it?
Why June 6?
A number of important moments in Swedish history have taken place on June 6, but the two that are emphasized for the purposes of Sweden’s national day are June 6, 1523 and June 6, 1809.
On June 6, 1523, Gustav Vasa was chosen as the King of Sweden, and Sweden became an independent state. Previously, it had been ruled by Denmark under the Kalmar Union, but Gustav Vasa said “HEY DÅ!” to those guys.
He then established the Church of Sweden, changing Sweden from a Catholic to a Protestant country, and, in true Swedish fashion, established a new tax code. (Maybe there’s something in the water…)
On June 6, 1809, a new form of government was established, which changed Sweden from a monarchy to a system of shared powers: the executive, the taxing, the legislative, and the judicial branches all had delineated responsibilities and powers. This transition also allowed for new political rights, among them the rights to freedom of the press, religion, and speech.
June 6 was first celebrated as Swedish Flag Day in 1893 by Artur Hazelius, the founder of Skansen, a beloved park in Stockholm with a zoo, an open-air history museum, restaurants, gardens, and special events.
The Swedish national anthem being sung at Skansen with the Royal Family in attendance.
In 1916, the Hazelius’ celebration of Swedish Flag Day was officially recognized, but not as a public holiday. The name was changed to National Day in 1983 and finally became an official holiday in 1995, when they swapped out “Annandag Pingst” (Whit Monday) for June 6.
As a sidenote, the unions were totally annoyed when National Day became an official holiday because Whit Monday was a Monday holiday every year (i.e. a day off of work) while June 6 will fall on a weekend two years out of seven, resulting in an increase of just over 2 hours of working time every year. (No, I did not calculate that myself.)
They negotiated some sort of agreement where all workers employed under collective agreements get about 2 hours of flex paid vacation time per year as a result.
Swedish Flag Trivia
I see trivia as my ticket to quiz night victories (i.e. free stuff!) at the English-speaking pubs in town. I’m making good on my investment in higher education, one free beer at a time.
For those of you who share my interest in ridiculous and seemingly-useless information, here’s some flag trivia in honor of The Holiday Formerly Known as Swedish Flag Day.
- The Swedish flag dates back to the 1550s, around the end of Gustav Vasa’s time.
- The model for the Swedish flag is believed to be the Danish flag, which has the same cross pattern but with a red background and a white cross.
- The colors of the Swedish flag (and later, of Ikea) were inspired by the symbol of the Swedish monarchy—three gold crowns—and the blue of the Swedish shield.
- You can request a Swedish flag from the government as long as you can prove that you have a flagpole.
How to celebrate at home
Yesterday, Simon came home from work, surveyed the disaster zone in the kitchen, and said, “How do you always get sucked into these ridiculous projects?”
For some reason, the plans I made with my friend Steve to celebrate National Day involve reenacting an activity that I imagine would have been very Swedish about 100 years ago. My kitchen smells disgusting. (Blog post to follow.)
For those of you who want to take part in National Day celebrations from outside of Sweden, you can bake the official National Day dessert. If only I had known this existed before the fateful trip to the fish market…
In 1983, when National Day became official, there was a contest to create a dessert to honor the country. The winning entry was some sort of cream-filled ball, but it didn’t really catch on. (YUCK! is my initial reaction, but I haven’t tried it.) In 1994, they tried again, with much better results.
The official National Day dessert is a Mazarin cake on the bottom topped with strawberries and cream.
300 grams almond paste
150 grams butter
3 eggs, lightly whipped
100 grams almond paste
About 2 tablespoons of orange liquor (like Grand Marnier) or fresh pressed orange juice
1 liter strawberries
Lemon balm (citronmeliss in Swedish)
Preheat the oven to 175°C (350° F).
Shred the almond paste for the Mazarin bottom, cut butter into the almond paste and blend with a spoon or a food processor until it is an even consistency. Add the eggs and quickly blend together.
Using a square baking pan lined with wax paper, press the dough to an even thickness (about 1 cm). Bake in the oven for about 12-15 minutes, then let cool.
Shred the almond paste for the filling, add the orange liquor or orange juice and whisk until it becomes a loose cream. Spread a layer of cream on the Mazarin bottom.
Cut in squares or use an oval cookie cutter to cut the sheet into individual portions. Slice the strawberries and arrange them in dense lines on the cream.
Garnish with lemon balm and a Swedish flag!
Wherever you are, I wish you a wonderful National Day!
If you’re in Sweden and would like more information on different celebrations throughout Sweden, the easiest thing to do is to search for your town’s name plus “nationaldagen” on the internet.
Each local municipality should have a link on its website to the festivities being held in its area. Otherwise, check out the links below (all in Swedish):