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'Tradition, culture, and religion are not a Swedish Bermuda triangle'

'Tradition, culture, and religion are not a Swedish Bermuda triangle'

Published: 16 Jan 2012 10:20 GMT+01:00
Updated: 16 Jan 2012 10:20 GMT+01:00

Following the unofficial closure of the Christmas holiday season in Sweden, contributor Ruben Brunsveld reflects on the transformation of religious traditions into cultural ones.

While it may be too late to say god fortsättning to all readers of The Local, I'll allow myself the opportunity to do so anyway.

From what I've been told of course, the post-Christmas greeting can only be said until the 13th of January.

Which is also the last date for the Christmas tree to leave the house, the Advent “stair candles” to be taken away, and the star to be removed from its prominent place in front of the main window.

These are just a few of the many traditions that enrich Sweden’s cultural landscape.

Coming from a country (the Netherlands) that has lost most of its traditions, I have a lot of sympathy for all the unwritten cultural norms that govern Sweden, even if they might make the integration process a bit more complicated.

Just when you know the words to the famous drinking song Helan går, they change the order of the verses or it is a different song that needs to be sung for a different occasion.

Nonetheless, it is nice to see that so many people uphold and respect longstanding traditions.

But do they know where these traditions come from?

My suggestion to put out the “stair” candles a bit earlier this past year was met with harsh criticism because it was not yet Advent Sunday.

And behold on Advent Sunday, the candles appeared in windows across Stockholm as if the conductor of a symphonic orchestra had ordered them with a stroke of his baton.

But once I started asking my Swedish friends what Advent stood for almost all of them where at a loss for words.

More then any country I have lived in before, Sweden seems to be governed by a magic triangle of traditions, culture, and religion.

Although the balance shifts, the content remains the same based on tradition.

The religious symbols, services and icons are upheld but they are largely stripped of their religious meaning to be recast in a cultural model.

Traditions stay, but religion becomes culture.

Somehow they seem to blend as easy as gin and tonic on a Saturday night at Stureplan; it becomes a "religion-light" cocktail.

The Christmas choir in Katarina Church was introduced by a reverend but it was not a real service, nor did he give his blessing at the end.

The story of the birth of Jesus was told, but without due explanation or a sermon that would put it into the context of the 21st century.

It was as if it was an ancient relic to be admired, rather than a story that could have value for today’s society.

But maybe it is not "religion-light" after all.

Maybe it becomes the exact opposite: culture “extra strong”.

Because, as confusing as it might be for the outsider, it is exactly this mix of traditions often based in religion but recast into culture that seems to be such a strong part of Swedish identity and a building block for a cohesive society.

Tradition, culture, and religion do not create a Swedish “Bermuda triangle”.

On the contrary.

However you value them, one thing is sure: traditions are very much alive in Sweden.

So although I cannot stand another piece of Julskinka I am already looking forward to Easter!

Ruben Brunsveld is the Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking (StIPS), which offers training in Intercultural Communication, Public Speaking & Negotiation Techniques

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Your comments about this article

12:09 January 16, 2012 by Central European
It still has suprising me, that some europe traditions are still alive, despite new paneuropean tradition , which is to give up any local people´s tradition as a precaution to do not offend any immigrant´s tradition with ours.

The biggest problem is, that 99.9 percent of our traditions they ´d never mind, but we are too afraid to ask them to do not offend them.
16:34 January 16, 2012 by gabeltoon
Hang onto your traditions they are what identifies you as a person,where you were born and raised and your nationality.
14:37 January 17, 2012 by phil23456
no surrender, I am sticking to my traditions.
18:03 January 17, 2012 by skogsbo
most traditions have religious undertones, they have just be modified, normal pagan rituals made more christian etc. These days it materialism and commerce that are modifying traditions. Like giving out cards for every known event under the sun.

What is the difference between a specific nation's tradition and its cultural ones? Or was this third one just needed to use the Bermuda triangle analogy?
10:36 January 18, 2012 by Streja
Jul in Sweden hasn't got much to do with Jesus Ruben, but it is an old custom from before Christianity was introduced. That's why there is ham and a tree. It's very dark so candles are important. Religion is not that important to us.
11:42 January 18, 2012 by jwlundgren
@Central European, huh?

As a person of faith, I find rituals without meaning offensive. why bother if you do not believe? why go to church and hear choirs sing about the birth of someone you do not believe in? Why put up candles in the windows that resemble Jewish menorahs? why put up a star to represent the star of bethlehem if the story behind it has not relevance to you? I would rather see a country devoid of secular religion and leave it to the faithful to practice in their own way, than see this massive show of "tradition" when the foundation of the tradition is now considered passé.
17:56 January 18, 2012 by skogsbo
jwl, clearly nobody celebrated anything at the winter solstice and the coming of longer daylight hours until this guy was allegedly born over 2000years ago. Even though ficticious, the date isn't certain anyway. Xmas was a hijacked ritual from long long ago, before jesus was a glint in his pappa's eye, or was it a star twinkling.

Why listening to singing, because it's a nice thing to do?

The foundation to many traditions are pagan etc.
12:22 January 20, 2012 by Åskar
@Streja

Christmas trees originated in Germany in the 29th century.
13:17 January 20, 2012 by Central European
jwlundrgen :)

Try think about more properly. My opinion is about completely different.

About the situation, where people conected with rituals are harrased by people like you who use arguments thet their rituals are offensive to immigrants.

Peoples like you say forget christmas tree as a name, call it "celebration" tree or just a happy tree, couse muslims COULD feel offended.

If the answer is why are not muslims offended in bethlem or in other partly mixed cities in their countries people like you argue that in our country the ritual are almost dead anyway,,,,....
23:49 January 21, 2012 by jomamas
Ban all religion, all culture, all difference, force everyone to have the same job, same standard of living.

The world can be one giant suburb with big American box stores and our value system will be derived from Hollywood movies.

Then the socialists will claim complete victory.
15:14 January 22, 2012 by helloengrnasir
@central european

We are living in a society where we respect all religions and we listen to others too,who don't have any religion. But Sweden is more closely practice traditions rather than religion. And Muslim feel good if it is just a tradition to celebrate the birthday of Christ coz they also celebrate birthday of their Holy Prophet Muhammad(peace be upon him). So i think its better to respect the rule and traditions of the country you are living in to feel happy and make everyone feel happy too.

@Jomamas

These things can't be banned but its better to come to the common points to make the world a giant as u suggested :P.
12:18 January 24, 2012 by Scepticion
@ Åskar

I guess your calendar starts with the reign of Pharao Thutmose IV
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