National Day: a big party for nothing in particular

It doesn't commemorate anything in particular. Yet Sweden's national day is still a good excuse for Swedes to wave their blue and yellow flags, reports Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius

Sweden’s National Day has officially been June 6th since 1983. However, it only became an official bank holiday in 2005, replacing Whit Monday. Its history has more to do with creating a date than commemorating one. June 6th, Sweden’s National Day celebrates Sweden, but little else.

Most modern countries celebrate in national unity on the anniversary of a historical event; one of liberation or victory. The commemoration of a joint struggle unifies all its citizens in collective brother/sisterhood. It’s a good day for flag waving and national pride.

Sweden has not fought a war in nearly two centuries. Their most recent struggle was the 1814 “Swedish Campaign against Norway.” Truth be told, Sweden did support neighboring Denmark in the1848-1850 First Schleswig War when an uprising by Schleswig-Holstein’s German majority fought for independence from Denmark.

Otherwise, however, Sweden has been at peace for 192 years – but peace has its price. Not having engaged in modern aggressions has left Sweden without an obvious unifying calendar day to swell Swedish hearts draped in blue and yellow.

Not wanting to miss out on the modern festivities of national celebration Sweden pieced together a date to call its very own. The end result is June 6th, The National Day of Sweden. But what does it represent?

Historically it shares the calendar with two events: The adoption of a new constitution adopted in 1809 and the date on which Gustav Vasa was crowned king in 1523. Neither of those two events are monumental enough to stand on their own. The lead up to the modern celebration of a national day was largely kicked off sometime in the 1890s.

Around the turn of the 20th century there was talk of a suitable date for a Swedish national day. There were four suggested dates: June 6th, Midsummer’s Eve and the anniversaries of the deaths of either Gustav II Adolf or Karl XII.

Midsummer’s Eve has been on the lips of many modern Swedes when discussing the day that best represents Sweden and all things Swedish. It was originally rejected because it was only one day off from the dissolution of the union of Sweden and Norway and no one wanted the day to be misinterpreted as a celebration of neighboring Norway’s independence.

A celebration of the royal deaths was also rejected in true Swedish pragmatism: the 6th and 30th of bleak November, respectively were cold, dark days, hardly suitable for a joyful celebration of Sweden.

The driving force in creating a day of Swedish celebration was Skansen’s founder, Artur Hazelius. In the spring of 1893 he organized “Skansen’s Spring Festival” which came to a close on June 6th. Artur Hazelius wrote, “A national celebration at Skansen has been inaugurated on 6 June, Gustaf Day, which celebrated and will continue to celebrate hereafter Sweden’s National Day.”

Hazelius only achieved part of the struggle to create a national day when in 1916 June 6th was proclaimed Sweden’s Flag Day, recognizing Sweden’s yellow cross on a field of blue as its national flag created in 1906. Finally, in 1983, Sweden could claim its own national pride and look to June 6th as Sweden’s National Day.

However, it remained a regular work day. Flags flew, events were staged, but employers expected employees on the job. In order for the National Day to be granted public holiday status another banking day had to be abolished. After many years of debate Whit Monday paid the ultimate price.

In 2004 the Swedish Riksdag voted make Sweden’s National Day, June 6th, a public holiday and a day off from work starting in 2005. It replaced Whit Monday which usually falls around the beginning of June. The protests beyond the die-hard traditionalists and religious voices came from the workers. While Whit Monday always falls on a Monday, June 6th can fall on a weekend. Sadly for the working masses, there will be years with one more workday on the calendar. National pride also has its price.

Most Swedes today celebrate the day as a wonderful opportunity to sleep in a bit longer with not need to punch in at work. However, should the need to wave a flag grab the spirit, the King and Queen are the featured guests of a ceremony at Skansen each year. They usually parade through Stockholm in their horse-drawn carriage on their way to and fro’ in full royal pomp. Blue and yellow flutter unashamedly in the breeze and Swedes can feel pride in being Swedish.

Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius

For members


#SwedishChristmas: How Elsa Beskow created a timeless Swedish Christmas

Every day until Christmas Eve, The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in our own Advent calendar.

#SwedishChristmas: How Elsa Beskow created a timeless Swedish Christmas
Swedish illustrator and writer Elsa Beskow did double-duty to make her mark on Christmas in Sweden. Photo: SvD/TT

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Since the 19th century, some of Sweden's most famous writers and artists have contributed to shaping Swedish Christmas. The poetry and prose of writers like Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the illustrations of artists like Carl Larsson helped define Christmas through the distribution of jultidningar (Swedish Christmas magazines). The jultomte (a.k.a. the Swedish Santa) was introduced and popularized with the publication of writer Viktor Rydberg's poem and short story, and the accompanying illustrations of Jenny Nyström.

Among these and countless other creative contributors to Swedish Christmas, most were confined to expressing themselves using just one art form. Few managed what Elsa Beskow accomplished in combining her dual talents as both an illustrator and a writer.

From her first illustrations in the Swedish Christmas magazine Jultomten in 1894 to the publication in 1947 of the children's book, Peter and Lotta's Christmas (Petter och Lottas Jul), which she wrote and illustrated, Beskow's creative output left a lasting impression on Swedish Christmas.

One of Elsa Beskow's illustration for Swedish Christmas magazine Jultomten. Photo: Public Domain

Peter and Lotta's Christmas, the last book in a series about two children living with their three aunts, is a Christmas classic in Sweden, where it was adapted as part of a television series and a 1968 film. More recently, a popular version of the Nutcracker ballet combined with Peter and Lotta's Christmas has been performed at the Royal Swedish Opera since 1995. Like much of Beskow's body of work, the book has been translated into 14 languages, spreading Swedish Christmas traditions like the julbock (the Swedish Christmas goat, which we'll cover tomorrow) around the world.

As with Jenny Nyström, Beskow's many illustrations of jultomtar, julbockar, and cherubic children and happy families sledding and celebrating Christmas, continue to appear in a variety of modern contexts, from Christmas tree ornaments to greeting cards to serving trays. It is a testament to Beskow's tremendous talent that these images have not only stood the test of time, but have also inspired modern artists like Swedish designer Katharina Kippel to adapt and incorporate them in their own work.  

Though Elsa Beskow's contributions to Christmas in Sweden are in many ways particularly Swedish, they also have a much broader appeal that, as the publisher of the English language versions of her books notes, “transcend nationality and time”.

Each day until Christmas Eve, we're looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series HERE.