Seven bizarre Swedish academic traditions

Seven bizarre Swedish academic traditions
Student life in Lund, southern Sweden. Photo: Johan Nilsson/SCANPIX
The Local guides you through Sweden's ancient universities' top academic traditions all foreign students need to know about. Each university has its own unique traditions, but these are some of the most common ones.

1. You arrive 15 minutes late for all lectures…

Swedes like to be on time. In fact, they are probably some of the most punctual people in the world. So prepare to be stunned by the fact that your fellow Swedish students saunter casually into the lecture hall 15 minutes late every day while you’re waiting in your seat.

This tradition, called an “academic quarter”, dates back to a time when students did not own pocket watches and the ringing of the church bells was the general method of timekeeping. When the bell rang they knew they had 15 minutes to get to the lecture. Obviously today’s tech-savvy Swedes don’t go anywhere without their smart phone, but the tradition lives on.

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2. … or half an hour late for events in the evening

Been invited to a party starting at 6pm? Don’t show up until 6.30pm. In the evening the academic quarter gets extended to a double quarter – to allow students enough time to change into formal evening wear.

Therefore, if the invitation says 8pm, the event in fact starts at 8.30pm. Interestingly the academic quarter was officially abolished by an Uppsala University principal in 1982, but students and lecturers still observe it today.

Are you late enough yet? Photo: Torstein Bøe/NTB scanpix

3. You howl out your exam stress

Have you ever felt so stressed out that you just want to open your window and scream at the top of your lungs? Well, at university campuses in towns such as Uppsala, Stockholm, Linköping and Lund, students do just that when the exam pressure gets too overwhelming.

No one knows exactly how the howl (known as the Flogsta roar in Uppsala or the Delphi scream in Lund after the name of the student residences where it began) was invented, but every night at around 10pm students take to their balconies, roofs and windows to scream out their anxiety.

Don’t hold it in. Photo: Bertil Ericson/SCANPIX

4. You change your nationality (well, not quite)

The so-called nations (nationer) in the ancient university towns of Uppsala and Lund are the oldest student societies in Sweden, dating back to the 1600s, although each will claim they are older than the other. There are 13 at each university and they are all named after various Swedish provinces and counties.

In the past, students were meant to join the nation named after their own province of birth. Nowadays, they are loosely defined by either political alignment, interests, size or character. Most have their own cafe and pub and many also provide accommodation for members, alongside organizing club nights, formal dinners and musical events.

Student nations organise for example dinner events. Photo: Simon Paulin/

5. Remember the three Ps: pea soup, pancakes and punsch

While not only a Swedish tradition within academia, this is a rite the universities have taken to heart. Many student societies organise informal as well as formal dinners every Thursday serving traditional yellow pea soup with pancakes for dessert. The tradition is said to originate from the time Sweden still subscribed to Catholicism as preparation for Friday fasting – but why give up on something yummy?

The pea soup is usually washed down with popular university beverage punsch (if you’re still able to spell that after a glass of punsch we’re impressed). The sweet drink contains around 25 percent alcohol by volume and 30 percent sugar and is produced from arrack, sugar, neutral spirits, water and various flavourings.

RECIPE: How to make your own Swedish pea soup

Yellow pea soup. Photo: John Duxbury/Swedish Food

6. You’ll be brushing up on your drinking songs

That punsch we mentioned? Your Swedish course mates will not let you have even the most modest of sips without singing at least one five-verse drinking song to accompany it. The same goes for all other beverages. There’s a song to go with wine, a special beer song, one for Swedish aquavit, another for plain tap water and so on.

Over the course of the evening, usually enjoyed at a three-course sit-down meal before a night of ballroom dancing (which these days is really just code for any-kind-of-modern-dancing-while-wearing-ball-gowns), they will all be sung.

The tradition of sit-down dinners is usually known as sittning (in Lund) or gasque (in Uppsala).

Practise your singing voice. Photo: Matthew Mead/AP

7. April 30th is the most important day of the year

Swedes celebrate bonfire parties on Walpurgis night (Valborgsmässoafton) every year. The most exciting action, however, occurs in the nation’s student cities, where revellers take the good weather with a good dose of extreme madness before they hunker down to revise for their summer exams.

For many students, the day begins with a champagne breakfast, which inevitably ends up with more champagne splashed around the rooms of the student nations than in champagne glasses. In Uppsala, thousands of residents then line up next to the river to watch students take part in a homemade-raft boat race. Then they all gather in the park to see in the warmer weather with loud music, dancing and wild student antics.

If you’re a student, chances are this will be one of the best nights of your life. If you’re not a student, it’s best to stay away. And buy ear plugs.

Preparation shopping tour at Systembolaget. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

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