How is All Saints Day marked in Sweden?

How is All Saints Day marked in Sweden?
Lanterns cast light over graves at Stockholm's Woodland Cemetery. Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/
All Saints Day has its roots in Catholic tradition, and today it's a chance for people in Sweden to remember all the people they have known and lost. Here's what you need to know about the custom.
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In the ninth century, November 1st was chosen as the day to celebrate saints who didn't have their own designated feast day. Even after Sweden became a Protestant country, and today is one of the most secular countries in the world, All Saints is a tradition that has lived on.

The Swedish language has two words for All Saints Day: allhelgonadagen and Alla helgons dag. There's a difference between the two, since the former refers specifically to November 1st, while Alla helgons dag is always the first Saturday in November. In 2019, that's November 2nd, so the day after allhelgonadagen.

Initially, both terms were used to mean November 1st, but Alla helgons dag has since come to mean the first Saturday in November, meaning the date changes each year.

A woman and child visit a grave on Alla helgons dag. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

For several centuries it was marked on November's first Sunday until in 1953, Sweden's government moved Alla helgons dag from Sunday to Saturday. At the time, many people worked on Saturdays so the decision was intended to increase the number of days off work. Because the government didn't want to remove the right of people to mark November 1st as All Saints Day, that has remained in the calendar as allhelgonadagen.

Technically, Alla helgons dag remains a public holiday, but since it's always during a weekend, that doesn't mean much to many people.

If you're lucky, your employer might be one of those which offers a half-day before public holidays, and there is also an exemption from congestion charges in Gothenburg and Stockholm on the days immediately preceding public holidays.

The public holiday also means that Systembolaget, the state-owned alcohol monopoly, is closed on Alla helgons dag (November 2nd), so any alcohol for the weekend needs to be bought before the shops close on the Friday.

Otherwise, this is a quiet holiday rather than a day of celebration, as its origins are about remembering the dead. Many people use All Saints Day to visit family members' or friends' graves, care for the burial site, and bring extra decorations such as wreaths and, in particular, candles. The Sunday following Alla helgons dag is known as All Souls Day, when people remember all the dead, regardless of sainthood.

A fairly recent way of marking All Saints in Sweden is to light candles and place them on relatives' graves.

The first recorded mention of this was in the 1920s at Värmdö, but recent surveys show the tradition now takes place at every single cemetery in Sweden.

Even if you don't have relatives or friends buried in Sweden to commemorate, visiting a graveyard during All Saints' Day is a beautiful and peaceful experience. Just remember to be respectful to the people who are mourning.

The biggest Alla helgons dag commemorations in the country take place at Stockholm's Woodland Cemetery, Skogskyrkogården. As always, it's free to enter this Unesco World Heritage Site, which takes on a special atmosphere as thousands of people visit to pay their respects to the dead, with lanterns lighting the way. The visitor centre and cafe are open 11am-8pm on November 2nd, with organ music on the hour between 2pm-6pm at Heliga korsets kapell. 

Also in the capital but north of the city centre, Haga Park is hosting a free secular lights festival on Sunday November 3rd. There will be activities for children from 4pm, a torchlit procession and a fire show at 5pm. 

And wherever you are in the country, many churches host special services to remember the dead, will have staff on hand to assist with finding graves, and will be open for longer than usual on Friday, November 1st for candle-lighting. At many places, churches will have coffee and gingerbread on offer for visitors too. You can visit your local Church of Sweden website to find out more about the events at your local churches: for example, click here to find out about graveyards in Gothenburg and here for Malmö.

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