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TRADITIONS

Opinion: What can Sweden learn from embracing the American Halloween tradition?

Columnist Lisa Bjurwald was raised with a suspicion towards American commercialisation, but she's come round to the idea that Sweden could learn a thing or two from holidays like Halloween.

Opinion: What can Sweden learn from embracing the American Halloween tradition?
'When it comes to holidays, there's no doubt the Americans got it right.' Photo: Bertil Ericsson/Scanpix/TT

It’s that time of the year again: gather around the fire, ye natives Swedes, for our traditional cranky debate on imported holidays! This one won’t play out in the papers, and we’re far too polite to say it to your face. But trust me, it’s on.

“What is the ‘trick’ part of trick and treat, really?”, a relative texted (I had sent out a warning that tiny ghouls might be circulating below her balcony come Saturday). “The Americans have already given the world Trump. Isn’t that a nasty enough trick?”.

Ah, the Americans. If you’ve arrived here, say, in the last 20 years, it’s probably hard to fathom what a disdain many Swedes hold for all things US. But for many decades, the ruling Social Democratic Party painted a negative picture that’s still hard to rub out. In fact, amid many 40-somethings’ childhood memories of forest excursions and playing on the beach nests one of being placed high on a parents’ shoulders as mum and dad march down the street shouting slogans like “Crush American imperialism!”.

But when it comes to holidays, there’s no doubt Americans got it right. Most of our own so-called Red Days are useless. Has there ever been a Kristi Himmelsfärd (Ascension Day) party in Sweden? Highly improbable.

You get to eat waffles on Marie Bebådelsedag (Feast of the Annunciation); perhaps a treat of unimaginable luxury to those born in the 1940s, but a standard feature at any half-decent Sunday brunch these days.

When I was a kid, in the 1980s and 90s, the dull Swedish Spring (here, April truly is the cruelest month) at least had Easter. The Christian connection was lost in secular Sweden, with celebrations instead consisting of decidedly unholy eat-til-you-feel-ill candy feasts in front of the video player.

But the Swedish autumn, when the rain doesn’t so much fall as whip you across the face, was just one endless wait for Christmas. It was completely devoid of highlights. The Swedish tradition of All Hallow’s Eve was and is mainly for grown-ups, a time for mourning and reflection marked by the placing of candles on lost ones’ graves. There’s no particular food or drink or anything else remotely cheerful about it.


Photo: Gabby K/Pexels

Then, in the mid- to late 90s, depending on where in the country you lived, an exciting foreign seed was planted. Monster masks and “slutty vampire” dresses started appearing not just in specialized costume stores but in mainstream shops. Clubs had DJ’s spraying the crowds with neon-pink cobwebs. Pumpkins, plastic spiders and fake fangs were suddenly stacked high by the supermarket cashier. Halloween had arrived! But trust the adults to try to spoil it.

Halloween was not just painted as silly and “imported” but as downright dangerous. Of particular concern were the monster masks, the topic of many a Principal’s Letter to the Parents. Supposedly, masks encouraged street crime. The sheer improbability of kids turning into robbers or murderers simply by placing a mask over their faces (although that would make a terrifying Halloween blockbuster) was rarely discussed.

The search term “Halloween” turns up only 3 results for the year 1990 in the Swedish media archive Retriever, but by 1995, the word is mentioned 45 times. Göteborgs-Posten comes across as suspicious:

“We seem to be about to embrace the Anglo-Saxon celebration of Halloween – All Saints’ Day, on October 31st. Commercially, Halloween is already a Swedish holiday to be reckoned with. The question is whether we, in the long run, will celebrate Halloween with the same fervor as Valborg or Lucia. ‘There is a need for a profane weekend during the autumn. Halloween may very well have a future in Sweden’, curator Ingeborg Borgenstierna at the Nordic Museum claims.”

A Swedish elementary teacher based in the US is brought in to explain further: “[American kids] dress up as ghosts or witches and walk around knocking on doors, a bit like when Swedish children dress up as Easter witches, says Gunilla Engström.”


Photo: Håkon Mosvold Larsen/Scanpix/TT

“Moderate Swedes are usually amazed at the amount of candy heaped at the children,” the author writes. “They often gather entire bags of sweets, enough to last until Christmas. Alongside this idyllic celebration, teenagers, according to Gunilla Engström, are out ‘messing around,’ especially in the big cities.”

As most children back then were only allowed a small amount of candy on Saturdays (lördagsgodis), perhaps it’s no wonder Halloween caught on with Swedish kids?

A scientist at Stockholm University’s Department of Ethnology, Ulla Brück, gets the final word: “This is about an Americanization, where the commercial power, combined with newspapers and television, is enormous.”

But no amount of disdainful party poopers could stop the Halloween train. By the year 1999, Halloween had gone mainstream with a total of 379 mentions of the spooky holiday in the Swedish press and innumerable fake blood-soaked parties across the land. Now, there’s hardly a school or pre-school that doesn’t arrange a Halloween costume disco on Friday. Trick-or-treating has become a fun way for kids to meet their neighbours; a rare opportunity, at least in Swedish cities, where socializing usually extends to a quick “hello” in the communal stairs.

So thank God for the “vulgar Americanization”. Not only has it lit up our calendar with the childish fun of Halloween and an explosion of heart-warming events on Valentine’s Day. It has also inspired us to create new, unquestionably Swedish holidays like Cinnamon Bun Day on October 4th.

All we need now is the successful export of our own, more solemn All Hallow’s Eve tradition, with hundreds of candle lights filling the graveyards after dark. Perhaps an Annual Cinnamon Bun Day is an easier sell…

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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