For an international resident, it’s so thoroughly odd and so apparently un-Swedish that you may experience one of those double-take moments – am I really seeing what I’m seeing? Your eyes are not deceiving you – this is in fact a long-standing rite of passage for all teens in Sweden.
So, what are these uncommonly raucous rejoicings? The Local has partnered with Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL), a coeducational independent school set in glorious rolling countryside north of Stockholm, to reveal all – including the story behind those unmissable white caps.
The traditional wait for a white cap
Teenagers all over Sweden have been celebrating the completion of their final year of secondary education. What you’ve seen in the centre of the country’s usually tranquil towns and cities is the annual explosion of relief, joy and champagne that’s widely known as Studenten. As Swedish milestones go, this one marking the graduation from secondary school (gymnasium in Swedish) is by far the most exuberant.
According to tradition at SSHL, a bilingual (Swedish and English) school for boarding and day students, the Studenten ceremonies kick off 50 days before graduation when the students announce their candidacy to sit the no-longer taken Swedish graduation, or matriculation, exams. Yes, you read that right – the exams no longer exist.
They were abolished in 1968. The now-defunct exam traced its origin to academic statutes from 1655 but was discontinued due to reforms in Swedish secondary education in 1968. What we see these days is the gleeful ghost of a day that really used to decide the futures of Sweden’s youth.
At the candidacy event, each member of the graduating class is ceremoniously awarded abiturient caps that they may wear until their graduation to signify their candidacy for the exam. And, as you may have noticed, it’s not just white caps that are on offer. At SSHL, for example, students first receive coloured abiturient caps (with a different colour for each boarding house) to recognise their candidacy.
SSHL’s graduation day normally begins with external examination assessors whose role it is to ceremoniously assess the graduating students. The entire graduating class is called to what is known as a Scrutinium (that’s Latin, from scrutari which means ‘to search’), where they are told by the assessors whether they have passed their ceremonial examination.
Upon receipt of a passing grade students are allowed to exchange their abiturient cap for their bright white Studenten matriculation cap. The graduates then receive ceremonial badges and farewells from teachers and staff and proceed to run out into a courtyard where their family and friends are waiting.
IB students: prepare to pass – and then party!
For some students at SSHL, and other schools, graduation day is much more than a ceremonial occasion. SSHL has many children studying for the International Baccalaureate (IB), a higher education institution preparatory programme that provides access to universities and colleges in more than 100 countries.
It means more for these IB candidates – who study in English – to graduate and be eligible for university as the risk of failure is still real for them. They really do yearn for those white caps.
Graduation day is always a big deal requiring lots of school planning. This year, due to restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, SSHL had to go to huge extra lengths, staging 15 separate graduation ceremonies instead of the usual one.
The core traditions remain undimmed, however. One of the most important is the euphoric dash out of school made by the teenagers armed with leaving certificates – known as utspringet. Each of them hurtles through a crowd of parents holding placards with the graduates’ baby photos, some of them sweet, some of them embarrassing.
Most of the placards are decorated with a blue and yellow Swedish background. The fact that the king and queen of Sweden participated in utspring for their offspring demonstrates just how important the ritual is for Swedes.
Students from SSHL then take part in a traditional parade through the town, walking behind a trailer with a full brass band before returning to a reception in their boarding house. Due to the pandemic, this parade has not taken place for the past two years. It will return, however, as the school is determined to remain true to some of the older Swedish traditions that have been lost in much of Sweden.
For example, rather than a parade on foot, graduates from many schools now stage parties aboard flatbed trucks. Students club together to hire floats for the day, which are decorated with balloons and birch twigs. This is a strictly no-parents-allowed truck ride, and the students proceed to mark the occasion with a display of heroically unbridled hedonism. Known as flaket, this is the part of the day that may have first grabbed your attention.
It’s impossible for any passerby to remain oblivious to the excesses of the flaket, as an endless stream of loud and (some might say) terrible party music is blasted from the floats while students dance, cheer and chug back champagne as if it were lemonade. Then they get ready for the evening ahead when they’ll go on to celebrate further in a bar and then a nightclub.
And that’s it for them – school is over and it’s on to the next step in their studies and lives. But if you’re one of Sweden’s international residents, you can be sure the ritual will stop you in your tracks again next summer.
SSHL is a coeducational school with an international profile and a strong focus on Swedish traditions: find out more about the school – and discover how your child could try life as a boarding student