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Why is May 1st a public holiday in Sweden?

The Local Sweden
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Why is May 1st a public holiday in Sweden?
A May 1st parade in Gothenburg in 2022. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

May 1st has been a public holiday in Sweden since 1939, meaning that most people will have the day off from work or studies. But what is the history of May 1st, and why do we get the day off?


In preindustrial Swedish society, May 1st was celebrated as the first day of summer, with parties and dinners held in villages and towns as cattle and other animals were finally let out into the pastures to graze on grass.

It was also a day for getting organised ahead of the busy summer and autumn season, checking fencing, accounts and general admin before finishing off the day by "drinking bone marrow" for strength.

Despite the name, this "bone marrow" was actually a drink of spring water, beer, Swedish brännvin spirits and sometimes birch sap.

In the Middle Ages, when Sweden became Catholic, May 1st was a religious holiday dedicated to the apostles Philip and James. Later, in the 1400s, it became a holiday assigned to Saint Walpurgis: Valborg, which is now celebrated the day before, Valborgsmässoafton, which falls on April 30th.

Moving into the 1500s, May 1st and Valborg were still the same celebration, with May 1st the last day before a two-day fast lasting until May 3rd. The link to modern Valborg celebrations as an event particularly for students can also be seen here, as students in the 1400s would hold processions through their local parish on May 1st, singing and playing games.


In 1772, May 1st ceased to officially be a religious holiday, following a reduction in the number of official holidays by Gustav III, although its status as a day of celebration has remained.

It has now to some extent been split into two celebrations: Valborg on April 30th, seen as more of a bourgeois affair (it is also the Swedish King's birthday, after all), and första maj on May 1st, which is a left-wing day of protest in support of the workers' movement.

The history of May 1st as a day celebrating the workers' movement can be traced back to Paris in 1889, when the Second International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties from over 20 different countries (of which the Swedish Social Democrats were a founding member), met with the following resolution:

"A great international demonstration shall be organised for a fixed date in such a manner that the workers in all countries and in all cities shall on a specified day simultaneously address to the public authorities a demand to fix the workday at eight hours and to put into effect the other resolutions of the International Congress of Paris.

In view of the fact that such a demonstration has already been resolved upon by the American Federation of Labor at its convention of December 1888 in St. Louis for May 1, 1890, that day is accepted as the day for the international demonstration."

The first May 1st parade organised by the workers' movement took place in Sweden in 1890, and the first proposal to make it a public holiday came in 1926.


In 1938, it officially became a public holiday for the first time since 1772, coming into force the next year. It was also the first non-religious holiday to be designated a public holiday in Sweden.

Whether you're celebrating Valborg or första maj this year, we hope you have a great long weekend.


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William Prendergast 2023/04/29 20:47
Valborg observations are an interesting remnant of the "quarter point" celebrations seen in Western European cultures since Neolithic times. The quarter points are (approximately) halfway between the equinoxes and the solstices. For example, the Irish have celebrated Beltane (1 May), Lughnasa (1 Aug), and Samhain (1 Nov) up to recent times.

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