Swedish traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in Sweden?

From the Nordic countries, the customs and traditions of Sweden.


Food in daily life

There is a wide range of culinary options, including pizza, kebabs, falafel, burgers, and Chinese cuisine. However, it is customary to identify certain items as particularly Swedish due to their association with the agricultural or early industrial past.

The term husmanskost, or home cooking, refers to a staple diet of potatoes, meat or fish, and a hearty gravy. A less agrarian alternative is the smörgåsbord. This buffet meal of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres often includes various forms of herring, meats, cheeses and vegetables.

Breakfast includes bread with butter or cheese; muesli or cornflakes with filmjölk, a yogurt-like dairy product; and coffee. Relatively light hot or cold lunches at noon are often followed by evening dinners.

Common components of these two meals include bread, pasta, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, peas, herring, salmon, and meat. Immigration has enriched the range of restaurants, and restaurant patronage is increasing.

Effective regulation has made Swedish food perhaps the safest in the world; standardized symbols identify foods that are low in fat, ecologically certified, or produced abroad under decent working conditions.

The vegetarian, vegan and animal rights movements have led Sweden to become the first EU member to ban battery cages for chickens.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

The smörgåsbord is well suited for festive meals such as Christmas, Easter, Midsummer and wedding receptions. Meat and fish dishes are more important at this time, as are brandy and other alcoholic beverages.

Some holidays have signature dishes: The Feast of St. Lucia (December 13) calls for saffron loaves, St. John’s revelers eat pickled herring and new potatoes, and in late summer there are crab parties (“kräftskivor”) and, in the north, gatherings for the eating of fermented herring (“surströmming”).


Much etiquette involves the ritual enactment of equality. Thanking happens frequently, and it is common for the person being thanked to offer their thanks in return. People seek to pay debts of gratitude and thus restore symmetrical relationships.

Conversation partners rarely interrupt each other. Courtesy requires careful listening, which is often evidenced by affirmative murmurs. When people disagree, they avoid open expression of conflict.

Rigorous codes of modesty prevent interpersonal competition from sabotaging collective life. All forms of boasting are prohibited. Academic and corporate titles are rarely used, and conspicuous consumption is condemned.

However, these norms are starting to erode, particularly among entrepreneurs participating in a transnational corporate world where self-promotion is seen as a virtue.


Religious beliefs

The Church of Sweden emerged as a national church during the Protestant Reformation. For centuries, this evangelical-Lutheran institution enjoyed the support of the state and cultural hegemony, although it faced competition from non-conformist churches born of the revival movements of the 19th century. In 2000, the state and the church amicably divorced, leaving the church with greater autonomy.

Eighty-five percent of the population is a member of the Church of Sweden. There is considerable religious pluralism, as a result of immigration. There are an estimated 250,000 Muslims and 166,000 Roman Catholics, as well as a significant number of followers of other religious movements. Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed.

Members of the Church of Sweden often say that they are Christians “in their own way” and that they are not interested in dogma. The deepest spiritual emotions are often experienced when one is alone in nature.

Lutheran ideals and Renaissance humanism have engendered a demanding social morality with an openness to scientific modernity. Bragging about one’s faith is considered in bad taste.

Religious professionals

Recent reforms have made the Church of Sweden a more democratic religious organization. The members elect a General Synod which decides questions of doctrine as well as administrative matters. Women make up 30 percent of the priesthood, a proportion that is growing.

Church workers often combine their pastoral duties with civic engagement, particularly in support of refugees and international aid. The presence of pastors as community leaders is most evident after collective tragedies such as fatal accidents and violent crimes.

Rituals and sacred places

Church attendance is low except on special occasions; fewer than 5 percent of members regularly attend Sunday services in the Church of Sweden. Christmas celebrations are more popular. Three out of four children are baptized, of which half are later confirmed. Three out of five marriages are performed by the Church of Sweden.

Death and the afterlife

Ninety percent of funerals take place in the Church of Sweden. The practical arrangements are usually handled by a national organization that is part of the cooperative movement. Autopsies are common to determine the cause of death, embalming is rare, and cremation is frequent.

Cemeteries are characterized by their natural beauty. Many individuals believe that death involves the loss of individual existence while becoming part of something larger.

Secular celebrations

New Year’s Day (January 1) is greeted at midnight by ship horns and civil defense sirens. Public bonfires light up Walpurgis Night (April 30), a popular celebration among college students.

On May 1, trade unionists, social democrats and their allies march through the cities to express solidarity and protest injustices. National Day is celebrated on June 6.

The Midsummer Solstice (close to the Summer Solstice in June) is a highly anticipated feast of eating, drinking and dancing, rivaled only by Christmas in importance. August brings crayfish feasts. United Nations Day (October 24) is celebrated mainly in schools. Halloween (October 31) is a recent import.

The world’s most prestigious scientific and literary prizes are awarded by the king on Nobel Day (December 10). Candlelit parades break the winter darkness on Lucia Day (December 13).

Other significant celebrations include birthdays (with a special jubilee at the age of fifty), name days, high school graduation, royal parties, and long summer vacations. Widely celebrated religious holidays include Easter, Pentecost, Advent, and Christmas.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

Artists are not completely dependent on commercial sales and wealthy clients. Public funding encourages their work, and the security provided by the general welfare society allows them to take aesthetic risks without fear of destitution. One result is an arts community known for its cutting-edge innovation.

The support is channeled through various public and partially public institutions. Beneficiaries range from preeminent national museums to small literary magazines that could not survive without subsidies.

Popular participation is also promoted: cultural centers, public libraries and community music schools offer citizens the opportunity to exercise their creativity.


Among the most eminent modern authors are August Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf, Pär Lagerkvist and Harry Martinson. The most influential living writer is Astrid Lindgren, whose stories are familiar to children in many countries. One genre of particular importance is the literary documentary tradition, in which authors since the 1960s have reported on the lives of ordinary people.

Common elements of the national literature include a melancholy seriousness about social and existential issues, an appreciation of nature, and an avoidance of psychoanalytic speculation.

Graphic arts

A 1934 parliamentary act stipulated that 1 percent of spending on new public buildings be devoted to works of art. The country’s most famous sculptor was Carl Milles, who produced forms that defy gravity. Painter Carl Larsson’s loving depictions of children and domestic life are popular with Swedes and tourists nostalgic for a rural past.

It is for design that Sweden is most famous, particularly in wood and glass, but also in other media. The interplay between craft traditions and social democratic ideals has given rise to world-renowned work in industrial design, ergonomics, child safety and products for the disabled.

Performing arts

Celebrated performers include soprano Jenny Lind, theater and film director Ingmar Bergman, and pop musicians ABBA. The country rarely produces superstars with astronomical incomes. Instead, the resources are used to provide stable salaries and benefits to ordinary actors, dancers and musicians, giving them a basic level of security.

State subsidies make possible a similar egalitarianism in ticket prices: traditionally upper-class pleasures like opera, ballet and theater are affordable for all.

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