May in Sweden: A nation back in bloom

The Year in Sweden - May: Journalist Kim Loughran sketches a month by month account of the country he has called home ever since his accidental migration in 1966.

May is the Month of Flowers. The white wood anemone shyly spreads across the forest floor and the lily of the valley (voted Sweden’s most popular flower) shelters near sun-warmed rocks. Mirroring the voters’ love for nature, all six major political parties (save one) have flowers as emblems. Technically, the Greens’ dandelion is a weed. The Social Democrats long ago branded the First of May as their own. Their polite demonstrations troop the streets and speeches echo across squares.

For an overtly secular country, Sweden’s calendar is wildly religious. May begins with Ascension Day, which jokesters call Fly Away Jesus Day (Kristiflygare). Nine of 13 public holidays are religious. Keeping holidays — the more obscure the better — is a link to the physical past that the future will need. Sweden has been Christian since the 12th century, although travelling monks from the British Isles had been proselytizing earlier.

Just less than three quarters of the population still formally belong to the Swedish Lutheran Church. Until 2000, the Church was part of the state administration and was a repository of census data. Churches are admired mostly from the outside until Christmas rolls around. Religious gender roles are changing: 25 percent of Lutheran priests and most theology students are women.

Despite Sweden’s secular style, church weddings are popular (46 percent of the total), and the prime time for nuptials is Pentecost or Whitsun week. On the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to inspire the apostles and, apparently, weddings in Sweden. The ceremonies are scheduled to suit ever-extending families, but principally to catch the best weather.

Name changes are common, at one stage even officially encouraged. Until the mid-1800s, family surnames were mostly for the middle and upper classes while the peasants named their sons and daughters ‘Gunnar, son of Sven’ or Gunnar Svensson. Girls? ‘Anna, son of Sven’ — we’re talking pre-gender-equality. Statisticians, an influential group, complained that there were too many Svenssons and Anderssons to cope with. The rural middle classes took names from the nature around them, cutting and pasting: birch, rock, stream, branch, lake, bear, twig, island, falcon, etc. Occasionally, the mix will be an oxymoron: Mountainbeach, Seamountain or Firleaf. Johansson is the most common name, although Swedes refer to themselves as ‘Svenssons’ and Svensson is apparently the name most commonly used by couples booking hotel rooms for illicit love.

If you’ve been shopping around for a new home, chances are you bought it last month, in April, the spring peak of the housing market. Realtors like to wait for the most flattering light. Real estate purchases are fast and furious, so by May you’re probably ready to visit Ikea. The ubiquitous Ikea. A biblically huge print run for its catalogue, a major exporter of Swedish food to feed its restaurants, etc. Ikea has a central roost in the nation’s psyche. It’s a global success sprung from the callouses of a plain-spoken country guy. It’s a simple story and a source of pride. But people resent Ikea’s domination of the national design aesthetic. And rubbing salt in that resentment is that we all use it.

This is the time of year when people rediscover the joy of sitting outdoors with a cookie and a glass of classic fruit squash. The pleasure is so seductive that a Japanese marathon runner, suffering heat exhaustion, once broke off a race to join a Stockholm family relaxing under a tree in their garden. That was during the 1912 Olympic marathon. Ashamed to rejoin his team, Shizō Kanaguri slunk back to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He returned to Stockholm in 1966 to finish the distance. These days, the Stockholm marathon is run in late May or early June.

The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.

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April in Sweden: twigs, jigs and pagan rites

The Year in Sweden - April: Journalist Kim Loughran sketches a month by month account of the country he has called home ever since his accidental migration in 1966.

April in Sweden: twigs, jigs and pagan rites
A Walpurgis bonfire in Sweden. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Outdoor markets fill with feather dusters … wait, those are dyed feathers wired to bunches of birch twigs. You put the twigs in water to light up your home as you watch tiny green leaves emerge to hasten spring. In small towns and suburbs, little girls dress as freckle-faced witches “just in from Mount Blue”. Often with younger brothers in tow, they knock on doors to shake down their neighbours for candy Easter eggs.

Ice still covers northern lakes, and jigging (fishing through a hole in the ice) can be a pleasure if you’re lucky enough to catch a bit of warming sun. But it can be dangerous recreation; taking a chance on the thickness of April ice has led to many an abrupt dip. Those who stay dry might bring home a perch or, in the north, a char.

April 30th is the last day motorists can drive with studded tyres, barring menacing snowstorms. Studs rip up asphalt, spraying dangerous particles into the air. Winter tyres, studded or just deep-treaded, are obligatory from December 1st to March 31st. Everyone taking a driving licence has to learn to handle a car on ice. Scheduling your test for summer months doesn’t buy any reprieve; the exam can be done on oil slicks. By default, headlights are on when you start your vehicle because there’s no way to legislate for daylight visibility – shifting weather can turn bright sunshine to murkiness in minutes. It’s a big gain in safety at zero cost or inconvenience.

READ MORE: Read our travel section for tips about what to do and where to go in Sweden

March in Sweden: slush, bears and skiing royals. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

Road deaths hover around 260 a year. Postal vehicles drive on the right like everyone else but with the steering wheel on the kerb side so the driver can service mailboxes without having to get out. More than every second person eligible for a driving licence has a car and almost every fourth car on the road is a Volvo.

April could not end more dramatically: bonfires rage across the country in aggressive farewell to winter cold. Walpurgis Night, the 30th of April, is a breathtakingly pagan rite, with choruses gathering round pyres to dispel the cruel winter and conjure up a good harvest year. Romance in the air and empty bottles in the gutter.

Birds are back. White wagtails can be seen in car-parks foraging for insects. Early arrivals include swans, larks, plovers and doves. Tropical birds wait as long as they can – the willow warbler, for example. Among the last to show up will be the honey buzzard, following the coastline to navigate almost up to the far north.

The Year in Sweden by Kim Loughran is on sale now at the AdLibris online bookstore.

This article was written by Kim Loughran in 2010 and updated by The Local in 2017.