Friday 13th: Why cats, umbrellas and keys spell bad luck in Sweden

Friday 13th means bad luck in Sweden and plenty of other places. Of course you are far too sensible to believe in any of that, but if you do, here are another 13 (sorry) things you need to watch out for.

Friday 13th: Why cats, umbrellas and keys spell bad luck in Sweden
Yikes. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

1. Spit three times if a black cat crosses your path

Just like elsewhere, black cats are harbingers of bad luck in Sweden. If one crosses a Swede’s path, you may see him or her spit three times over their left shoulder in order to ward off evil spirits. Best to duck and cover.

If a black cat is about, beware. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

2. Peppar, peppar, ta i trä

Just like many other nationalities, to prevent something nasty from happening, Swedes knock on wood while reciting “peppar, peppar, ta i trä” so they’re not jinxed. Pepper, pepper, touch wood.

3. Don’t walk under a ladder

This leads to three weeks of bad luck. Ladders are known for being risky at the best of times, and walking under them leads to more risks. We’re not so sure, but avoid it just in case.

4. Prosit…

… is what you say in Swedish when someone sneezes. It is actually Latin and means “may it be beneficial”.

5. Save the tomte!

A more modern superstition is that if you say “thank you” when someone says “prosit”, a tomte (a little gnome in Swedish folklore) dies. But if you quickly clap your hands, he lives. Phew.

Don’t kill her! Photo: Vegard Wivestad Grøtt/NTB scanpix/TT

6. Spilling salt

Spilling salt gives bad luck. If you do, you have to pick up a pinch of the spilled salt and throw it over your shoulder. Good thing there’s a way to stop all this bad luck from happening, isn’t it?

Oh no! Photo: Leif R Jansson/TT

7. Don’t open an umbrella indoors

This spells serious bad luck, and not only for the person standing next to you getting poked in the eye.

Beware! Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

8. Don’t put your keys on the table

If you put something under the keys, like a book, we think you’re OK. But we’re no experts.

Legend has it this is the real reason Swedish teachers have their keys in a lanyard round their necks. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

9. Don’t wish someone good luck

In English, you tell someone to “break a leg”. In Sweden, you give them a gentle kick to the buttocks.

He was aiming for his backside. Photo: AP Photo/Rui Vieira

10. Don’t step on an ‘A-brunn’

If you see a manhole cover marked with an A, don’t step on it or you may attract all the misfortunes that start with an A. If you do, just get someone to knock three times on your back and the bad luck will go away. 

Avoid like the plague. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

11. Don’t compare hand size

We suspect this is allegedly small-fingered former US president Donald Trump’s favourite superstition.

We know what they’re thinking. Mine is bigger than yours. Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

12. Don’t kill a spider

Because if you do, it will rain the following day.

Well, you know what to blame. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

13. Don’t bring heather into the house

It means death, which is never a good thing.

As long as it stays outside. Photo: Bezav Mahmod/SvD/TT

Member comments

  1. Trying to compare to Italy …

    1. The same but without the 3 spits 🙂
    2. Leaving out the pepper, we say ‘tocca ferro! (touch iron!). Don’t know if with same ‘meaning’
    3. / 6. / 7. The same
    4. After a ‘starnuto’ (sneeze) we say ‘salute!’ (the same as prosit!)
    5. After a ‘salute!’ we normally say ‘grazie!’ (thank you), without killing anyone in the wonderful world of little creatures! 🙂
    8. Never heard in Italy. Maybe similar thing is ‘mai appoggiare un cappello sul letto’ (“never leave a ‘hat on the bed'”)
    9. We say ‘in bocca al lupo!’ (in the wolf’s mouth!) and the other normally replies ‘crepi il lupo!’ (die the wolf!). I you are animals’ friend, you counter-reply ‘viva il lupo! (long live the wolf!)
    10. Very funny. Never heard something similar in Italy
    11. Don’t know if similar ‘meaning’, but sometime in Italy someone compares ear size
    12. Never heard in Italy. Anyway, please let the spider live! 🙂
    13. Never heard in Italy. But we say ‘civetta alla finestra morte o sfortuna in arrivo’ (owl at the window means death or bad luck on the way)

    Cheers. LoryPanna

  2. Keys on the table isn’t bad luck. It is an indication that you are available – as a prostitute with your own room…

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Five suggestions for the next hyped Swedish lifestyle trend

Foreign media have a habit of picking up any seemingly obscure Scandinavian tradition and proclaiming it a new lifestyle trend. Now that friluftsliv, lagom and fika have all been covered, here are The Local's tips for the next strange Swedish concept to promote abroad.

Five suggestions for the next hyped Swedish lifestyle trend

We’ve all read them.

Articles in international media introducing people outside of Scandinavia to new “lifestyle trends”. It started with us being told to buy candles and fluffy slippers so we could practice hygge, then guides to decorate our homes in the supposed “style of lagom“.

Then we were told that taking a coffee break or a fika is somehow the route of Swedish happiness (to be fair, I am often happier after eating cake), given a checklist for Swedish death cleaning to get rid of clutter for future generations, and told to stand up for ourselves by practising Finnish sisu.

Now, the next big Scandinavian trend appears to be… the gökotta?

gökotta, if you weren’t aware, is an old Swedish tradition of waking up early on Ascension Day to go and sit in a forest and try and hear a cuckoo.

I’ve lived in Sweden for a few years now and have never actually heard of anyone doing this – I think it’s only really practised by birdwatchers and churchgoers, if at all – but this hasn’t stopped various international media claiming that Swedes practise this lifestyle trend from Ascension Day to Midsummer.

With Scandinavian lifestyle trends becoming increasingly more obscure, we thought we’d provide our own examples for marketing executives and publishers everywhere to help push the Scandinavian brand abroad.

Extra points if they use letters that don’t exist in English, aren’t actually practised by anyone in Scandinavia, are not directly translatable, or are especially difficult for non-Scandinavians to pronounce.

1. The Swedish art of supa

This Swedish tradition is commonly practised by Swedes from their teenage years onwards, especially around big public holidays such as Midsummer, Easter and Christmas. 

You’ll need to commit to this lifestyle trend, testing your body to its limits as you consume large amounts of alcohol – brännvin or akvavit are the most authentic choices, although any kind of alcohol will do – while you activate your brain by trying to remember the lyrics of drinking songs with increasingly incomprehensible subject matter.

The sign that you’ve encompassed the true spirit of the supa is when you find yourself in a trancelike state dancing around a maypole pretending to be a small frog with your friends and obscure relatives of your Swedish partner, who you only met a few hours previously.

You may recognise some elements of supa from your home country – there is no direct English equivalent, but a few translations could be “to drink yourself paralytic”, “to get smashed” or the more formal term “to binge drink”.

Of course, supa is not for everyone – it does result in the somewhat less aspirational states of illamående (nausea) and bakfylla (hangover) – so we won’t judge you if you’d rather give this lifestyle trend a miss.

Swedes practicing patience and zen in the queue for Systembolaget before the Easter holidays. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

2. Experience patience, zen and part-time teetotalism with the Systembolaget lifestyle trend

Closely related to the art of supa mentioned above, you can practise Swedish patience and restraint with the Systembolaget lifestyle trend.

By willingly subjecting yourself to the structure of opening hours, carefully crafted through years of Swedish teetotalism, you will learn discipline, patience and the stress that only those rushing to pick up a bottle of wine on their way to a party before Systembolaget closes have known.

This can be a bit difficult in other countries which do not have a state-owned alcohol monopoly, but to get into the Systembolaget spirit if you live abroad, you just need to not buy alcohol between the hours of 10am and 7pm on weekdays or 10pm and 3pm on Saturdays.

What about Sundays, you may be wondering? Well, true observers of the Systembolaget lifestyle abstain completely from buying alcohol on Sundays and public holidays.

You can even brush up on your anger management skills as you attempt to buy a few beers or a bottle of wine on an obscure public holiday like Epiphany, Ascension Day or All Saints’ Day, or when you forget your ID ten minutes before closing and the cashier refuses to serve you, despite the fact you’re well into your 30s.

Finally, relish the opportunity to develop your skills of innovation and ingenuity as you find yourself in the kitchen on a Sunday making a recipe which calls for a glass of wine, only to discover that you forgot to pick some up at Systembolaget before it closed the day before.

A passive-aggressive note in its natural habitat, the laundry room. (“Whoever washed their clothes last night: clean up after yourself!”) Photo: Mats Andersson/Scanpix/TT

3. Tap in to the Swedish tradition of konflikträdsla  

Another Swedish tradition ready for export is the lifestyle trend of konflikträdsla, or “fear of conflict”.

To get into the konflikträdsla spirit yourself, wait until your neighbour does something annoying. Are they holding a loud party and haven’t turned their music down one minute past curfew? Do they smoke on their balcony? Your first instinct may be to address the issue with them directly, but this is not the Swedish way.

Use this instead as an opportunity to tap into your most primal emotions such as anger, irritation and exasperation, then, instead of releasing this buildup of emotion in an angry outburst, use the ancient art of letter-writing to channel your feelings into arga lappar (angry notes) directed at the object of your fury instead.

The best way of experiencing arga lappar in the wild is to visit your closest laundry room or tvättstuga, use the tumble drier and neglect to remove the dryer lint. You may need to do this a few times, but after a few weeks you’ll soon find a note framed as a friendly reminder (which is probably not all that friendly) by an exasperated neighbour who you have driven to quiet but maddening rage with your actions.

A word of warning, though. Your neighbours will hold a grudge if you do this and they are unlikely to ever forgive you, so this should not be attempted if you ever want to be in their good books again.

A Swedish apartment stairwell as it should be… empty. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

4. Hone your sense of perception in your Swedish apartment stairwell

If you have managed to irritate your neighbours to the point of them putting up arga lappar directed at you, this next Swedish lifestyle skill could be a good one to learn.

This lifestyle trend is the skill of avoidance, undvikandet, the Swedish art of doing everything possible to avoid having to greet your neighbours in the stairwell or, indeed, acknowledging their existence in any way.

Use undvikandet as a chance to heighten your senses of sound and sight to near-superhuman levels, as you become an expert at identifying movement in your building’s stairwell before you leave your apartment.

Before you learned the skill of undvikandet, you may have just left the apartment whenever you felt like it, regularly alarming your Swedish neighbours by acknowledging their existence with a hej hej as you passed by.

Now you carefully look out of your door’s peephole before venturing into the unknown, listening out for footsteps on the stairs before opening your door so you time your departure to avoid any unexpected ambushes.

Happy Friday! Time to eat so much sugar you feel sick, then avoid the stuff for another week. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

5. Indulge yourself with the Swedish art of fredagsmys

Our final Swedish lifestyle trend will help you gain control over your instincts and desires, improving your willpower as you practise restraint for five days a week by avoiding sweets or unhealthy snacks, only to give in to your primal urges and eat a week’s worth of unhealthy food in one sitting come Friday.

Akin to intermittent fasting, you can eat virtuously from Sunday to Thursday, then buy the largest bags of snacks or pick and mix you can find on a Friday evening and feast (frossa) on them until you go to bed on Saturday.

Sure, any dietary benefits throughout the week may be outweighed by giving into your hedonic urges when the weekend rolls around, but don’t let that stop you.