Monday, March 23, 2009

Swedish Public Holidays for Foreigners

Sometimes I feel very much like a foreigner. It’s becoming less and less often but there are moments when I just have to look back on what I have done and laugh. Mostly at myself. Just the other day was a prime example.

I had decided that I was going to take a day off from work. I wanted a long weekend to head down to southern Sweden and meet up with some of the family. I decided that the end of April or beginning of May would be a perfect time to do this. It just so happened that the first of May was a Friday. Perfect. I could leave Thursday after work and drive down if I was feeling up to it or just get up early Friday morning and make the drive. My plan was fool proof.

It was not however idiot proof. And if this blog has taught you anything, it is that I am, in fact, an idiot. Because I went to my boss and asked for the day off. And that day off was granted to me. Luckily. Turns out that the first of May is a red day.

As anyone who has ever worked in Sweden knows, a red day is a coveted day by those with a job. Red days are public holidays. You don’t go to work. On the Swedish calendar, all public holidays that result in a day off from work are written in red. It’s a very visual reminder.

The first of May is May Day. In the US you leave little baskets of goodies on someone’s door step, ring the doorbell, and run away. In Sweden it is International Laborers Day. So obviously you don’t work. I had no idea.

Public holidays in my very American view are days of consequence. You know, Christmas for example. Not May Day. But May Day is also a day for the common laborer. Which is what I have become. A common laborer. What makes it a little harder for me to laugh at myself is the fact that last May there was also a May Day. And I feel fairly confident that I didn’t go to work that day. I think. I hope. But it made me think.

Before I had a chance to think too much though, my co-workers all had a laugh at my expense. Hell, I laughed to. But it really made me realize that even after nearly two year here, there are still things that I just don’t get. What’s even scarier is that I speak the language. It made me realize just how easy it would be to take advantage of immigrant workers. Not just in Sweden necessarily, but in any country. The US and the migrant workers from Mexico in the Colorado fields. The numerous Poles who went to the UK for work. The asylum seekers here in Sweden.

It would be easy to get lost in a world of going to work and trusting your employer. Trusting that you are working when you are supposed to. Trusting that you are getting paid what you should. Trusting that your employer is an honest law-fearing person. In my case, it’s not that I trusted anyone too much. I don’t have any excuse. I just struggle.

Welcome to Sweden. Where May Day is a public holiday.

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  1. I know exactly how you feel... I still cant remember all these things in Sweden or the US... get them all mixedup all the time... :P

  2. May first is the public holiday for the socialists to take to the streets and demonstrate against the government, yes. Through most of this days history that meant demonstrating against themselves. This got tiresome and lots of people felt really silly as the decades of Social Democratic rule went by. Rather few do that anymore.

    May first is, first and foremost, the day after Valborgsmässoafton. Walpurgis I think it may also be called in English. It's the celebration of the return of the light after the long winter. Bonfires, fireworks, drinking. Who's got the energy to take to the streets the day after that?

  3. @sassa - we should probably just start celebrating both by not going to work on all the American public holidays as well. best way to not get mixed up if you ask me.

    @Jacob - Bonfires, fireworks, and drinking do all sound kind of exhausting. Sounds like I'll definitely be too tired to demonstrate. damn.

  4. In addition to what Jacob M said, it's also a festival of high school graduates (ta studenten i gymnasium) in Finland. All who ever graduated from high school, may (pun intended) wear that white cap with a black band.
    BTW, Hairy, did you get paid from that may day, when you asked for an unpaid day-off, LOL!

  5. Floridian in FinlandMarch 24, 2009 at 2:08 AM

    The worst thing I did was to mistakenly book a business trip over Midsummer. It didn't occur to anyone booking my trip that I might not have these holidays memorized. :(

  6. I found out that in Lund this year they are changing their May 1 celebration to be a "Welcome to Sweden, Steiners" party. We feel humbled, but also that it is an appropriate action for the city to take.

    Also, Hairy, I have to call shenanigans from your last post about the stinky guys. Now, I'm all for not stinking and good hygiene, but aren't you the same guy that lets 'em rip on the bus silently and (at least according to your post) gleefully?

  7. What!? Laborers day? Demonstration day? I did not know that :D
    It has surely been Valborgsmässoafton loooong before anything else. It's been around since the year 779.

  8. I think it's interesting to note that the origin of the political holiday on May 1st is the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago 1866. Interesting also how the labor holiday was successfully moved to September in the United States.

  9. @anonymous: Different day, different tradition. April 30th is not May 1st.

  10. @smek – is the high school graduate thing a big drinking day then?

    Seriously… I need to pay more attention to that sort of thing.

    @Floridian – Oooh… you might win. Or lose.

    @john – I think Lund is making the right decision. It’s only fitting that the day be celebrated as you enter the country.

    And here’s the thing John… farts are funny. They will always be funny. This is not debatable. BO is not.

    @Anonymous – I’ll be honest, didn’t have any idea that this went back to a saint. Kind of an interesting history of the celebration.

    @Eklandisk – good work with the history thing. Maybe that’s why I struggle so much with the idea of May Day being a laborers day. I’m used to Labor Day in September.

    And a good point about the difference between the two holidays/traditions.

  11. May day is the biggest drinking day of the year in Finland. Graduate or not :)

  12. The unempolyment office in my neighborhood here in Sweden gives a booklet in English, it says that being paid what you should is the result of collective bargaining through unions. The booklet recommends you join a union soon after becoming employed here because there is no minimum wage. Don't trust your employer too much. I have learned its not such a personal trust thing, we all have certain duties.

  13. Also, there are so many other days that are special days, but not public holidays, today is "Marie bebådelsdag", for instance. And can someone give me a good explanation of why they are called red days? The fact that they are marked in red on the calendar just doesn't cut it for me.

  14. @smek - for some reason that doesn't really surprise me.

    @anonymous - yeah Swedes are big on unions it seems. But I'm ok not joining one at all.

    @Richard - the best I can do for you is the red on the calendars Im afraid. Anyone else?

  15. @Richard: Did you eat any waffles?

    Most of the strange days you see in the calendar are because of Sweden's long history of state religion. Since the church was part of the government, its holidays were marked in the official calendar. In fact many calendars used to list the titles of each Sunday or other Church holiday, even the ordinary ones like tredje söndagen efter trefaldighet.

    @Hairy: The red color in the calendar is explanation enough. Well, before the 5-day work week, the red color was more consistent, because Sundays are just as red and were holy as well.

  16. "On the Swedish calendar, all public holidays that result in a day off from work are written in red."

    Yes, and don't forget that people will leave early the day before, at 2 pm at the very latest, or even take the entire day off. So you'll find that many people don't work on 30 April either.

  17. @eklandisk – yeah I did know that Sundays counted, but I was hoping there was more reason to the red day. It just seems so very logical. The old man had explained that that was the reason quite a while ago but I guess I wanted more.

    @anonymous – a good call. I actually do remember that from a few other public holidays. And of course klämdagar.