Sunday, May 17, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Kristi himmelsfärdsdag (Feast of the Ascension)

Wednesday was a half-day. Thursday was a holiday. Friday was a squeeze day. And then the weekend came. Again. For those of you scoring at home, that’s the third week of holidays in Sweden since April 1. What is the occasion, you might ask. What could keep the Swedes from working a full week? Christ. Christ can keep Swedes from working a full week.

There he is, Mr. Jesus Christ.
There he is, your ideal.
The dream of nine million Swedes who are more than secular can come true in Stockholm city.
For he may turn out to be the King of humanity.
Picture from Nordiska museet via DigitaltMuseum.se "Väggbonad" by Anders Eriksson is licensed under CC BY 3.0 SE
Thursday was Kristi himmelsfärdsdag. Feast of the Ascension. Forty days after Easter. The celebrations are somewhat subdued. Or non-existent. I suppose people head out to their cabins again. They were out there on Easter weekend, opening them up and airing them out. Then May 1 rolled around and they headed out there again to maybe do some gardening or some drinking. Then Christ headed up to Heaven and Swedes headed out to the country again. To drink and maybe put their boats in the water. It’s a slow progression towards summer. These holidays don’t necessarily serve much of a religious purpose anymore. Instead, they are markers of the passage of the year and the emergence from the darkness. They are also a marker of leisure since, despite what you might believe, not all Swedes own little red cabins in the woods next to a lake where they dock their boat.

Traditionally, and remember, traditions change. Constantly. We are always making new traditions, discarding old ones, and reworking the ones we keep. But traditionally, Kristi himmelsfärdsdag included fire. Obviously. This was mostly in western Sweden and in Skåne, where the Swedes were working to scare away wolves. I assume the fires in all the previous holidays like Valborg had scared away the witches, but those wolves are pesky buggers.

But fires are old hat in Swedish holidays. There were more exciting things afoot. Or a-arm. This was the time of year when women were finally allowed to wear short sleeves. Seriously. That’s because it was often seen as the start of summer. Summer is relative, I suppose, because it is still damn cold in Stockholm this holiday weekend.

It was also a day for young men and women of the town to meet in front of the church without supervision from their parents. Seriously. Strangely enough, there was always a rash of teenagers giving birth in January and February of the next year. Probably just a coincidence. And probably something I just made up. Probably.

For the nature lovers, it was also a time to head out and kill baby foxes. Seriously. Because it was the first day of summer, mamma foxes came out to sleep in the sun with her babies, leaving them exposed to sneaky Swedes who wanted to catch them.

If you’d rather look at animals than kill them, this was also a big day for bird watching. Early in the morning, in southern and central Sweden, folks would get up to go look for the cuckoo and listen to its call. This was known as the gökotta. Gök being the common cuckoo.

While you might not find young men and women meeting in front of the church on Kristi himmelsfärdsdag, you will definitely be able to find birdwatchers heading out early on Thursday morning. I slept in.

On a completely related not, Nordiska museet is a wonderful museum with everything you could ever want to know about Swedish traditions. Their website gives amazing descriptions of many of the Swedish holidays. I borrowed liberally from them and you can too! Check out their website and their Årets dagar section. That effusive praise being said, one thing they don’t mention is the very real threat that Kristi himmelsfärdsdag faced about 20 or 30 years ago.

It turns out that back in the ‘90s, the Swedish government, with help from a committee of parliamentarians, began looking into a change to Swedish holidays. There was a movement to celebrate June 6 as the National Day of Sweden. This movement had been around for a while, but gained steam in the ‘90s. Of course, while Swedes love days off, the powers that be determined there would be economic consequences to all those days off. But the powers that be also really wanted that National Day. Easy! Just switch out an existing holiday for the new one.

There were a few holidays on the chopping blocks: May 1, the Feast of the Ascension, Whit Monday, and the Epiphany. A quick look at that list would suggest Sweden is a deeply religious country. And by religious, I mean Christian. It is not. At least, not by church attendance standards or actual belief in God standards. But religious holiday standards? Praise the Lord!

Finally in 2005, when the National Day of Sweden became an official public holiday, Whit Monday or Annandag pingst, was no more. Kristi himmelsfärdsdag survived and Swedes continued to take a Thursday off (and sometimes a Wednesday and a Friday for good measure) to celebrate a religious figure that few actually worship. Traditions are weird.

Welcome to Sweden. Jesus would be proud.

8 comments:

  1. I think you should write more about fire. I can read between the lines in several posts that you have a thing for fire (don't we all...), and I think you should explore this further. Also,
    KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!

    Just needed to get that off my chest.

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