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Why does secular Sweden have so many religious public holidays?

Ascension day service in London in 1945
Ascension day service in London in 1945. Photo: Eddie Worth/AP
Sweden has one of the highest numbers of official holidays in Europe. Today there are 13 official public holidays in Sweden, and despite being a largely secular country, nine have their history in traditional Christian celebrations. 

According to the Swedish Institute, 58 percent of Swedes are members of the Church of Sweden, but only one in five claim to be religious. Church and state have been formally separated since 2000.

So why does a country regarded as one of the most secularised in the world retain so many of its old holy days? 

“A lot of these days go back to a time before we were Protestant, nearly a thousand years ago,” said Jonas Engmann, an expert in traditions and the days of the year at the Nordiska Museet, who spoke to The Local despite being on holiday himself.

“You see layers in our cultural history reflected in the calendar. The Church held a very prominent position in society just a few decades ago.” 

From the 12th century to the 16th, Sweden was a Catholic country. According to high school history teacher and tradition expert Mattias Axelsson, around a third of the days in the Middle Ages were public holidays. 

“With the exception of May 1st (Labour Day) and our National Day (June 6th), all public holidays go back to the Middle Ages,” he told The Local. 

There were so many days off that those in power at the time complained. 

“People in the government said they don’t have time to work, they only have time to celebrate things. Kings and the government had a hard time getting rid of [the public holidays],” according to Engmann. 

According to Engmann, there is some support for changing traditional Christian holidays to make them ordinary vacation days in order to respect the different religions that in Sweden today. 

“Maybe the second day of Easter will disappear in a couple of years, that would be my guess,” Engmann said. 

But don’t worry about losing an extra day of holiday. It’s likely that it will be replaced with an additional day off work. 

Until 2005 the Pentecost was celebrated with two public holidays 50 days after Easter, a Sunday and a Monday, before the second day was removed and a new public holiday introduced; Swedish National Day on June 6th.

Engmann says that as the Church loses prominence these days are still important as rituals for society. “They’ve become part of our self-understanding as Swedes.”  

“We cherish them as a social event, and a chance to celebrate our culture and social network”. 

In recent years, Walpurgis for example has become more of a reason for people to get drunk and have a party rather than to remember an eighth century Frankish abbess. 

It’s the same with Ascension Day, marked on May 13th in 2021. According to Matthias Axelsson, “the vast majority of Swedes don’t celebrate the ascension of Jesus – they’re just glad to have one extra day off.” 

Find a list of Sweden’s public holidays here.


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