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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?

Trettondedag jul, literally "the thirteenth day of Christmas" always falls on January 6th. It's a public holiday in Sweden, although the fact that it this year falls on a Saturday means most people won't have the day off. But why is it celebrated it at all?

Why is January 6th a public holiday in Sweden?
A nativity scene in a Stockholm church shows the three wise men meeting baby Jesus. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

Trettondedagen, or trettondagen, or Epiphany as it is sometimes referred to in English, is the thirteenth day after Christmas Eve, the day when Swedes celebrate Christmas. Unlike most Swedish holidays such as Midsummer’s Eve (midsommarafton), Easter (påskafton) and Christmas Eve (julafton), the trettondag holiday is celebrated on the actual day, rather than the night before on trettondagsafton.

As a Christian holiday, it marks the day the three wise men met baby Jesus and gave him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and therefore the day God’s son arrived on earth. In Denmark and Norway, the day is still referred to as helligtrekongersdag, or “day of the three holy kings”.

Unlike the Twelfth Night or the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which is considered to be the last official day of Christmas in many Christian countries, the official final day of Christmas in Sweden falls on the twentieth day after Christmas, January 13th or tjugondag Knut. So, you can keep your decorations up for a while yet.

In Småland, trettondagen is sometimes referred to as farängladagen or änglafardagen (literally: “angel travel day”), as it was previously believed that the dead returned home the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, returning to their graves on January 6th.

How is it celebrated in Sweden?

In modern Sweden, most people don’t do anything in particular to celebrate trettondagen, other than perhaps taking down their Christmas decorations (although as mentioned above, many people do this on January 13th instead). It’s a day off for many, and state-run alcohol chain Systembolaget is closed.

In the Swedish Church, trettondagen is a day for raising funds for various charitable campaigns elsewhere in the world.

The Swedish Church will often hold services on trettondagen or trettondagsafton. If you’re interested, you can find out what services churches in your parish will be holding here. Just type in your address, then look for trettonhelg to see what’s on.

How did Swedes celebrate in the past?

Traditionally in Sweden, the day was marked by boys and young men walking from town to town telling the story of the three wise men. These young men were known as stjärngossar (literally: star boys), a precursor to the stjärngossar you still see at Saint Lucia celebrations in modern Sweden.

This stjärngossetåg (star boy procession) would include the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who represented Europe, Africa and Asia, wearing pointy hats and white shirts, alongside King Herod, who Mary and Joseph were fleeing from (and the reason Jesus was born in a stable), Herod’s servants and a julbock (Christmas goat).

These storytellers would occasionally be given presents or money, and taking part in a stjärngossetåg was often a way for poor boys and men to earn some money, or even be given something alcoholic to drink.

The julbock‘s role was to collect these gifts or money, and it could even have a funnel hanging from its jaw which would lead to a container to collect any snaps gifted to the procession.

This stjärngossetåg still exists in some parts of Sweden, such as on the islands in the Stockholm archipelago.

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

EXPLAINED: The history (and controversy) behind Sweden’s national folk costume

The Swedish national folk costume worn by Queen Silvia on National Day has gained popularity over the past few decades. The blue and yellow dress, however, has a peculiar - and controversial - history.

EXPLAINED: The history (and controversy) behind Sweden's national folk costume

The Swedish national folk costume (Sverigedräkten) has seen a resurgence in popularity over the past few decades.

You can see it often – during festive occasions, in popular culture (such as movies depicting Sweden), and on teachers who wear it for graduations.

Furthermore, Sweden’s Queen Silvia dons the national folk costume (virtually) every year on National Day, often in the company of other royal family members who do the same, such as Crown Princess Victoria, Princess Madeleine, and Princess Estelle.

Judging by the frequently positive (international media) attention this attracts, one would think that the national costume’s roots are well-grounded in history and tradition.

However, the reality is that the Swedish national costume is neither ancient nor traditionally Swedish.

Its roots trace back to the early 20th century, to a time when nationalism was booming.

The work of a controversial designer

The costume was designed by Märta Jörgensen, a designer who drew inspiration from local Sörmland (an area on the southeastern coast of Sweden) costumes to create a practical, everyday dress for Swedish women.

Her goal was to foster a sense of national pride and provide an alternative to the restrictive, expensive, and hard-to-clean European fashion of the time.

Jörgensen’s nationalist enthusiasm extended beyond fashion; she was active in a fascist movement called Swedish Opposition (Svensk Opposition) that later evolved into the far-right New Swedish Movement (Nysvenska rörelsen).

The costume experienced a revival during the 1970s’ “green wave,” a period marked by a restored interest in folk culture and craftsmanship in Sweden.

In the late 1970s, the Nordic Museum reintroduced the dress at an exhibition, sparking new interest once again.

Yet, it wasn’t until Queen Silvia wore it in the early 1980s, coinciding with the official designation of June 6th as Sweden’s National Day, that the costume truly gained traction and prominence.

The question of why Sweden celebrates its National Day on June 6th is harder to answer than you might think. The Local has a detailed explainer that delves into the question.

Today, the costume such a mainstay of popular culture that you’ll often see young people wearing it on social media.

What do experts think?

Despite its royal endorsement, the costume remains contentious among experts.

Ulla Centergran, an ethnologist and researcher, told the newspaper Aftonbladet in 2022 that the costume lacked traditional roots and was created from flag fabric, which some find trivial compared to Sweden’s rich collection of over 600 village costumes.

However, Centergran made a positive comment about the royal family’s choice to wear the costume on National Day, describing the choice as both practical and symbolic.

“It fits well that they are dressed in the Swedish flag; who should be dressed in the Swedish flag if not the royal family?” the researcher said.

READ MORE: Why does secular Sweden have so many religious public holidays?

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