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Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in Sweden?

This year Thursday, May 18th marks Ascension, making this a three-day week for the many workers in Sweden who take a 'klämdag' off on Friday and give themselves a four-day weekend.

Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in Sweden?
This could be you on Friday, if you took a so-called klämdag day off after Ascension Day. Photo: Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP/TT

Klämdag literally means “squeeze day” (klämma – to squeeze, and dag – day) and refers to the day that falls, or is squeezed, between a public holiday and a weekend.

Ascension, which Christians believe marks the day that Jesus ascended into heaven, is always 40 days after Easter Sunday, which means that its exact date varies from year to year. The earliest possible date is April 30th, and the latest possible date is June 3rd.

But why does Sweden give people a day off work on this day?

Ascension is actually a holiday in quite a few European countries – Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France and the other Nordic countries get a day off, although Spain, Italy and the UK do not.

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 in 2021.

In Sweden, Ascension Day, known as Kristi himmelfärdsdag (literally: Christ’s journey to heaven day) or more colloquially Kristi flygare (Christ flying), has been celebrated since the mid 300s. The holiday originally celebrated around this time was betessläppningen, the day where cattle were let out to graze on pastures.

Since 1924 or 1925, it has been also been celebrated as the national day of sobriety by Swedish teetotallers.

Ascension was also historically seen as the first day of summer in some parts of Sweden, referred to as barärmdagen or “bare arm day”. It’s the first day of the year where women were allowed to go outside without their arms covered.

Gökottor are a traditional Ascension Day activity, which involves going into the forest early on a spring morning, picnic in hand, to wait in silence in hopes of hearing a cuckoo (although you won’t find a lot of Swedes doing that today).

Despite Sweden being a mostly secular society, Swedes still celebrate many religious holidays, like trettondag jul, Easter and Christmas.

Most Swedes don’t really do anything to mark Ascension Day though, they’re just happy to have an extra day off.

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IN PICTURES: New citizens and royal glitz – How Sweden celebrated National Day

Sweden's National Day, observed on June 6th, is a special occasion that honours the nation's rich history and culture as well as the country's new citizens. This year marked the 500th anniversary of the founding of modern Sweden.

IN PICTURES: New citizens and royal glitz - How Sweden celebrated National Day

Sweden was in full-on celebratory mode as it marked National Day and the 500th anniversary since Gustav Vasa was elected King of Sweden in Strängnäs in 1523.

The official program of celebrations in Strängnäs ran roughly from 10 am to 1 pm.

READ MORE: Why does Sweden celebrate National Day on June 6th?

How the celebrations unfolded

The Swedish royal family were, as usual, prominent in the National Day celebrations, with Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, Queen Silvia, Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel, Princ Carl Philip, Prince Oscar, and Princess Estelle all making an appearance on Tuesday.

The festivities began at the Strängnäs Cathedral in Strängnäs Municipality, Södermanland County, around 10:30 am, with the royal couple in attendance.

King Carl Gustaf - Queen Silvia - Strängnäs Cathedral

King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia photographed during a festive gathering in Strängnäs Cathedral on the 2023 National Day. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

After the initial gathering at Strängnäs Cathedral, the royal couple made their way to the Källparken park. There, they inaugurated the impressive artwork “Sammanflätade” by Knutte Wester before proceeding to the stage in Västerviken.

King Carl Gustaf inaugurates artwork

King Carl Gustaf inaugurates the “Sammanflätade” artwork by Knutte Wester in Källparken. Photo by Pontus Lundahl / TT

King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia proceeded to walk from Källparken to Västerviken, greeting the festive crowd along the way.

Queen Silvia greets crowd

The royal couple strolled from Källparken to Västerviken, exchanging greetings with the gathered crowd en route. Photo by: Pontus Lundahl / TT

King Carl Gustaf

King Carl Gustaf, photographed cheering on the crowds between Källparken and Västerviken. Photo by: Pontus Lundahl / TT

King Carl Gustaf - Queen Silvia walking

Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia, walking to Västerviken during the National Day celebrations. Photo by: Pontus Lundahl / TT

The royal couple took centre stage at Västerviken and initiated the ceremonial celebrations.

King Carl Gustaf on stage

King Carl Gustaf on stage in Västerviken. Photo by: Pontus Lundahl / TT

Attendees then joined together in singing the King’s Song (Kungssången), the royal anthem.

The festivities continued with the Hemmavasan Strängnäs 10-kilometre race.

A special day for newly naturalised Swedish citizens

In recent years, Swedish National Day celebrations have also gained significance in facilitating the integration of immigrants, as newly naturalised Swedish citizens tend to participate in locally organized citizenship ceremonies on June 6th.

Speaking to the TT news agency previously Lund University ethnology professor Jonas Frykman said that this aspect of the celebrations was well-designed and greatly appreciated by many immigrants.

The inclusion of citizenship ceremonies has become a feature that plays a crucial role in welcoming and integrating newcomers into Swedish society, Frykman said at the time.