Sweden’s National Day: Flags, History, Strawberries, and Song

Sweden celebrates its National Day on June 6, a date that is associated with significant events in the nation’s history. It was on June 6, 1523, that Gustav Vasa was proclaimed king, signifying Sweden’s withdrawal from the union with Denmark and Norway that had existed since 1397, and laying the foundation for a unified, independent nation.

Three centuries later, on June 6, 1809, the Swedish Parliament signed a new constitution that established important rights such as freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and began Sweden’s conversion from an absolute monarchy into a democracy.

Nevertheless, despite these historical milestones, the selection of June 6 as the National Day ultimately stems from the work of one man, Artur Hazelius, who founded two of Stockholm’s most important ethnographic institutions: the Nordic Museum (Nordiska Museet, established in 1873) and the Skansen open-air museum (1891). In 1893, Hazelius organized the first spring festival at Skansen, ending with a ceremonial flag-filled celebration on June 6. This eventually evolved into more widespread celebrations, culminating in the designation of June 6 as the official Swedish Flag Day (Svenska flaggans dag) in 1916. The idea was for this date to be an opportunity for all Swedes, regardless of political orientation, to come together and celebrate their shared culture, history, and achievements as a nation. Despite this, it was not until 1983 that Swedish Flag Day finally became Sweden’s official National Day, and not until 2005 that the day became an official holiday rather than a regular work day.

Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

Although Swedes are generally enthusiastic about raising flags on officially designated flag days — which also include New Year’s Day, Easter, Midsummer, and Christmas, and other important holidays, as well as the birthdays and name days of the king, queen, and crown princess — June 6 has not yet achieved the importance of many other national days such Syttende Mai (May 17) in Norway or the Fourth of July in the United States. Instead, it’s Midsummer and Christmas (including St. Lucia Day on December 13) that are the festive highlights of the Swedish year.

Still, Sweden’s National Day has gained ground in recent years, with organized celebrations throughout the country involving speeches, music, and the singing of “Du gamla, du fria,” traditionally considered Sweden’s national anthem (although it has never officially been designated as such). The Royal Swedish Opera performs an annual outdoor concert as part of the free National Day celebrations at Haga Park in Stockholm, while in Gothenburg, the free program at Slottskogen includes a citizenship ceremony and a concert by the Gothenburg Symphony.

Weather permitting, many Swedes celebrate the day outdoors with barbecues or picnics, often featuring strawberries, fresh new potatoes, salmon, herring, rhubarb, bread, and cheese, or perhaps even a smörgåstårta (an elaborate sandwich constructed to look like a cake).

Skansen remains at the heart of the national celebrations, with an all-day program of music, folk dance performances, and children’s activities, culminating in an evening concert (broadcast live on national television) and a ceremonial visit by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia (sometimes accompanied by other members of the Royal Family).

Since June 6 became an official public holiday in 2005, another royal tradition has also become established, with free admission to large parts of the Royal Palace in Stockholm on this day.

Historical Footnote

Interestingly, respected Swedish historian Dick Harrison has pointed out that from a historical perspective, June 6 is really no more significant than many other dates. In fact, as Harrison explains in an article (in Swedish) in Svenska Dagbladet, the Julian calendar in use at the time of Gustav Vasa’s accession was 10 days behind our present calendar, meaning that the most accurate modern date for the celebration would be June 16. As for the 1809 events, Harrison notes that June 6 was the date Duke Karl (subsequently King Karl XIII) signed the new constitution — a requirement for his assumption of the throne following the deposition a few months earlier of his nephew, King Gustav IV Adolf, by a group of noblemen. However, the new constitution did not come into effect until three weeks later, after the four estates of Parliament had all given their approval and signed the document.

Key sources: nationaldagen.seso-rummet.se, expressen.se, svd.se, skansen.se

Last updated: June 6, 2018

Related articles:

Syttende Mai: The Most Norwegian Day of the Year

Midsummer in Sweden: Origins and Traditions

Bringing Light in the Winter Darkness: Celebrating St. Lucia Day in Sweden

A Night of Bonfires and Song: Celebrating Valborgmässoafton (Walpurgis Eve) in Sweden

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