On June 6, 1523, Gustav Vasa was crowned king of Sweden. On June 6, 1809, the parliament adopted its first governing form. June 6 became Swedish Flag Day in 1916, and, later, was also designated Swedish National Day. In 2005 Sweden declared June 6 an official national holiday (taking a day away from the three-day Whitsuntide holiday to keep the work days consistent). Traditionally, Swedish National Day, aka Swedish Flag Day, includes a twenty-one-gun salute, an army tattoo, the queen in national dress, traditional Swedish folk music, recognition of new Swedish citizens, and the raising of the flag.
On June 6, 2018, I was present at two Swedish National Day events in Göteborg, Sweden, though one, admittedly, was of less than national importance. That one took place in the old part of the city, called Haga, a walking street with beautiful eighteenth-century houses, cafes, small restaurants, and tiny shops. My friends Lasse Gunnarsson and Sven Lassbo, singers extraordinaire, dressed in Swedish football team shirts, set up a busking site in Haga, with a guitar case open for contributions to Doctors Without Borders.
After the music in Haga, we walked through the city to Slotsskogen, a large park where the main National Day events take place. To my surprise the streets were not lined with yellow-and-blue Swedish flags, and no houses or restaurants or shops had the Swedish equivalent of Fourth-of-July decorations. There were no tattoos or military salutes in Gothenburg, and among the tens of thousands of people on the street and in the park, I saw a few small flags stuck in back pockets or held casually in hands, a few yellow shirts, and a demure blue and yellow ribbon in one girl's hair. Nothing much marked the day as any more Swedish a holiday than Whitsuntide.
We found a place on the grassy hillside among the thousands of other people – families with small children, elderly couples leaning against each other on the grass, immigrants with their families or with Swedish friends, everyone enjoying the remarkably warm sun that had chased away the morning clouds. Earlier in the day there had been a welcoming ceremony for the year's more than 4500 new citizens, from 140 different countries. Now there would be a music program with the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra, already set up in a large tented pavilion, tiny in the distance, that fortunately had a very good sound system.
The program began, appropriately enough, with the national anthem,"Du Gamla, Du Fria," which glorifies the country not for its military victories but for its natural beauty and for being one's homeland: Oh, you, my ancient home; oh, you, my land of freedom; oh, you, my beautiful northland, and so on. It was sung, first, by Lena Willemark, from the north of Sweden, in her native dialect, a language close to Old Swedish. Then everyone stood and sang the modern version. Hands did not cover hearts. At the same time the Swedish flag was raised to flutter high above the concert pavilion.
After a couple of other pieces unrelated to nationhood, Lena Willemark returned to the stage for a rousing piece called "Ra Weg." No one I asked could tell me what "Ra Weg" meant, as it was presumably in her dialect, but the music, song plus orchestra, was stirring. Also on the program were some orchestral pieces by a former member of ABBA, a familiar and beautiful piece by Dvorak, and Lena Willemark's startling rendition of the traditional songs that Swedish girls would scream-sing to each other from one hilltop to another while they were keeping the cattle at the summer pastures. I felt in it the same power and communicative ability I sense in Native American songs, and something, too, of Texas ranch competitions for women calling their men to supper.
That evening we set the table in the garden and shared, not hamburgers and cole slaw, but a parmesan omelet and Swedish hard-tack with cheese. There were no fireworks, but, after all, the National Swedish Day doesn't celebrate the end of a war, and, besides, the sky doesn't get dark till almost midnight. A national anthem that doesn't mention war, a National Day that doesn't wave flags, music instead of the boom of fireworks, a celebration of new citizens – I think I like the way the Swedes celebrate their nationhood.