6 June, 2016

The mystery of the Swedish identity during the summer holidays

Summer holidays

Sweden is infamous for shutting down during the summer months, and often earlier – and longer, than in most European countries. Why is that so, and what consequences does it it have? The answers are called industrisemester and sommarlov. These are two heavily institutionalised concepts that are deeply ingrained in our work culture and personal identity. They reflect the power of trade unions in business, the Swedish climate and agricultural seasons, the relatively late industrialisation of the country, and the fast urbanisation that followed.

If you work, your holiday is called semester, somewhat confusing if you are familiar with Latin, and industrisemestergeneral industrial holiday, thus refers to the few weeks every summer when factories traditionally would close down completely, and all workers would go on holiday. If you are a student, the word for holiday is lov – which means permission (compare it to the English leave), and sommarlov is thus the word for summer holidays for anyone going to school.

The industrial holiday was established in the 1930’s

At this point in history, the workers’ associations and the trade unions reached an agreement with the industry to include paid holidays in workers contract. It was agreed that the industry would benefit from entitling their workers paid holidays, but it was also thought that workers were unable to decide what to do with their time off. Therefore, it was decided that factories would close at the same time as the haymaking season. Many workers had moved into towns or cities for work, but still had strong ties with their families in the countryside.

During their holidays, workers went back to the countryside where their families lived, to help with the farms during the busiest season.

As everyone had their holiday at the same time, directors could also take time off and visit their families in the countryside, which has led to a very relaxed approach amongst management and executives still today.

Initially, workers were entitled to a minimum of two weeks of holiday, and over the years this has grown

Now, everyone, regardless of sector and position, is entitled to a minimum of 25 days of holiday every year. If it is your wish, you have the right of a minimum of 4 consecutive weeks during June, July and/or August. However, it is increasingly rare for a whole company to close down, and dates are commonly negotiated individually two or three months in advance.

Legally speaking, you cannot be asked to check your emails, answer work phone calls, or attend to any other work-related duties, although with the technical framework of our era, most people will do, on an occasional basis.

I know many international professionals who have been shocked to see their Swedish colleagues and managers just walking out of the door, wishing everyone a good holiday, as the business is going through a major crisis.

Traditionally, the industrial holidays would start right after Midsummer, or the first week in July

Statistics show that for many decades, these months also offered the most sunshine. But as these dates are no longer mandatory, and the weather has been better later in the summer, an increasing number of individuals choose to take their holidays later, enjoying a more continental lifestyle.

Summer holidays childhood

Childhood summer holidays

Surprisingly, this shift is rather slow. Many stick to the traditional dates. According to research, the reason is childcare. Pre-schools, or after-school clubs often close down in July. All children in pre-school have the right to an alternative, but parents are often against leaving their children in an un-known environment surrounded by new faces. Therefore, they choose to stay at home according to when childcare facilities are closed.

The child’s perspective is important

Many Swedes have a romantic relationship to the summer holidays, often because of their memories on the summers during their childhood, which we somehow want to re-create for the next generation. 

My own childhood, up to the late teens was mostly spent on the country-side. Although my family was lucky to own our own summer house, I still spent many weeks with friends and their relatives in other cottages all over the country. For years, I would come back to the same grand-parents of someone that was not so much my own friend as the child of my parents’ friends or colleagues.

These stays were characterised by independence and exploration. We would roam the countryside unsupervised, discovering new pine-clad paths, deep black forest lakes, cycling for miles to reach the nearest kiosk for an ice-cream. There were deteriorating barns, damp cellars, wasp-infested attics to explore, and where we built our own castles and headquarters.

Isolated from my family, school friends, urban habits and everyday chores, I would build a new identity

Far away from my familiar environment and friends, a clearly separate version of myself would re-appear every Midsummer and slowly fade away a week before school would start again in August.

I have seen that such role-play continues also for the grown-up versions of ourselves.

You might find your mediocre colleagues suddenly blooming at the onset of June, trying on their outfits and dusting off their props to be arty on Gotland, glamorous on the west-coast, tough in Norrland. The stage set is sublime, twilight over pebble beaches, morning mists over endless conifer hills, glittering brackish water of the archipelago. Rituals and traditions are strictly adhered to. Gender roles are often stereotyped, sometimes reverted.

This romantic view, reinforces traditions and routines, often inspired by an idealised view of the past.

Summer holidays

Summer fields

Using less than adequate tools, we will play cards (from mouldy sets that are left untouched ten months of the year), flick through old magazines and get inspired by old recipes.

On rainy days, we enthusiastically throw ourselves into ambitious endeavours of baking cakes, picking berries, making jam, to re-invigorate times past and re-play our childhood. Whipped cream is involved, fresh potatoes, pickled food-stuffs that survived the winter. There are boring moments too, waiting for that day’s only bus in heavy rain, camping in bad weather, having the party crashed by mosquitos, visiting old and forgotten relatives.

The urban myth of summer kittens

Sommarkattsummer cat, is a term to describe a never officially confirmed phenomenon of buying a kitten at the start of summer, only to leave it alone at the summer house when it is time to go back to school and work. It is a dark narrative of treating a lonely child to a sweet and loyal friend that will be abandoned – or more humanely, drowned, when the owner returns to town and school in August.

Always head news when summer comes to and end, this reflects something deeper and more important than reality. The summer cat has come to symbolise ourselves, and the identity we find during the short but intense few weeks of sunshine and eternal daylight.  Somehow, we wish to bring this person back to our ordinary lives in town, but never really dare.

Are you interested in another perspective on Swedish identity? Read more about the individual, the family and the state, on my blog.

Written by Sofi Tegsveden Devaux

After many years of international experience, Sofi now runs her own company, Bee Swedish, specialising in Swedish language, culture and communication. She believes that Swedish culture is much more complex than most newbies, oldies – and especially Swedes themselves, realize. Her work aims to create mutual understanding and bridges for collaboration through curiosity, a critical mind-set and a sense of humour. She hopes that her blog posts can provide some useful insights into the particularities of the Swedish mind.

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2 Comments on “The mystery of the Swedish identity during the summer holidays

Sandeep Nagar
11 July, 2016 at 10:49

I lived in Sweden for 5 years (2007-2012) as a PhD student at KTH Stockholm and never knew these details about Swedish summer. My group was led by an Indian origin Professor and we did not had a Swede student so we did not had the luxury of Swedish summers. But I always wondered about most of the professors and students taking an off for such long durations. It is a fascinating article indeed. Now me and my family are planning to come back to Sweden. I asked my wife to read the article and she is more excited at such an innovative take on life!

22 January, 2017 at 20:22

Nothing like drowning kittens as a way to end an article. Yikes!

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