Warming temperatures and melting glaciers made the region around Sweden habitable around 8000 BC. Settling was mostly focused around coastal towns but farming was introduced a while later and in the bronze age, evidence suggests crafting and trading were important enterprises. The Iron Age proceeded this, and the settled population increasingly engaged in agricultural practices, which quickly became the basis of the society. The Viking Age (800–1050 AD) was characterised by a significant expansion of activity, specifically offshore. The word is derived from Vik, meaning ‘bay’ or ‘cove’, and is probably a reference to their anchorages during raids. It is thought the voyages outward were largely due to population pressure, but military adventure and foreign trade most likely also fueled the travelling. Reaching as far as the Black and Caspian Seas, these voyages also fostered links to the Byzantine Empire and Arab Kingdoms. Christianity also became prevalent, brought by a mission in the 9th century, and ultimately converting most of the country by the 11th century.
Church and state became increasingly powerful but, the Black Death, in 1350, took around a third of the Swedish population and contributed to a significant downturn of the economy. After 30 years though the Kalmar Union united the three Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden under a single crown and the rule of the Danish Queen Margareta. Internal strife led to the overthrow and a new king and proceeding this a number of wars and conflicts dominated the nation’s experience (some successful and others not so much). For an incredible glimpse into this period, track down Sweden’s 17th-century royal warship Vasa, from 1625, now in Stockholm’s Vasamuseet. It was the loss of the Great Northern War that ushered in parliamentary power and saw the 18th and 19ths centuries characterised by cultural development, agriculture and even emigration (mostly to North America). Since 1814, Sweden has not been involved in any wars – despite being one of the world’s largest producers of weapons. It has followed a strict policy of non-alignment, though it did join the League of Nations in 1920 and the United Nations in 1946. Today the country is a parliamentary representative democratic constitutional monarchy dominated largely by the Social Democratic Workers’ Party.
Many suggest that Sweden lost touch for a long period of time with its history, especially as it gained prosperity after WWII and belief in innovation became exceptionally strong. But despite this, there is an undoubtedly warm culture and national pride that extends throughout the country. Interestingly, many Swedish traditions are tied to the changing seasons. Festivals and celebrations, for example, often revolve around the farming year (spring tillage, the hunting season and harvest time) as well as around summer: thus Midsummer, celebrated in June, is a full family event, a day spent in the countryside, often beginning with flower picking and making wreaths for the maypole. One Christian celebration comes around Christmas time, when, on the 13th of December, a candlelit Lucia procession sees girls and boys clad in full-length, white gowns singing songs together. For those volunteering, the project runs through August which means you may be able to catch the crayfish party, which has become another typical Swedish tradition, held on the first Thursday in August. If you plan on extending your visit, you might also like to know that Sweden is one of the few countries in the world where ‘Allemansrätt’ (or ‘freedom to roam’) takes the form of a general public right. This means you can access quite freely private and public land, allowing you to pitch your tent and roam without limitation (though it does not apply to hunting or such activities).
Food, too, is season-bound and is reminiscent of age-old storage concerns as in the case of pickled or fermented herring (also called surströmming), freshly salted or smoked meat, or dairy products that have been curdled, boiled or left to mature. Smörgåsbord, a once lovely community tradition of gathering to celebrate the harvest with roast game; boiled potatoes and turnips and fresh, smoked, or pickled fish, now describes a meal made up of many different dishes, similar to a buffet. One interesting thing worth trying is the traditional Swedish drink, glögg, which is the result of mulled wine being poured over aquavit (a clear, caraway-flavoured liquor), and then set aflame. The country has also produced some well-known artists, actors playwrights and novelists across centuries such as ABBA, Jenny Lind, Anders Zorn, August Strindberg and Ingrid Bergman. Sweden has also had seven Nobel Prize winners in Literature, including Selma Lagerlöf, who was the first woman to win the prize in 1909. Indigenous folk music, which is often in triple time, is usually played by a lone fiddler at dances. This musical culture has survived, and the summer meets often attract large numbers of visitors.
The majority of the Swedish population are Lutheran; the church gained influence in the 13th and 14th centuries leaving some incredible cathedrals – like Scandinavia’s largest Gothic cathedral in Uppsala. Citizens often enjoy a consensus of opinion and a belief in the future as well as a calm, courteous nature. Swedish is the official language, but the country also officially protects Romani, Finnish, Yiddish, Meänkali (a Finnish dialect), and Sámi. You will most likely feel welcome amongst the nation’s people – just remember to say thank you, tack. It’s like the English ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ rolled into one.
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