Identity and culture

Last updated: 24 6 2021

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about identity and culture. It describes what identity is and how a person’s identity can change during their life. It will also ask you to reflect on what your identities are.

The text also describes what it can be like to come to a new country and to live with two cultures, and it will ask you to reflect on what integration means to you. It also describes traditions and festivities celebrated around the world and in Sweden.

  • The right to an identity

    As a newborn child, you are entitled to a name, to citizenship and to protection under the law. During your life you must be allowed to develop your knowledge, your cultural identity, your political views, your religion and your sexual orientation. People who identify with a minority have the right to practise, together with others in their group, their own religion, speak their own language and observe their own customs and culture.

    Everyone is entitled to develop an identity. The state may not accord greater or lesser value to any particular identity, and may not register your identity.

Who am I, who are you, and who are we?

Who are you? Have you reflected on that? Will you be the same person in ten years’ time?

These questions, and this text, are about identity. Identity is about who we are and how we see ourselves.

When big changes occur in your life, questions of identity often become important. Moving to another country is a big change, and one that can give rise to many thoughts and emotions. Some find the idea of new habits and traditions exciting. Others may find it difficult and stressful. Both reactions are normal. It can take time to get used to all the new things in a new country.

Your identity develops throughout your life. All the experiences that you bring to Sweden have created your identity up to now. And everything you are going to experience in Sweden will also influence your identity. You will meet new people, learn a new language, and form new habits.

Everything that happens to you, what you feel and think, people you meet and things that happen in the world – all of these things influence how you see yourself. These experiences are part of what shapes your identity. In other words, your identity is made up of you as well as of everything that happens around you.

  • Questions to think about

    Above, we described some examples of how identities are shaped. We can have several different identities at the same time. What are your identities?

Living with two cultures

Ariana has lived in Sweden for almost two years. This is what she says about her identity and culture: "In the country where I lived before, many people think it's not good to have several different identities and cultures, and that's what I've always believed. But now I'm thinking that people can have several identities and double cultures. It means a lot to me to think that way".

For some people, it is important to take in everything about the new country. But it can also be important to keep parts of the old life, of life before Sweden. What is important to you?

Community and similarities

Your identity is personal. Your identity is yours alone. But at the same time, it is your identity that makes you feel affinity with other people. Religion can be one thing that makes you feel a sense of belonging with other people. You have the same beliefs, you celebrate the same festivities and you view the world in similar ways.

If you are Swedish or American or Somali, you probably feel an affinity with other people from those countries. You speak the same language, you are familiar with habits and traditions and unwritten rules for what is right and wrong to do in various contexts.

Our identity, then, is also built of a sense of community and similarities. But also of differences – like the differences between being Swedish, American or Somali, or the difference between being a woman and a man.

Often, though, the similarities between people are greater than the differences. One example is festivities. All religions celebrate different festive days, but we often celebrate in more or less the same way – which is often to eat good food and spend time with our family and friends.

Then and now

150 years ago, Sweden was an agricultural society. It was common for people to do the same work as their parents did. Most people had limited opportunities to travel and take in impressions from other places and cultures. And it was not common for people to spend time with people from other social classes. People's values and ways of viewing the world were shaped by a limited context.

Today, things are different, in Sweden as well as in many other countries. There are many opportunities. We live in a global society, and we are constantly influenced by what is happening in other parts of the world.

Sweden was once a country that many people left in order to make themselves a better life. Today, Sweden is a country that receives people from different parts of the world. The immigration of people to Sweden puts us into contact with other cultures, traditions and ways of life.

Traditions and festivities

People from every country in the world celebrate festivities and traditions. This often involves getting together to celebrate something special and important that happened in the past. Many traditions and festivities that we celebrate come from religion. This also applies in Sweden, which has been a Christian country for many centuries. Today, traditions and festivities from many different countries and religions are celebrated in Sweden. When you have recently arrived in a country, you often get to know new festivities and traditions.

Below are some examples of festivities that are celebrated in Sweden.

In February and March, many Swedes eat semlor, which are wheat buns filled with marzipan and whipped cream. This is a tradition from the time when people fasted in Sweden. Before fasting began, people would eat fatty food. A person who fasts abstains from something for a specific period of time, which can be for religious reasons. Often this something is food, but it can also be other things.

Easter is celebrated sometime in March or April. It honours the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Easter is a festivity that most people in Sweden celebrate together with friends and family. People typically eat eggs, lamb, salmon and herring at Easter. It is also common for children to be given sweets in large egg-shaped containers. Before Easter, many children wear costumes and go around the neighbourhood knocking on people's doors to wish them a happy Easter. People usually give sweets to the children who come knocking.

Nowruz is a new year's festivity among several different peoples, including Persians, Kurds and Afghans. In Sweden, Nowruz is often called the Persian or Kurdish new year. Nowruz is celebrated on 20, 21 or 22 March, when the day and night are exactly the same length. It celebrates the arrival of spring, and goes on for 13 days, with lots of feasting, food and joy. Small fires are also lit that people have to jump over.

Valborgsmässoafton, or Walpurgis Night is 30 April. That is when many Swedes celebrate the arrival of spring. Large bonfires are lit and people sing songs about spring.

The First of May is a festival for workers. It has been celebrated since the 19th century in many countries. It is also a holiday. Many people have the day off work and schools are closed. Many people demonstrate on 1 May for workers' rights.

Kristi himmelsfärdsdag (Ascension Day) falls 40 days after Easter. It commemorates Jesus’ ascension into heaven after his death and resurrection on earth. Kristi himmelfärdsdag is a public holiday when most people do not work and many shops are closed.

Sweden's national day is 6 June and is a public holiday. Many people wear a national costume to celebrate the national day. There are different national costumes depending on which part of Sweden you are from.

Midsommarafton, Midsummer's Eve, is a popular festivity in Sweden. It is always celebrated on the Friday that falls between 19 and 25 June. Midsummer was celebrated in Sweden long before the country became Christian. Celebrations usually include dancing around a midsummer pole which is clad with leaves and garlands of flowers. Many adults and children also wear flower garlands in their hair. The food at midsummer is usually herring, salmon, new potatoes and strawberries.

An important Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur falls in September or October. This 'Day of Atonement' is celebrated by fasting, prayer and synagogue services in which people ask forgiveness for their sins. Yom Kippur falls ten days after the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah.

All Saints' Day is celebrated on a Saturday between 31 October and 6 November. All Saints' Day is a Christian festival when people think about the dead. Many people in Sweden go to cemeteries and light candles on the graves of relatives and friends.

Lucia Day is 13 December. In Sweden, Lucia Day is celebrated so that the light will return after the winter. Children in preschools and schools sing songs about Lucia and Christmas.

Christmas is a Christian festivity celebrating the memory of the birth of Jesus. Families get together to cook, eat and give each other presents. In Sweden, Christmas presents are called julklappar, and people give them to each other on Christmas Eve, 24 December. At Christmas time, it is common for people to put a spruce fir in a pot indoors and decorate it with lights, baubles and glitter.

Ramadan is the fasting period for Muslims. It goes on for one month. During Ramadan, many adult Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or having sex between sunrise and sunset each day. Ramadan ends with a big feast known as Eid al-Fitr. If you are pregnant, are having your period, or breastfeeding, you do not need to fast. Neither do you have to fast if you are old or ill. Ramadan falls at different times of the year since the Muslim year follows the lunar calendar.