POPULATION: 8.8 million

LANGUAGE: Swedish; Sami; Finnish

RELIGION: Church of Sweden (Lutheran)


Swedes live in Sweden, one of the countries that make up the region known as Scandanavia. (The other Scandinavian nations are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway.) The first written reference to the Swedes is by the Roman historian Tacitus, who called the Swedes "mighty in ships and arms" in AD 98. Sweden represented a major European power during the seventeenth century, with its territories including Finland (1000–1805), parts of Germany, and the Baltic States. Christianity was introduced during the ninth through the eleventh centuries. An age of territorial expansion during the 1500s and 1600s ended in defeat by Russia in 1709 and the loss of most overseas possessions by the early nineteenth century. Norway was united with Sweden from 1814 to 1905.

In the twentieth century Sweden remained neutral in both world wars, serving as a haven (safe place) for refugees in World War II (1939–45). Carl XVI Gustaf has been king since 1973, though his duties and influence are limited to ceremonies.


Sweden is the largest country in Scandinavia and the fourth-largest in Europe. With a total area of 173,732 square miles (449,966 square kilometers), it is close in size to the state of California. It is one of the more sparsely populated countries, with only 55 people per square mile (21 people per square kilometer). It is bordered by Norway on the north and west, Denmark on the southeast, and the Gulf of Bothnia, the Baltic Sea, and Finland on the east. One-seventh of Sweden lies within the Arctic Circle, the "land of the midnight sun," where the sun never really sets for three months during the summer. The country has about 100,000 lakes and many rivers, and more than half its terrain is forested. Most of its 8.8 million people live in the south of the country.

The Swedes are a Scandinavian people descended from Germanic tribes who emigrated to the region in ancient times, displacing the indigenous Sami. Ethnic minorities include about 30,000 Swedish-speaking Finns living in the northeastern section of the country, and approximately 15,000 Sami, a traditionally nomadic group of reindeer herders who live in northern portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Since World War II (1939–45), Sweden has also accepted immigrant workers from Greece, Germany, Turkey, Great Britain, Poland, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as political refugees, mostly from the Middle East, Asia, and the Latin American countries of Chile and Argentina.


Swedish is a Germanic language closely related to Norwegian and Danish. There are also similarities between Swedish and English, and most Swedes speak English as a second language. The Sami have their own language, and there are also some Finnish speakers in the country.


English Swedish Pronunciation
hello hej HAY
goodbye adjö ah-YER
yes/no ja/nej YA/NAY
please varsagod var-shah-GUD
thank you tack TAHK
breakfast rrukost FROO-kohst
lunch lunch LOONSH
dinner middag MID-dahg
one ett AYN
two två TVAW
three tre TRAY
four fyra FEE-ra
five fem FEM
six sex SE
seven sju SHOO
eight atta AWT-tah
nine nio NEE-ah
ten tio TEE-eh

Popular boys' names that are distinctly Swedish are Anders, Bengt, Hans, Gunnar, Ake, and Lars, while girls are commonly named Margareta, Karin, Birgitta, Kerstin, and Ingrid.


Rural dwellers have traditionally believed in the existence of a variety of supernatural beings. Every province of Sweden has its own customs and local lore. For example, there is a legend about the difference between the lush, fertile land of Skåne in the south and the neighboring northern province of Småland, which is rocky and barren. While God was making Skåne so beautiful, the Devil supposedly sneaked past God and turned Småland into a harsh and desolate place. It was too late for God to change the land, but God was able to create its people and made them tough and resourceful enough to survive in their difficult environment.

Swedish folklore is also full of moral tales. One of the more popular, reflecting Sweden's deep egalitarianism, is called "Master Pär and Rag Jan's Boy."

Master Pär was a terribly rich landowner and Rag Jan was a dirt-poor farmer. Master Pär, however, was deeply dissatisfied because his wife had never been able to have children, so there was no one to inherit his wealth. Rag Jan, on the other hand, had several children and Master Pär envied the poor farmer terribly.

One night a strange traveler came to town and went to Master Pär's house asking if she could stay the night. Master Pär laughed and slammed the door in her face. Next she went to Rag Jan's, who, even though his wife had just given birth to another son, told her she was more than welcome. The strange traveler, who was something of a mystic, told Jan that in the morning he should go to Master Pär and ask him to be the godfather of his new son. Jan did so even though he knew Master Pär would sneer at the idea, which he did. "Never mind," said the strange woman, "your new son will one day be heir to Master Pär's fortune: I have seen it in a vision." The only thing Jan had to do was to keep quiet about her plan.

Time passed and Master Pär continued to despair over not having an heir. Being rich, he thought that the solution would be to buy a child, so he went to Jan, remembering that strange day when Jan had suggested that he be the godfather to his new boy. He bought the boy and raised him for a year, but then his wife got pregnant and bore him a daughter. The boy and girl became inseparable friends, falling deeply in love. Then one day Rag Jan's wife forgot the strange woman's pleading to keep quiet and told a friend that it had been predicted that her son would one day inherit Master Pär's wealth. Well, Master Pär heard of this and had the boy sent off to the woods, to his sister's, to be killed. Years went by, and, through the help of the strange woman, the boy was not killed but raised by Master Pär's sister into a strong young man. When Master Pär found out, he again hatched a plot to have the boy killed, but, again through the workings of the strange woman, the boy was not only spared but became engaged to Master Pär's daughter. When Master Pär found out, he went into a rage and told the boy that the only way he could marry his daughter would be to travel to the end of the world and ask the giant that lived there why everything always went wrong for Master Pär.

The boy agreed to take the journey. Master Pär was happy because he knew (but the boy didn't) that the giant at the end of the world loved to eat Christians. As the boy journeyed to the end of the world, he passed three castles and met three kings, each of whom asked where he was going. "To the end of the world," the boy replied, "to ask the giant why everything always goes wrong for Master Pär." Each of the kings then asked him if he could ask the giant a question for him. The first wanted to know why the apples on one side of his apple tree grew red and on the other grew white; the second wanted to know why his spring had gone muddy; the third asked him to find out what had happened to his daughter. The boy happily told them all he would do the best he could.

When he got to the end of the world, he came to a river with a ferry operated by an ancient woman. The woman asked the young boy where he was going. When he told her, she too asked him to ask the giant a question. She wanted to know how long she would have to stay at the river. She had already been there for a hundred years.

Across the river, the young boy came to a mountain with a door leading into its heart. He went inside and came across a beautiful woman spinning golden thread. The woman asked the boy what he was doing there and when he told her, the woman told him that his journey was doomed: the giant would simply eat him up the minute he saw him. Then the woman had an idea and told the boy to hide. That night, when the giant fell asleep, the woman pretended to wake from a terrible dream, screaming. This woke the giant and he asked what was wrong. She told him that in her dream someone named Master Pär had asked her why things always went wrong for him. The giant, half asleep, said it was because he refused to accept the son-in-law the gods had chosen for him. The woman then pretended to wake from three more dreams, each time asking the giant to solve one of the riddles. Then she pretended to awake one more time, this time asking how the ancient woman who operated the ferry could be relieved of her duty. The giant answered all the questions, and then the young boy jumped up from his hiding place and chopped off the giant's head.

When the boy and the woman got to the ferry, they told the ancient woman that they had found the answer to her question, but they would not tell her until they got across the river. When they landed, they told her that the next person who needed to get across could be forced to take her place if she said, "Now you must stay here as long as I have," while that person was in the ferry. The old woman shouted as the two ran off together that they should have told her that before getting out of the boat. All the kings were so grateful for the answers to their questions that they showered the young man with gifts, dressing him in the finest clothes and giving him the finest horse on which to ride the long journey home.

When he finally got to Master Pär's castle, Master Pär was quite surprised to see him alive and reluctantly agreed to allow the marriage. He was never happy, however, and became especially dissatisfied when his new son-in-law told him that he had left the giant's vast treasure of gold and jewelry behind after killing him. The treasure was still sitting there in the giant's mountain home. After a few years, the greed of Master Pär finally got the better of him, and he traveled to the end of the world to get the giant's treasure for himself. When he got to the ferry, the old woman told him to get in the boat and then said, "Now you must stay here as long as I have," and ran off cackling, leaving Master Pär to stare at the giant's unretrieved treasure, glistening in the mountain cave. He is sitting there still.


Sweden's state religion is Lutheranism, and about 90 percent of the population belongs to the Church of Sweden, the country's Lutheran church. In the past, all Swedes automatically became members of the church at birth but had the right to withdraw from it. As of January 1996, church membership is only achieved through baptism, as Sweden is currently negotiating a separation of church and state to be enacted by 2000. Although most people mark major life-cycle events such as baptism, confirmation, marriage, and death within the church, the majority do not attend services regularly. Of the 90-percent Lutheran population, only 10 percent attend church. Minority religions include Roman Catholicism, the Pentecostal Church, the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden, and the Greek Orthodox Church. In addition, there is a large concentration of Jews in Sweden, as well as a tremendous growth in the Islamic population.


Sweden's legal holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Epiphany (January 6), Good Friday and Easter Monday (both in March or April), May Day (May 1), Ascension Day (May 31), Midsummer (June 23), All Souls' Day (November 3), and Christmas (December 25). At midnight on New Year's Eve (December 31), ship horns and factory sirens usher in the New Year and, following a century-old tradition, Alfred Tennyson's poem, "Ring Out, Wild Bells," is read at an open-air museum in Stockholm and broadcast throughout the country. The feast of St. Knut on January 13 is the time when Christmas decorations are taken down. Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent begins, is traditionally observed by eating a bun filled with cream and marzipan. As Easter approaches, Swedes decorate twigs with colored feathers and place them in water to sprout new leaves in time for the holiday. Similar to Halloween rituals observed in the United States, young boys and girls dress up as the Easter Hag and visit their neighbors, from whom they receive small gifts.

Among the most important secular holidays is the Feast of Valborg, or Walpurgis Night, observed on April 30, which celebrates the coming of spring with bonfires and other festivities performed both publicly and privately. The Swedish flag is honored on June 6, a day on which all cities and towns fly flags and hold ceremonies in the flag's honor. Finally, the Summer Solstice is observed on June 21 and June 22 through the raising of the Maypole, around which celebrants dance, sing traditional songs, and eat.


Modern Swedish children can expect to spend a lot of time in well-kept day care centers. Most parents, whether married or not, both work outside the home, requiring children to spend their early years in day care. Once in school, the children can look forward to spending their after-school hours in an expanded day care. Swedish children also have legal protections unheard of in other countries. There is a government office specifically designed to serve children's interests, and it is against the law for parents to hit their children.


The Swedish character is influenced by the harsh weather. During warm months, Swedes love to spend time outdoors, picnicking with friends in the country, or having a meal at a sidewalk cafe in the city. In the winter, most socializing comes to an end as Swedes generally retreat to their homes, waiting out the long, dark winter. Swedes tend to be reserved in public and in interpersonal relations. They do not usually touch others when communicating, as it is considered poor manners.


Except for brick-and-clay farm houses in southern Sweden, most dwellings were traditionally built of wood. In the past, the style of rural dwellings varied by region. Contemporary housing is basically similar throughout the country, and it features building materials and styles similar to those in the United States. Many empty country houses are now used as summer homes. Fewer than 50 percent of Swedes live in detached single homes, and about one-third live in or near the country's three largest cities.

Sweden's extensive system of social insurance pays for medical and dental care. The nation's infant mortality rate—6 deaths for every 1,000 live births—is one of the lowest in the world. Maternity leave with pay is granted one month before the expected birth of a child, with twelve additional months after the child is born, which can be taken by either parent or split between them. This legitimate leave of absence is termed "parental leave," as it can be chosen by either mother or father. However, 90 percent of parental leave is taken only by the mother, as 50 percent of Swedish fathers do not take even a single day off. The average life expectancy in Sweden is seventy-seven years for men and eighty-one years for women.


Most Swedish families have only one or two children. During the past twenty years, it has become so common for unmarried couples to live together that the people have coined a name for this arrangement: sambo ( sam means together; bo means live). In 1988 the legal rights of persons involved in such relationships were expanded, making them almost the legal equal of married spouses. Nevertheless, sambo relationships often lead to marriage. Sweden's divorce rate has doubled since 1960. The older Swedish generation views the husband's role as that of the breadwinner, and still relegates the wife to domestic tasks within the home. However, as in the United States, the younger Swedish generation considers marriage more as a partnership with shared responsibilities, since both spouses work. Swedish women are guaranteed equal rights under the law, and 82 percent work outside the home—the highest rate in Europe. Many women hold upper-level government positions, including positions in parliament and the governing cabinet. Almost half of all working women have children under the age of sixteen.

The elderly Swede enjoys generous social benefits from the state and, usually, does not live with a younger relative, as used to be the norm. As in most industrialized countries, the extended family has become less central to life in Sweden as children move in pursuit of careers, independence, and wealth. More than 90 percent of Swedes over sixty-five live independently outside of retirement homes, with medical care brought to them if they are unable to get around easily.


Modern, Western-style clothing is worn in Sweden. As in the United States, the Swedes' casual wear is typically slacks, shorts, and T-shirts. Likewise, suits are worn by both men and women in most places of business, and tuxedos and evening gowns are worn at formal affairs

Swedish folk costumes, which were introduced as late as the 1890s as a means of glorifying the cultural richness of the nation, are worn for special festivals such as Midsummer's Eve. They consist of white blouses, vests, and long dark skirts (often worn with aprons) for women, and white shirts, vests, dark knee-length breeches, and white hose for men. Only a small segment of the population even owns such a costume, and the costumes vary dramatically from region to region.

12 • FOOD

The Swedes, heavily influenced by the French, use rich sauces in their food. The Swedish name for the open-faced sandwich meal enjoyed throughout Scandinavia— smörgåsbord (SMUR-gawss-boord) is the one by which this buffet meal is known in the United States. In Sweden it commonly includes herring, smoked eel, roast beef, tongue, jellied fish, boiled potatoes, and cheese. Favorite hot dishes include meat-balls (köttbulla; CHURT-boolar ) served with lingonberry jam (lingonsylt; LING-onn-seelt ), fried meat, potatoes, and eggs; and Janssons frestelse (YAHN-sons FREH-stehl-seh), a layered potato dish with onions and cream, topped with anchovies. The Swedes love fish, especially salmon, which is typically smoked, marinated, or cured with dill and salt. Fresh fruits and vegetables, including all kinds of berries, are also very popular. Favorite beverages include milk, lättöl (LETT-url; a type of beer with almost no alcohol), and strong coffee.


Rose Hip Soup


  • 1½ to 2 cups dried rose hips (available at health food stores)
  • 1½ quarts water
  • ¼–½ cup sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon potato starch (cornstarch may be substituted)


  1. Rinse the rose hips and lightly crush them. Put them in a saucepan with the water. Heat to boiling.
  2. Simmer until rose hips are tender.
  3. Transfer to a blender or food processor and purée. There should be about 1¼ quarts of liquid; if there is less, add water.
  4. Pour puréed rose hips back into the saucepan and add the sugar. Stir and cook over medium heat.
  5. Dissolve the potato starch in a small amount of cold water. Stir into soup slowly. Remove from heat just when is begins to boil. Chill before serving.
  6. Serve cold with ice cream or whipped cream. Top with slivered almonds or corn flakes.

Ceremonial foods include salt salmon on Good Friday, and roasted lamb on Easter Eve. At Christmas, an almond is placed in the rice pudding. Before serving themselves, each person has to make up a short rhyme. The one who gets the portion with the almond will marry within the year.

Sweden's best known contributions to world cuisine are Swedish meatballs and, of course, the smörgåsbord. Less well known is rose hip soup, a sweet, cold soup high in vitamin C, traditionally served during the long winter months when fruits are scarce. It is usually served cold with whipped cream or ice cream and topped with almond slivers or crushed corn flakes.


Almost all Swedes can read and write. School is required between the ages of seven and seventeen. During the first nine years, students attend a "comprehensive school" where they study a variety of subjects. Grades one through three are called the "junior" grades, four through six the "middle" grades, and seven through nine the "senior" grades. There is a three-week Christmas vacation, and a summer vacation that extends from early June to late August. Free hot lunches are provided to all students. English is taught as a second language from the third grade on, and crafts such as woodworking and textile-making are also part of the curriculum. While immigrant children from countries such as Germany and Turkey receive education in their own language a few hours each day, there are also special English classes for these students.

Beginning in the seventh year, instruction varies based on students' interests and abilities. About 30 percent choose the college-preparatory curriculum, while others opt for more vocationally-oriented training. Swedes maintain the Scandinavian tradition of giving ceremonial white hats to secondary school graduates. Sweden has six universities, located in Stockholm, Linköping, Uppsala, Lund, and Umeå.


Swedes take an intense interest in their cultural heritage, devoting a large part of their public funds to institutions such as museums, libraries, theaters, and galleries. The arts receive strong support from the government in Sweden. An example of the intense Swedish interest in art is the fact that Stockholm's subway system is filled with public art and has been called the world's longest art gallery.

Performers in Sweden enjoy a level of job security unknown in most other countries, including the United States. They are hired by the year, drawing a regular salary and receiving pension, insurance, and vacation benefits. However, even the most successful Swedish performers do not receive the extremely high levels of pay accorded to "superstars" in some other countries, particularly the United States.

Sweden's best-known writer was August Strindberg, who wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays that influenced the course of modern drama. Selma Lagerlof, the first Swede to win the Nobel Prize, is known for both her novels and her children's classic, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Another world-famous Swedish children's author is Astrid Lindgren, creator of the Pippi Longstocking books.

In the visual arts, prominent Swedish names include the sculptor Carl Milles and the jewelry maker Sigurd Persson. The Swedish film industry has gained a worldwide audience for its films, especially those of its director Ingmar Bergman, whose internationally known films include The Seventh Seal, Persona , and Fanny and Alexander . Famous Swedish film stars include Ingrid Bergman and Max von Sydow. The creator of the Nobel Prize itself was a Swede—Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.


Swedes entering the work force, like people in most industrialized countries, face bright prospects. Sweden has a stable, growing economy and is a world leader in engineering and science. Swedes take great pride in their jobs (professions are listed with names in the phone book), and Swedish-made products are world-renowned for their quality and durability. This is especially true of the automobiles, the Volvo and the Saab, which are considered two of the finest-made cars in the world.

Sweden's labor force is divided almost equally between men and women. About 67 percent are employed in the service sector, 31 percent in industry, and 2 percent in agriculture. Unemployment in Sweden has been low compared to other European countries (under 5 percent in 1992) but is rising due to cuts in defense spending and government employment. About 85 percent of the Swedish work force is unionized. The minimum age for employment is sixteen; persons under that age may be hired during school vacations for easy jobs that last five days or less.

There are extensive worker training programs in Sweden, provided by both government and industry. These programs help train unemployed workers for new jobs, and train current workers for better jobs or to prepare them for new technology.

Though Sweden has some of the highest taxes in the world, it generously pays a pension that is two-thirds of the worker's pre-retirement salary. Swedish retirees enjoy other benefits, such as health insurance and half-priced prescriptions.


There are about 40,000 sports clubs throughout Sweden. The most popular sport is soccer (called fotboll; FOOT-boll). Favorite winter sports include cross-country and downhill skiing, and long-distance skating. Popular water sports include swimming, rowing, and sailing, and many Swedes also enjoy cycling. Major annual events for amateur athletes include the Vasa cross-country ski race, the Vace, the Vansbro swim meet, and the Liding the Swedish tennis team won the Davis Cup for the fourth time. Outstanding Swedish athletes include alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark, and tennis great Björn Borg.


Many of the Swedes' leisure hours are devoted to outdoor activities that enable them to enjoy their country's beautiful natural scenery. It is common to retreat to rural areas during weekends and vacations. The summer cottage by the lake is a common sight. Altogether there are about 600,000 summer homes in Sweden, many in abandoned rural areas. The islands near Stockholm are especially popular sites for these retreats. In recent years, it has also become popular to take winter vacations in Mediterranean resort areas. Walking is a favorite pastime in Sweden, and marked walking paths can be found throughout the country. Sailing on Sweden's rivers and lakes is also very popular: about one in every five households owns a boat.


The Swedes are known for their high-quality handicrafts. Handmade utensils have been produced since the beginning of the nineteenth century; the primary textiles are wool and flax. Swedish crystal and glass—of which 90 percent is produced at the Orrefors factory—are famous worldwide, and half of the country's production is exported, much of it to the United States. The Dalarna region is known for its distinctive wooden horses with their brightly painted designs. Folk influences are evident in modern Swedish ceramics, woodwork, textiles, furniture, silver, and other products.


Like several neighboring countries, Sweden has a high rate of alcoholism. Organizations devoted to helping people deal with this problem have about 6,000 local chapters altogether. Another—and possibly related—problem is absenteeism from work, which rose sharply in the late 1980s. One of out every four workers calls in sick on any given day. There has also been some discontent with the high taxes necessary to fund Sweden's extensive network of social services.

A relatively new and sweeping social problem in Sweden is that of racism. A neo-Nazi group similar to the "skinheads" of the United States is VAM ("Vit Ariskt Motstand" or "White Aryan Resistance"), which in recent years has experienced an increase in membership.


Alderton, Mary. Sweden. Blue Guide. New York: Norton, 1995.

Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: UXL, 1996.

Gan, Delice. Sweden . New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1992.

Gerholm, Lena. "Swedes." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures ( Europe ). Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Hintz, Martin. Sweden. "Enchantment of the World" Series. Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.

Keeler, Stephen, and Chris Fairclough. We Live in Sweden. New York: Bookwright Press, 1985.

Sweden in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1990.


Embassy of Sweden, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.swedenemb.org/ , 1998.

Swedish Travel & Tourism Council. [Online] Available http://www.gosweden.org/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Sweden. [Online] Available http://www.gosweden.org/ , 1998.

Also read article about Swedes from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Katie smith
hi than you so much this website helped me out so much on my country report it is the best website ever! well for my history anyway. well thank you for all your help and i hope to vist your website very soon for my next history report.


ps. where can you find out where thier ancestors were from
Tony Carlsson
As a Swede from Gothenburg living in the U.S. for the past 11 years, I appreciate all the fine facts about my home country.
I must however point out that that with regard to the Universities you have failed to mention my home town of Gothenburg or Göteborg as it is called in Swedish. As the second largest city it is home to the large Gothenburg University and the famous Chalmers Technical University.
This article helped me out alot thank you, but where did Swedens religion most likely come from?
this realy help me on my ss report for sweden thanks it really did no joke

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: