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“Is Swedish culture worth preserving?” Several years ago, at a Nordic conference on integration policy, a Norwegian participant, Hege Storhaug, asked this question of Swedish government representative Lise Bergh. “Yes, what is Swedish culture?” Bergh replied. “And [by asking that] I’ve answered the question.” As Storhaug later noted, Bergh’s reply was a perfect reflection of Swedish leaders’ contempt for and rejection of their own culture – a mentality that, Storhaug worried, might ultimately spell Sweden’s doom.
“What is Swedish culture?” I was reminded of Bergh’s rhetoric question the other morning when I was making my way across the lobby of a hotel in Sweden. Suddenly a double column of about a dozen teenage girls and boys, dressed in long white robes and carrying lit candles, began to process into the room, softly singing the traditional song “Santa Lucia.” I hadn’t realized it was Saint Lucy’s Day, on which such processions by children and teenagers (formerly just girls, but now also boys) are common in Scandinavia, especially in Sweden. Tourists all around me responded to this unfamiliar spectacle by yanking out their cameras or cell phones and snapping pictures, but since I’ve seen my share of Santa Lucia processions and was in a hurry, I rushed right past them, my mind on other things.
Not until I reached the end of the lobby did something tell me to stop and turn around. For the next minute or so I stood there and watched as the girls and boys made their way slowly away from me and into the hotel bar and restaurant. To my surprise, I found myself being deeply touched; it was moving to think that Swedish kids (especially boys) of that age would be willing to don long white robes and participate in something that you might well expect them to regard as corny, embarrassing, and old-fashioned.
As I stood there, I remembered Bergh’s comment at that integration conference. Certainly, I reflected, this was one part of Swedish culture. It was not a big thing, by any means, but it was one of the many little things that come together to make up the culture of a nation. It should perhaps be pointed out that for Swedes, who by and large are not very religious at all, the Santa Lucia processions tend to be less an expression of faith than a cherished ritual, like putting presents under the Christmas tree. For most of the young people in the hotel that day, I would guess, taking part in a Santa Lucia procession was not about religious belief but about embracing the customs of their people – the traditions handed down to them by their parents and grandparents.
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