The Swedish Birthday Party

Celebrating at a Swedish friend's birthday
Posted: 8/11/16 | August 11th, 2016

As I sat in my tuxedo, taking another sip of Swedish schnapps, I turned to the girl next to me and whispered:

“Why are there so many speeches?”

“At birthday parties like this, it’s common in Swedish culture for people to get up and say nice things,” she said. She paused, looking as the speaker regaled us with stories about the event’s guest of honor, and then leaned into my ear again: “It happens so much that when my parents threw a 65th birthday party, they specifically said ‘no speeches’ because they were tired of hearing the same thing and just wanted to drink.”

Annika, sporting de rigueur Swedish features –  blonde hair, blue eyes, and eyebrows that would make Cara Delevingne jealous – was giving me an intro to Swedish birthday celebrations. Just when the night’s speeches seemed to draw to a conclusion, another person stood up to talk about Erik, my friend who was celebrating his birthday.

Like me, Erik loves any excuse to throw a swanky party, and, as 30 is a big deal in his family, used it to throw a black-tie affair. Though his birthday is in January, he planned the celebration for July, because, as he so accurately put it, “Who wants to be outside in Sweden in January?!”

The event was held in Djurgården in Stockholm. Djurgården is one of the largest islands in the city, home to Gröna Lund amusement park, the Vasa Museum, the ABBA Museum, and Skansen (an open-air museum of pre-industrial Swedish life).

But, more than its museums, this island is famed for its plethora of running trails and gardens.

As I followed a tiny stone path at the end of the island, I came to Rosendals Trädgård, a greenhouse-like restaurant where dinner would be held. The city seemed a world away in this farm-like setting with rustic buildings and an orchard. Jaunting down another path, I turned into the orchard, where I saw dozens of other people in tuxedos, ball gowns, and suits. It felt more like a wedding than a birthday party.

There, with the sun bright overhead and the wind carrying the smell of flowers, we drank, introduced ourselves to each other, and swapped stories about Erik.

Following the Swedish tradition of sitting single guests next to members of the opposite sex, I found myself paired with the aforementioned Annika, my Swedish cultural liaison for the evening.

In the U.S., birthday parties don’t frequently feature multiple speeches. There’s a toast and maybe someone says something nice, but a parade of speeches is often reserved for bigger events such as weddings, retirements, engagements, and anniversaries.

A 30th birthday typically doesn’t fall into the endless speech category.

As the night progressed, there were drinking songs sung, toasts proffered, bottles of wine consumed, language tips given, and dances danced. The horrible schnapps got easier to drink with each toast and the meal — made of all local ingredients — became a blur of dishes designed to keep us somewhat sober.

During the summer in Sweden, when the sun has barely set at midnight, the constant light beckoned us to stay out longer. So when it started to rise again at 2am and the staff shooed us out the door, we moved the party to a friend’s house before finally stumbling to our respective homes around 6am.

Swedes are often thought of as a cold people — and there is some truth to that. An outwardly stoic culture, Swedes often joke about how they will go out of their way to avoid talking to their neighbors. Striking up conversations with strangers is seen as equally odd to them.

But, underneath that hard exterior, you’ll find a people that are deeply loyal and loving of their friends and family.

Attending Erik’s party reminded me how a simple thing like a birthday party can be a window into a different culture. When you witness first-hand how people come together to celebrate, you often see how that culture values relationships.

For example, years ago, I attended a birthday party in Cambodia. It was a free-flowing event that focused so much on the food and the shared meal that it made me really appreciate just how central food was to that culture and how meals were used as a way to strengthen bonds between people.

This night, though, as I watched Erik’s brother recite a poem and his friends sing his favorite drinking songs, I discovered the unreserved side of Swedes. Here, everyone talked about how wonderful my friend was — not to grow his ego but to show their love and appreciation for him and for having him in their lives.

And, as I saw the smile on everyone’s faces and the joy in Erik’s eyes, I thought maybe this was a birthday tradition worth spreading around the world.

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All photos by Erik’s brother Karl!