folklore of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands
Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Nordic folk culture

Midsummer redirects here. For white nights see Midnight sun.

The Nordic countries are famous for their folk culture, including expressions such as music and dance, crafts, farming, folk architecture, costumes, fairytales, folklore and festivals. The Nordic countries were forerunners in creation of open-air museums to commemorate the rural cultural expressions.

Nordic countries
Denmark (Faroe Islands, Greenland), Finland (Åland), Iceland, Norway, Sami culture, Sweden
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Nordic history: • Vikings & Old NorseDanish EmpireSwedish EmpireMonarchies

Understand edit

See also: Vikings and the Old Norse, Nordic history

While the folk is synonym to all people and culture could include more or less all human customs, folk culture is usually defined as arts and lifestyle of peasants of yore. Folk culture excludes royal courts, the nobility, the church, the cities, and modern cultural expressions since around 1900; as they saw more influence from abroad than the folk culture did. While folk culture has never been totally isolated from neighbouring provinces and countries, they have preserved many customs for centuries. Many folk dances, now emulating their early 20th century form, are based on what was danced by the upper class in the Victorian era in Central and Western Europe. The word folkminne/folkeminde (folk memory) is used synonymously in Nordic language, as well as the English folklore (though this latter might specifically mean tales, myth and legends).

As Norway and Finland became independent only in the 20th century, and their aristocratic and urban culture were seen as tainted by excess foreign influences, folk culture is the foundation of their respective national identities.

Re-enactment of the Viking Age and other parts of Nordic history is prevalent in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. In contrast to these events, there is still a living tradition built on the Nordic folk culture, which often represents the rural lifestyle of the 19th century. Nostalgia events representing the mid-20th century has added a new layer of Nordic heritage, not described by this article.

Hembygdsgård is an old farm which is run by a local organization to preserve local heritage, and to host public events. Bygdegård is a similar institution, not necessarily with connection to historic folk culture, more often founded by the labour movement, the temperance movement, or a free church (separate from the Lutheran state church).

The peasants' cultural identity has mainly been based on the parish (socken in Swedish, sogn in Danish and Norwegian Bokmål, sokn in Nynorsk, pitäjä in Finnish) and on the province (landskap in Swedish, fylke in Norwegian, maakunta in Finnish).

National identities consolidated only in the 19th century, and many customs perceived as traditional for the whole country, were established later than that. For instance, while the Dala Horse was attested since the 17th century, it became famous as a Swedish icon at the 1939 New York World Fair.

Architecture edit

A loftbod (storehouse) in Dalarna, Sweden, built from logs, with Falu red paint.

While grand houses in the Nordic countries are built in a mainstream European fashion, the Nordic folk architecture stands out as more austere.

In Denmark and southern Sweden, farm houses were typically built in brick or timberframe, in a style similar to central Europe. The inland parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland have plenty of wood, and log houses are common (newer ones usually covered by boards). Since the 18th century, Swedish farmhouses are traditionally painted with Falu red, a paint manufactured in Falun.

Clothing and textiles edit

The Norwegian bunad, a folk dress with accessories, is commonly worn by girls and women of all generations.

Traditional Nordic textiles are wool and flax.

Many Nordic provinces have local folk costumes traditionally used by wealthy peasantry for festivities. Some folk costumes can be attested since the 17th century, and most folk costumes in current use are reconstructions of genuine ones from a certain region (often on parish level), mostly containing a bit of guesswork. The Sámi and Roma costumes are living traditions, the Roma women's dress used also as everyday clothing.

Modern folk costumes have been designed during the 20th and 21st centuries, to represent countries, provinces or towns without a traditional costume. A prevalent example is Sverigedräkten (the Swedish costume) which was designed in 1902, and came into widespread use as late as the 1970s, promoted by the Royal family. Also costumes based on archaeological models have been constructed for some regions (forndräkt, muinaispuku).

Today, folk costumes can be worn for traditional holidays such as Christmas or Midsummer. They can at times substitute formal dress (white tie).

Other folk textiles include tablecloths, quilts and carpets.

Myth and legend edit

See also: Fringe phenomena, Horror fiction
Trolls are Nordic legendary creatures depicted very differently. John Bauer's illustration of folk tales are among the most iconic.

Nordic folk tales have traces of Nordic paganism, but is also marked by a millennium of Christianity and the Protestant Reformation. The word saga is ambiguous; in Old Norse and contemporary Icelandic, it means "history"; in contemporary Swedish it means "fairy tale".

Nordic folk tales have inspired fiction, such as the H C Andersen's works, JRR Tolkien's legendarium, Nordic Noir and Astrid Lindgren's works.

The Haunted Stockholm tour is a showcase of urban ghost stories.

Music and dance edit

See also: Nordic music

Nordic folk music is associated with the spelman, an instrumentalist who plays the fiddle; sometimes the accordion, the bagpipes or the nyckelharpa. The Finns have an ancient rune singing tradition and the kantele (a type of zither) is the most important instrument in the old tradition, while the fiddle (sometimes the accordion) is used for most modern folk music.

Folk dance is commonly the main attraction of folk culture events. The folk dance tradition is very much alive in the Faroe Islands, while in most of the other countries it has ceased being a living tradition among the general public. In Denmark it has been revived, while in Finland, Norway and Sweden it has survived in some circles. Today much of the tradition is common among the countries, with dances from other countries part of the local repertoires, and the folk dance communities meeting at big Nordic events.

The Scandinavian folk dances (the tradition shared with Swedish-speaking Finland) are mostly derived from what earlier was danced at the European courts. They often combine sequences of different steps in the same dance (fragments of schottische, waltz, polska, simple walking steps etc.) and are danced in set formations, such as two lines facing each other, a circle or a square of four pairs. Much of the dance is about dynamics of the formation, such as pairs changing positions or chains of some sort. The dance may involve a passage of partner dancing (such as waltz or polka), still keeping to the formation. The fiddle is the dominating instrument of accompanying music. When there is live music, such as at most dancing events, the musicians often adjust their playing, improvising as needed.

For the enthusiasts, folk dance is mostly genuine social dancing, while the general public mostly sees performances. Most folk dancing is re-enactment of the dances documented in the first half of the 20th century (possibly with less improvisation than at the time), but the current tradition also involves dances imported from abroad, the rare newly invented one trying to keep to the tradition, and dances more true to the court origin. Sometimes variants are invented and performed, trained or as improvisations.

Folk dancers often also dance partner dances such as schottische, waltz, polka, hambo, polska and snoa, At the gammeldans dances in Sweden, a significant share of participants will probably be folk dancers.

Festivals and events edit

See also: Winter in the Nordic countries

Nordic holidays are based on a combination of folk belief, Christianity and secular traditions. Most holidays are celebrated on the eve; the day before the holiday proper.

Christmas, jul, is the most important Nordic holiday. Many towns have Christmas markets.

Midsummer is a major holiday in the Nordic countries held around the summer solstice in late June. In Christianity it is John the Baptist's day, and known as sankthans in Norway and Denmark, as Juhannus in Finnish, sometimes as Johanne in Swedish. In rural Sweden, in particular in Dalarna, Midsummer is a major holiday with folk music and dancing. In Finland Midsummer is still publicly celebrated in many places, with bonfire, dance and (in some regions) raising a maypole, but most people gather at a summer cottage among friends, with sauna, bonfire, food and drinking. Into the 1990s cities tended to be deserted in Midsummer, but now more people stay there, and there are public Midsummer celebrations in many cities.

Nordlek. Nordiskt Förbund för Folkkultur arranges massive 5-day gatherings of folk musicians and folk dancers from the Nordic countries. The proper Nordlek gatherings are arranged every three years, with smaller gatherings in the intervening years. Some performances are arranged in public.  

Destinations edit

Map of Nordic folk culture

Denmark edit

  • 1 Frilandsmuseet (Open Air museum), Kongevejen 100, Lyngby (Copenhagen's northern suburbs). This is one of the world's largest museums in terms of area covered. It houses more than 50 authentic relocated historical farms, houses, and windmills, and sometimes live activities like making butter are performed inside the houses.    
  • 2 The Funen Village (Odense). An open-air museum.    
  • 3 Den Gamle By (The Old Town), Viborgvej 2 (Århus). Open-air museum village comprising a collection of 75 original Danish buildings from 1597 to 1909 gathered from all corners of the country. There are historical shops and eateries, most true to the period. A few staff members and volunteers dressed up in historic clothes adds to the ambience, and sometimes events are arranged.    

Finland edit

  • 4 Kuralan kylämäki (Turku). A village of a few farms, telling about countryside life in the 1950s. Period toys and playing equipment. Livestock. Experimental archaeology workshop and related activities.  
  • 5 Luostarivuori Handicraft Museum (Klosterbacken) (Turku). An open-air museum in a former (late 18th century) poor residential area. Artisans knowing a period craft get to use the workshops while agreeing to act as guides on it.    
  • 6 Seurasaari (Fölisön) (Western Helsinki). An island with houses collected from all over the country. In summer many buildings have museum staff who practice crafts in traditional dress.  
  • 7 Siida (Inari). The Finnish Sámi museum. Outside the museum building is a 7-ha open-air museum including also an archaeologic site.    

Iceland edit

  • 8 Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng (Suðurland). A replica of an ancient Icelandic farm.    

Norway edit

  • 9 Kautokeino bygdetun (Kautokeino). Sámi museum indoors and outdoor museum showing the old Kautokeino village.  
  • 10 Norsk Folkemuseum (Oslo). Founded in 1894 and built in parallel with Skansen in Stockholm, during the Swedish-Norwegian union. Contains several indoor exhibition as well as farms from most Norwegian provinces.    
  • 11 Sverresborg Trøndelag Folk Museum, Sverresborg Alle 13 (Trondheim). At Sverresborg, with lots of old houses depicting lifestyle in old days. In a very beautiful park area overlooking the city, and truly worth a visit! Activities for children on Sundays. Eat at the nice in-house café, or at the next-door "Tavern" dating from the 18th century.    

Sweden edit

  • 12 Borås Museum (Borås). An open-air museum with an exhibition of the Dannike woman, the remains of a young woman who was buried in a moss around AD 1700.  
  • 13 Bungemuseet (Northern Gotland). Open-air museum with farm yards from the 17th, 18th and 19th century, and buildings representing history up to the 1980s, including a school museum.  
  • 14 Finnstigen (Bredsjö, near Hällefors). An open-air museum of Finnish immigrants who arrived in the area from 1590 to the 1700s. By slash-and-burn farming they could put the deep forests to good use, so the immigration from the eastern part of the realm was encouraged by the Crown. Later this lifestyle got in conflict with the ironworks' need for firewood and the immigration ceased, but the settlers, the Forest Finns (skogsfinnar) remained, and their heritage can be seen even today.  
  • 15 Gamla Linköping and Valla fritidsområde (Old Linköping), Tunnbindaregatan 1, Linköping. An open-air museum with buildings relocated from the centre of Linköping. Here you can practically enjoy life of Linköping of the 19th century. The citizens of Linköping enjoy taking part of the life and you can see people actually dressed up and working as citizens of Gamla Linköping. Locally produced chocolate and candy for sale to reduced prices. In total the areas has some 20 museums.  
  • 16 Gällivare hembygdsområde (Gällivare). An open-air museum with many Sami buildings.  
  • 17 Härjedalens fjällmuseum (Funäsdalen, Härjedalen). A local history museum, describing the traditional life of Sami people, peasants and craftspeople in the context of sub-Arctic mountain climate.  
  • 18 Jamtli (Östersund). Jamtli is an interactive museum about the history of Jämtland. During summer and high season there are over 120 live actors performing and staging 19th-century Östersund.    
  • 19 Kulturen (Lund). An open-air museum founded in 1892, encompassing two blocks in central Lund. It has many preserved buildings from the Middle Ages to the 1930s, and some 20 exhibitions. While some are farmhouses, this open-air museum is dominated by urban buildings.    
  • 20 Nordiska Museet (The Nordic Museum), Djurgårdsvägen 6-16 (Djurgården, Stockholm). A museum of cultural history from 1520 to our days, in an impressive 1907 cathedral-like building on Djurgården. Exhibitions focus on Swedish handicraft, customs and traditions.    
  • 21 Norra Berget Friluftsmuseum, Gustaf Adolfsvägen 18 B (Sundsvall). An open-air museum with traditional livestock breeds for subsistence farming, and a collection of rural buildings for farming and crafting.  
  • 22 Sagomuseet (The Museum of Legends) (Ljungby). A museum for oral narration, fairy tales, and folklore.    
  • 23 Skansen (Djurgården, Stockholm). Founded in 1891, Skansen is the world's oldest open-air museum, containing a zoological garden specializing in Nordic fauna. It features over 150 historic buildings from previous centuries, from all parts of Sweden. Interpreters in historic costumes further enhance this attraction, and demonstrate domestic crafts such as weaving, spinning, and glass blowing.    
  • 24 Såguddens Museum, Sågudden, 671 32 (Arvika). An open-air museum with a number of farm buildings that were moved there from the area around Arvika.  
  • 25 Torekällbergets museum (Södertälje), +46 8 523 014 22. The museum first opened in 1929 when the landmark windmill and a few other buildings were moved to the site. In connection with the redevelopment of the city centre in 1961, many old buildings were moved to Torekällberget. The museum is divided into the environments "Staden" (English: the City) and "Landet" (English: the Countryside). The urban environment is built around the main square Tenngjutartorget, where markets often are held. The square is surrounded by buildings from the 1700-1800s. Several species of domestic animals are kept at the museum. The environment conveys a picture of life in rural farms around Södertälje in the 1800s and earlier. There is also a stage where ballroom dancing and performances are often arranged during the summer months.  
  • 1 Tällberg. A town in Dalarna famous for its Midsummer celebration.    
  • 26 Vallby Open Air Museum (Vallby Friluftsmuseum) (2 km north of Västerås). An open-air museum which displays the cultural heritage of Västmanland.  
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