Rows of tiny wooden cottages in streets radiating out from the medieval stone church. Each painted in the typical red and white of Swedish rural dwellings. But there are no permanent residents, and these are not holiday cottages. Welcome to Gammelstad Church Town, part of a tradition that arose in the Middle Ages and still lives on today.
What Is Gammelstad Church Town?
Gammelstad Church Town is a collection of more than 400 cottages built for the sole purpose of providing families with somewhere to stay when they attended church. We were shown round by Christoffer, who has an extensive knowledge about the town, its church and its history. He explained the origins of Gammelstad, saying that in the Middle Ages the area that is now the far north of Sweden had become very prosperous through furs and fishing. The Swedish government was keen to tax this trade but could only do so by building a church and creating a parish that was accountable to that church.
The church was inaugurated in 1492 and its parish was huge, stretching right up to the Norwegian border. Church attendance was compulsory at that time, but for many parishioners it was too far to travel there and back in one day. So the church gave each family a small plot of land to build a cottage to stay in when they attended church services.
The village soon took on a social as well as a religious aspect. For many of the families, living on remote farms, it was their only opportunity to interact with other people. Gammelstad became a place to transact business and meet friends. Although everyone came to church for the big festivals such as Christmas, it later became the custom to divide church attendance so that, for instance, the young people would come one weekend and their elders the next. Christoffer described the courting rituals that would take place during the young people’s weekends: many marriages were contracted in this way!
A Living Tradition
At one time there were 71 church towns in Sweden. Sixteen of these still survive, but Gammelstad is the best preserved. It is also the only one that is still used for its original purpose. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, on the grounds that it represented a “living tradition”, the cottages having been used to facilitate church attendance for an unbroken period of more than 400 years.
Today Gammelstad is a mixture of church cottages and ordinary houses. The cottages are mostly privately owned, but there are strict rules governing their use. They may not be used for permanent residence, or as holiday homes. However, there is no restriction on how often the owners can visit their cottages, whether for maintenance or for social reasons. The continuing importance of the church in the community is clear; the cottages are still used every summer by young people preparing for confirmation.
And the major religious festivals are still times when everyone comes together. Marita, who works at the nearby Hägnan Museum, invited us inside her own cottage and described Gammelstad’s social life in the 21st century. Christmas is magical here. It is too cold and dark to spend much time in the cottages, but visitors are attracted by the Hägnan Christmas Market and by lantern walks through the town. In December Gammelstad is like an advent calendar, with a different house each day switching on its lights and inviting people in.
Hägnan Open Air Museum
We ended our visit with an exploration of the Hägnan Open Air Museum, a collection of old farmhouses and other rural buildings. This provides a link between the two parts of the parishioners’ lives: home and church. It also helps to preserve rustic traditions, such as butter making, that were an essential part of life until early in the 20th century. Like Gammelstad itself, it is a living reminder of past times.
Thanks to Christoffer of the Gammelstad Visitor Centre and Camilla of Visit Luleå for showing us round Gammelstad Church Town. And a special thank you to Marita of the Hägnan Museum for inviting us inside her own church cottage.
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