Christina here. In a few days it will be midsummer and as I’m going to be in Sweden then, I’ll be celebrating more than usual. Nordic summer nights are special and there’s nothing more special than midsummer – it’s a big deal in Sweden and should preferably be experienced in the countryside somewhere. People head out of the towns en masse in order to enjoy nature. Maybe because of the long, cold dark nights they have to put up with for half the year, they appreciate the light warm evenings of summer all the more. Summer is short, so this time is precious, and especially the longest night of the year.
This year summer solstice falls on Tuesday 21st June but here it's not always celebrated on the correct date. The Swedes have decided to always have Midsummer Eve on a Friday, so it can be any day between 19th and 25th June. But the sentiment is the same.
In the town where I stay, we don’t get the midnight sun – that’s only up in the very north of the country – but it’s still pretty close. It doesn’t really get dark all evening, just a bit dusky, apart from a very short time around midnight. If the weather is nice, the air feels balmy and pleasant throughout the night and it’s the perfect time for celebrations.
First of all, there’s the midsummer pole – midsommarstång – to prepare if you feel like doing it yourself. (If not, there is usually a communal one somewhere nearby). This is very important. It looks a bit like an English maypole, except obviously it’s made in the month of June (so does that make it a Junepole?). It’s a huge cross made out of two tree trunks that are covered in greenery like boughs of birch, leaves and lots of wildflowers. It can be any size you like really but the communal ones are made out of fairly large trees. There are normally two round “wreaths” hanging off the arms of the cross too, made of the same materials. The pole is raised on a green somewhere – quite an undertaking if it’s large – and it is for people to dance around in a big circle, holding hands.
Some people dress up in the traditional folk costumes for this. Each county has their own variation, and there are different ones for different districts too sometimes. (Here is mine – from the Tveta district in the county of Småland). When dancing around the midsummer pole, there are lots of traditional songs with the appropriate steps and you can tell by the old-fashioned lyrics that they have been around for a very long time. To me, they are mostly rather childish as they include such things as Små Grodorna (“The Little Frogs) with steps where you are pretending to be a frog. I’ll probably sit that one out as I’m a bit too old for hopping these days.
A lot of young girls and women make themselves flower wreaths for their hair. This is a tradition that may go as far back as Viking times. They don’t have to be wildflowers, you can buy them if you want, but picking flowers is definitely a huge part of the celebrations, especially for young girls/women. There is a belief that you have to go out in the evening on Midsummer Eve and pick seven wildflowers, naming them quietly inside your head (this is important, you have to know what type they are). During this time, you are not allowed to speak – not so much as a tiny peep. If you do, the whole thing is ruined. Once you have your flowers, you put them under your pillow and they are supposed to make you dream that night about the man you are going to marry. I have to admit that while I was single, I tried this every year from as far back as I can remember, but I never dreamed about anyone other than my dog! So perhaps it doesn’t work for everyone …
Summer food is important at midsummer feasts. It tends to be various types of pickled herring, the first new potatoes of the year boiled with fresh dill, all served with chopped up chives and either sour cream or double cream. There will also be knäckebröd – crispbread – and perhaps some grilled ribs or other barbecue foods. And for dessert there are fresh strawberries and more cream. I’m sure you’re getting the picture here – this is not exactly diet food! But if you chase the fish and cream with shots of snaps (aquavit/schnapps) and some cold beer, that is said to break up all the fat content.
Most Swedes sing special songs when drinking their snaps – the most common one is called Helan Går. In my family we have about ten that we all know by heart and occasionally a few new or different ones are added. You have to sing first, then drink half the contents of your shot glass. These days I don’t think people are too fussed, but in my grandparents’ time there were definite rules for these things and you didn’t flout them. It used to fascinate me as a child, listening to the adults making their way through their repertoire of songs, but the snaps itself has never been a great hit with me. I can happily live without!
If you are not at a midsummer party or get-together with family, you might want to go dancing later in the evening. There can be barn dances or dancing on a large jetty by a lake – both are enjoyable and there is a certain atmosphere that has to be experienced, it simply can’t be described. There is something very special about being next to a still lake in the dusk of a summer evening and it’s sticks in your memory.
Midsummer is supposed to be welcoming the season of fertility. For the Vikings, the summer solstice was probably a time to honour the gods of fertility, Frey and Freya. They called the month Sólmánuðr (the “month of the sun” which ran roughly from 13th Jun to 12th Jul).
There is no concrete evidence of any specific midsummer feasting, but we can imagine there would have been eating, drinking and perhaps dancing, with houses decked out in greenery. Any celebrations invoking the gods would have included sacrifice – blot – a ceremony usually performed by the master of the household, asking for the crops to be plentiful and other undertakings successful. They might have also had huge bonfires – that is what the Finns, Norwegians and Danes do – to ward off evil spirits. For some reason, Swedes have their bonfire night on the last day of April, Walpurgis Night, instead. But that’s a different story …
Glad midsommar – happy midsummer!
Will you be celebrating? And if so, how?