Welcoming Summer

Christina here. So apparently summer has arrived in the northern hemisphere even if it doesn’t really feel like it much! Last week was May Day which is supposedly the beginning of summer, and it has been celebrated in various ways since ancient times. Most of us don’t bother to mark it these days, but in the past it was important as it heralded the warmer months to come.

One of the earliest known celebrations was Floralia, the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of flowers, spring and fertility. This took place during the last days of April and the first of May and included the Ludi Florae, the special “Games of Flora” that lasted for days.

Floralia – Hobbe Smith 1898

The festival was all about pleasure-seeking and was plebeian, rather than patrician as most other festivals were (even prostitutes took part). There were various spectacles like theatrical performances and other entertainments and it all sounds like great fun! (If you want to know more about Roman spring celebrations, check out this post on Alison Morton’s blog.)

Also very old is the Gaelic festival of Beltane that marked the beginning of summer. Traditionally held around midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, it was one of four major festivals in Ireland, Scotland and on the Isle of Man. Animals that had been kept indoors all winter were let out to pasture, and there was feasting and rituals to protect the cattle and crops. Bonfires were lit so that people and their livestock could walk between them and be granted luck and protection by the smoke. Household fires were put out and rekindled from the Beltane bonfire.

In Medieval times, May Day was celebrated in a similar way, but people also gathered flowers and greenery, “bringing in the May” with garlands and flower crowns for young girls. Sometimes a May Queen was crowned and a Maypole erected, around which people would dance. These traditions are still observed in many places. There could also be bonfires, as in the Beltane traditions.

I’m in Sweden at the moment and here – as in other Germanic countries – we have long welcomed summer on Walpurgis Night, the day before May Day. In Swedish it’s called Valborgsmässoafton, or St Valborg’s Night, and it is celebrated on the evening of 30th April. Although it’s ostensibly honouring a saint, the tradition is heathen and harks back to much earlier times. The main symbolic event is the lighting of a huge bonfire which is supposed to ward off evil spirits and welcome summer. (Celebrations with something similar to a Maypole are instead held at Midsummer – see my post about this here).

I haven’t attended these celebrations for years, but I used to always do so when I lived here so I took the chance to go this year. The people of my home town – and, I think, in most other towns in Sweden as well – first gather in the main square outside the town hall to listen to speeches and songs welcoming summer and a (hopefully) brighter future. A parade with a marching band then heads towards a place where the bonfire has been built up – usually a park or other communal outdoor space. The people taking part in the parade this year included the local scout group who all carried lit torches.

I was waiting with a huge crowd to watch their arrival at the bonfire site. When they reached the pile of twigs and branches assembled beforehand, they formed a circle around it, and as one walked forward to throw their torches onto the pyre. It was an evocative moment, and I couldn’t help but think about the many people in days gone by who had all watched or taken part in the same thing. Were they hopeful for the future? Wishing for a good summer followed by a plentiful harvest? Or just revelling in the moment, perhaps, the camaraderie of sharing this with so many others. Even though I didn’t know a single person present, I still felt part of the community.

It takes a while for the wood to catch fire, but once it does, the flames rise into the sky. It would have had more impact if it had been fully dark, but although the ceremony took place after 8pm, it was still light outside as is typical for Scandinavian summer evenings. It was beautiful nonetheless and I’m guessing that in the past, people might have waited for darkness before lighting the fire.

I noticed that the crowd contained a lot of small children, brought by their parents to enjoy this age-old tradition. I think it’s lovely that these things carry on through the generations, and I can still remember the wonder of seeing it for the first time. You don’t quite understand it or know why you’re there or what it’s for, but you feel the power anyway. I came away hoping that the fire worked and all evil spirits had indeed been chased away!

As with some of the other ancient traditions, we also have the so-called ‘kosläpp’ here. It’s when the cows are let out into the fields for the first time after winter and boy are they happy! People apparently come from far and wide to watch them run outside. In some places there is advance notice of when it’s going to happen so that you can be sure not to miss it. Some of the cows are jumping and bucking with joy, others rubbing their snouts on the fresh grass. It must be a great feeling for them after having been stuck indoors for so long, especially as the winter is much longer than in for example the UK. The local news station on TV has been showing some instances of ‘kosläpp’ and it made me smile.

Do you celebrate the beginning of summer in any way? What are your local traditions? I’d love to know!


14 thoughts on “Welcoming Summer”

  1. I absolutely loved this post. The history and customs do combine to make a special event memorable.

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. Christina, I love the kolslapp and the image of happy cows! The other types of celebrations were also appealing and dramatic. I can’t remember anything like that where I grew up! Though there were cows.

  3. Thanks for the terrific post. It is all worth it just to see the lovely cow. I live in Texas, we have winter and it is hot. We have spring and it is hot. We have autumn and it is hot. We have summer and it is “OH Lord it is so hot!” So, celebrating many things, but summer is not necessarily one of those things.

  4. Here in the northeast US Memorial Day weekend has always marked the beginning of summer for us. The beaches and pools open for the season, people who live near water get their boats out and others their barbecue grills, hammocks and deck chairs! I love going to my local pool where i sit in a lounge chair under the trees, read needlepoint, chat with people and go for a swim. A time tl relax and sllw down!

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed this post! I can’t help thinking that people in the past had better times because of festivals that celebrated everything!! I would love to see some of these traditions still kept today.
    Here in Ireland the cows are usually out in the fields in late February, early March but they’ve only been out with a week or two this year because it was so wet! We had so much rain since early January which we’ve never seen the like of before. They’re even talking about a shortage of potatoes this year here because they couldn’t be set on time. Ireland without potatoes is like the world without air 🙂

    • Good grief that’s unthinkable! It’s been really wet in the UK as well and the little lambs were late going outside. I agree it’s nice to keep to traditions!

  6. Thank you for your lovely post, Christina, and how neat that you were able to experience again one of your childhood traditions.
    The heat has suddenly arrived here, but, for me, summer begins when my husband stops teaching his classes. That won’t happen until mid-June.

    • Oh yes – school closing for summer definitely makes it feel like the season has started! Glad you enjoyed the post – thank you!

    • Thanks, Karin – yes, it’s a lovely sight! We don’t usually associate cows with lots of emotions, do we, but they sure look happy 🙂


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