Living as far north as Swedes do, it is little wonder that so many celebrations focus on light. And Midsummer, the longest day of the year, is no exception.
Dancing and singing around the maypole is a vital ingredient of Swedish Midsummer festivities. Photo: www.imagebank.sweden.se: Peter Westrup / Folio
Ask a Swede what the most important holiday of the year is and Midsummer will come up as often as Christmas. Get older Swedes talking and their eyes will well up as they reminisce about community spirit, songs, barn dancing and the mystical atmosphere surrounding the Midsummer gatherings of their youth. Sure, there was a lot of drinking, fistfights and frolicking, but everyone shook hands in the end.
For younger generations, Midsummer is mainly about heading out to the summer cottage and celebrating with a group of friends or family. Midsummer Eve always falls on the third Friday in June so people can enjoy a long weekend or kick off their summer vacation. Celebrations often continue long into Midsummer Day, when people are mainly recovering from the “festivities” of the previous night.
I first experienced Swedish Midsummer at university in the south of France. I hardly recognized my normally reserved Swedish friends, who were suddenly letting loose, singing and hopping around like frogs to a strange tune (Små Grodorna or The Little Frogs song). Everyone seemed to know the steps, as they tucked into oily herring and knocked back throat-searing schnapps.
Midsummer night, when the sun never seems to set, is made for romance. Photo: www.imagebank.sweden.se: Marie Bernander
Love is in the air
Midsummer is associated with magic and fertility rites. The Midsummer maypole, a fertility symbol used to “impregnate” Mother Nature, was meant to bring a good autumn harvest. People still decorate the maypole with flowers and birch leaves, and sing and dance around it wearing garlands in their hair.
Reuven Ben-Dor moved to Sweden from England a number of years ago and remembers his first Midsummer in Sweden. “There were communal celebrations with residents from neighboring summerhouses. People had garlands in their hair and were dancing strange dances and singing songs in a language that I didn’t understand. This, combined with a night that didn’t really get dark, was a unique experience,” he says.
On Midsummer Eve, young girls continue to pick seven (sometimes nine) types of flower to place under their pillows when they go to sleep in the belief that they will dream of their future love.
Pick seven different flowers at dusk, put them under your pillow and you'll dream of your future husband or wife. Photo: Marie Andersson, Skansen
People will be outside as much as the weather permits — only severe storms will deter open-air Midsummer celebrations and outdoor dining. A typical Midsummer meal consists of different kinds of herring served with sour cream, chives and fresh potatoes, with schnapps and drinking songs to wash the food down, and fresh strawberries.
Petter Edelswärd is from the coastal town of Västervik, southeast Sweden. Like many young Swedes, he likes to get together with friends at a summer cottage and enjoy good food on Midsummer. “A maypole is a must even if no one dances around it. There is always quite a bit of partying involved, but there’s less of that now as more and more of us have young children.” Edelswärd says his best Midsummer was spent with his girlfriend (now his wife) camping in the archipelago. “I’ve never had a bad Midsummer from what I can recall.”
Petter Edelswärd cherishes the memory of a Midsummer spent camping with his future wife. Photo: Cari Simmons
Stefan Gustafsson, who grew up in the southern province of Småland, has fond memories of family celebrations by the lake, but recalls one particularly disappointing Midsummer. “A friend and I came up to Stockholm when we were teenagers, only to find that everyone had deserted the city for the countryside. I think expectations are far too high sometimes when it comes to Midsummer.”
Doing it the traditional way
Once the convoys of cottage goers have left Stockholm, the capital can be eerily quiet on Midsummer. For those left behind who want to capture a little of the Midsummer spirit, the best place to go is to Skansen. Every year, the open-air museum whips up an old-fashioned Midsummer celebration, complete with national costumes and singing and dancing around the maypole. Families come with picnic baskets and the atmosphere is friendly and laid-back.
Those who miss out on Midsummer Eve altogether can head to Dalarna, traditionally the home of Swedish Midsummer, where festivities last several days.
Cari Simmons moved to Sweden 15 years ago and has applied the Swedish word “lagom” to her Midsummer celebrations ever since. That means she will be keeping a low profile, eating, drinking and partying “in moderation.” She will also stay up late in a vain attempt to hang on to the light before the days start getting shorter again.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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