What is Midsummer?
Midsummer (or ‘Midsommar’ in Swedish) is the biggest celebration of Sweden’s summer, taking place each year on the closest weekend to 24th June. As indicated by its name, it marks the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, where the sun reaches the highest point in the sky. It is understandably a big deal when considering the preceding Swedish long, cold, and dark winter. The equally long, light summer is a period of national relief, and has been celebrated as such for over half a millennium.
Decorating and Dancing
The celebration of Midsummer carries many national and regional traditions and tropes. When possible, it is celebrated in the countryside, perhaps in the summer cottage of a friend or family member. The celebration always takes place, as is customary in Sweden, on the eve of the event. This is always a Friday that often marks the beginning of a five-week summer break. The day itself consists of picking flowers and greenery to both decorate the May Pole (a 20 feet tall pole with two large loops at the top) and place them under your pillow. Descending into the evening, many dance around said pole, whilst eating and drinking commences.
Food & Drink, An Important Element
Traditionally, there are three courses served at Midsummer. To start, pickled herring and boiled new potatoes with dill would be served alongside soured cream and chives. Next, there would be a main course of meat or salmon (and, more recently, vegetarian alternatives). To finish, it is customary to have the first-picked strawberries of summer either with cream or in a meringue cake.
All this will normally be washed down with beer and punctuated with shots of schnapps, a fruit-based liqueur. Each shot would follow a drinking song led by one of the diners, from helan går (which translates to ‘drink the whole thing’), to a verse from almost any ABBA song. But of course, these traditions vary today depending on dietary requirements, budgets, and regional differentiation.
Midsummer’s History and Cultural Significance
The summer solstice has, naturally, always existed, but the celebration of it can be traced back to Gregorian times. It was a commemoration of summertime and the season of agricultural fertility. In more industrial communities, mill workers were given pickled herring, beer, and schnapps to celebrate, thus marking the beginning of the tradition. Bonfires have been found to be a regular Midsummer ritual since roughly the 6th century AD.
The celebration today carries elements of both the industrial and agricultural types, with the food and drink being the same as those in the milling communities, whilst retaining a strong countryside and nature-based theme. This can be seen first-hand on the Friday that marks Midsummer's-eve when the roads and trains leading out of the cities are almost entirely full.
The flowers picked on Midsummer’s day are said by folklore to be at their most potent in magical and healing properties. For this reason, it is traditional for young people to pick seven different flowers on the day in absolute silence to then place under their pillow at night. If they do so, they will dream of their next love. If they break the silence, however, they will break the magic and the flowers lose their potency. On top of this, it is said that girls and young women eat salted porridge before bed to have their next lover bring them water in their dreams. Though this is rare nowadays, there remains a strong theme of new love at midsummer, and it is far from uncommon for this to be realised on the celebration of its eve.
Different Regions, Different Celebrations
With Sweden’s land mass being a relatively large 450,295 square kilometres, it is unsurprising that different regions celebrate Midsummer differently. Above the Arctic Circle in the north, the midnight between Midsummer's eve and the day itself remains light, whilst the south typically gets more of the warmth which sometimes spurs them on to late night swims. So, regions such as Swedish Lapland and Blekinge celebrate midsummer very differently.
In Lapland, they have what they refer to as the ‘midnight sun’ to celebrate under. Within this region, though, there remains many variations of the celebration due to the cultural and climate differentiation. One may celebrate in the mountains, in Saltolukota, for example, and appreciate the unchanging view all night, or go midnight skiing in Rikgränsen. Or one could also celebrate Midsummer with a Sami twist in Jakkmokka. And many communal celebrations in Lapland occur in such cities and villages in folk-museums, some of the oldest and most well-preserved buildings in their respective areas.
In the Southern county of Blekinge, by contrast, celebrations are more likely to occur at summer houses – whether one’s own, a friend’s or family members. It is a popular destination for such homes due to its vicinity to lakes and the sea, as well as abundance of forests, fields, and countryside. At such a celebration, one may expect to find the Maypole on a beach or by a lake after dining outside. To end the night, it is common to skinny dip with friends or partners old or new and treat the day as a celebration of new or revitalised love, as it has been since its inception.
Fancy getting involved?
Although heavily associated with Sweden, Midsummer is also celebrated in neighbouring Denmark and Norway, despite not being a national holiday in the latter two. But even if you don’t find yourself in the Nordics around the 24th of June, simply gather with family and friends, eat, drink, and dance your way into the night. Following the celebration, most families go off to enjoy a more isolated summer break, perhaps considering their social duties fulfilled for the time being.
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