June 24th is Swedish Midsummer’s Eve, arguably the biggest holiday in Sweden (the only real competition would be Jul / Christmas). While the actual summer solstice happened earlier this week, the Swedish holiday is always on a Friday: Friday = Midsummer’s Eve, Saturday = Midsummer’s Day.
If you ever want to experience just one Swedish-to-the-gills holiday, then Midsummer is it. It combines so many Swedish things all at once: pickled herring in various flavours, brännvin/snaps in various flavours, Swedish strawberries, the love for / obsession with summer, and the yearning to live rustically “på landet” (“in the countryside”) in a little red cottage.
Ideally, Midsummer celebrations should take place in an old, red house with white trim, surrounded by grass, birches, and flowers – a lake or other body of water is a definite plus.
Other must-haves include midsommarstång (“maypole”, though it’s more accurately called a “midsummer’s pole”, I think) dressed with green leaves and whatever flowers you can scrounge up, strawberries (should be local ones), new potatoes, dill, more pickled herring, and more booze.
It’s a holiday that goes way back to the old, heathen days. Most holidays do, I guess, but with Midsummer the religious veneer is especially thin. The Christian church turned it into a celebration of John The Baptist, but you can still see quite clearly that this was once a fertility celebration, all about celebrating fertile earth, fertile crops, fertile people, fertile livestock, though nowadays this is often interpreted as Midsummer being a time for romance and love.
(In Olaus Magnus’ “History of the Nordic Peoples” from 1555 he writes about Midsummer: “…without consideration of gender or age, all the people gather in town-squares or in the open fields, to joyfully dance in the light of plentiful bonfires…”)
Midsummer is also magical. Not just because the light is magical, especially the further north you get: that blue, translucent, pale sky even at midnight. There are tons of old stories and traditions related to the kind of magic you can tap into at Midsummer.
A lot of the Midsummer magic involves being able to see into the future, often to find out who you’ll marry. A short list of Midsummer magic:
- Roll naked in the dew on Midsummer’s Eve to ensure good health.
- Pick healing herbs because they are extra powerful on Midsummer’s Eve.
- Pick 7 kinds of flowers, place them under your pillow, and you’ll dream about the person you will marry. Usually it’s said that you should do this while keeping absolutely silent. Sometimes you also have to jump over 7 fences (gärdsgårdar) while you’re picking them.
- Walk backwards 7 or 3 or 9 times around a well, and then you will see the one you’re going to marry in the well. Another variation on this is to get undressed and walk backwards around a spring in the woods. When you’re done, you’ll see your spouse-to-be in the water. (I’m thinking the nakedness might attract some attention, at least.)
While Midsummer is a celebration of summer, the weather does not always cooperate. Last year, I saw photos of Swedish friends and family in winter coats, sitting outside eating their pickled herring and drinking snaps. I remember several such Midsummers from my own past as well: getting dressed in summer clothes, only to freeze my buns off and eventually cover up with blankets / comforters / ski-jackets.
Excessive drinking is a feature of Midsummer for some, and likely also hearkens back to heathen times. But you don’t have to drink until you pass out in the bushes. Instead, you can practice magic, eat strawberries, dance around the Midsummer’s Pole (preferably singing “Små grodorna” / “The Little Frogs”), drink reasonable amounts of snaps (or beer, wine, or champagne…), stay up late, pick flowers, make wreaths, and roll naked in the dew. Obviously a terrific holiday: Glad Midsommar!
For a completely authentic peek, check out IKEA’s ‘Midsommar in Schweden’.