Midsommar – it’s the most important day on the Swedish calendar, and vastly more popular than the country’s actual national holiday. I mean, when given the choice between celebrating the coronation of a king who lived five hundred years ago or partaking in ancient superstitions handed down by the Vikings themselves, which sounds like a better excuse for a party? In brief, Midsommar is something you simply cannot ignore when visiting Sweden in June.
What in the world is Midsummer?
Midsommar, as you can easily imagine, means ”the middle of summer”. When you live in a place as far north as Scandinavia, the seasons matter – a lot. Between the summer solstice in June and the winter solstice in December, the official number of daylight hours in Stockholm drops from nearly nineteen to just six. Go up to the town of Kiruna, and it takes just five months for the day to go from twenty-four hours to zero.
Apart from plunging the Vikings into a depressingly long winter, the sun’s trajectory has another practical consequence – a short growing season. So, for the Pagan Vikings, the idea behind Midsommar was twofold: praise the sun for finally showing its face, and appease the fertility goddess Freja for a fruitful harvest. In retrospect, it seems rather fitting that, regardless of the actual date of the summer solstice (June 21), the official observance of Midsommar is always placed on a Saturday – right between fredag (Freja’s day) and söndag (the sun’s day).
Though the religion of Oden, Thor, and Freja may have disappeared in practice, the Midsommar celebration lived on. With the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia, the celebration became linked in most of the region with the feast day of St. John the Baptist who, according to tradition, was born six months before Jesus. In Sweden, however, people continued to celebrate the festival as Midsommar rather than as St. John’s Day.
So, how do you celebrate Swedish Midsummer?
In Sweden, the eve of major holidays is usually more important that the day itself. This means that Midsommarafton – Midsummer Eve, the Friday before Midsommar – is when the big event happens. The first step is to leave the city behind and go to a rural location such as a summer house. During my visit to Sweden, I was fortunate to receive an invitation from a friend to a Midsommar celebration north of Stockholm. After two trains, one bus, and a short walk through rolling green pastures, we arrived at the summer house of our host.
This was no ordinary red-and-white Swedish summer cottage, though. It was an old church, refurbished and outfitted with all the amenities of a modern house, but retaining the murals, organ, and altar of the building’s previous life. Gradually, the nave began to fill with people – family, friends, and friends of friends of the host. The peculiarity of gathering in a Lutheran church for what is, at least at its root, a Pagan ritual did not go unnoticed among the guests.
Before the celebration can begin, you need go out and forage in the newly blossomed countryside for flowers and greenery. I’m apparently not very good at this, because I realized upon returning from the forest that the amount of greenery needed dwarfed my small contribution! The reason for gathering all of this material is to set the scene for the celebration. You will use the flowers and greenery to make a variety of decorations, such as wreaths called midsommarkransar. Girls often place seven different types of flowers under their pillows in the hope of dreaming of their future husband. The traditional centerpiece of the celebration, the midsommarstång (Maypole), is also decorated with plenty of greenery and ribbons.
At mealtime, you will partake in a Midsommarbord (bord means table) featuring such dishes as Janssons frestelse (anchovy casserole), köttbullar (meatballs), västerbottenspaj (cheese pie), potatoes with creamy dill sauce, and much more. To wash down this smörgåsbord of food, the meal is broken up by several rounds of snaps. Snaps, typically strong akvavit flavored with spices, is drunk as a shot. However, these shots are not taken lightly – you must follow the ritual!
Sitting on church pews around long tables running lengthwise through the church, we raise our slender snaps glasses high and sing. As the evening is just getting started, we sing the song that is meant to accompany the first round – there are entire songbooks of snaps songs for all occasions and for all stages of the party. When we reach the final line, the volume increases in anticipation: ”Helan gååår! Sjung hopp faderallan lej!” As the song ends, there is a big ”skål” (”cheers”) as the snaps go down. Then the church once again fills with conversation as everyone resumes eating.
Eventually, the midsommarstång is raised, and everyone dances around it, most commonly by hopping around like frogs while singing the song Små grodorna (”The small frogs”). People may also play games, swim, or do any other summer activity. What follows is an evening of fun and revelry lasting through the night. Though, since this is Sweden and midnight is just a vague twilight, ”through the night” is open for interpretation – people do eventually trickle off to bed!
We did not have a midsommarstång at our celebration. But, the most important aspect of Midsommar is the gathering itself, whether it involves dancing around a midsommarstång or singing snaps songs around a decommissioned altar. So, we had a festive celebration including games, conversation, and sauna. By the time I called it a night shortly after watching the sun rise at an absurdly early time, I felt satisfied and thankful to have had the opportunity to spend this day with such a friendly and welcoming group of Swedes as they celebrated their favorite holiday. It was great to catch up with my friend, meet some new people, and also get some good practice speaking Swedish!
If you find yourself traveling in Sweden on the eve of Midsommar, then don’t miss out on the festivities! If you’re in Stockholm, though, and don’t have the opportunity to spend the day with Swedes in the countryside, well, you’ll practically have a ghost town to yourself.
Not to worry, though. You can head for Stockholm’s “urban countryside” on the park island of Djurgården. There, at the open-air museum Skansen, you’re guaranteed a midsommarstång and a full program of Midsommar-themed activities lasting well into the evening. Just beware, though, that ”mid-summer” in Sweden does not imply summer weather; it’s possible, but best to bring a jacket and a raincoat just in case!