Today its Midsummer, the longest day of the year, and an especially magical time in the Nordic countries and cause for celebration.
The Åland Islands are an autonomous territory of Finland located between Sweden and Finland. Slightly remote, accessible only by ferry, small boat, or airplane, and dotted with churches and castles dating back 700 years, this is indeed a magical place to celebrate Midsummer.
I visited the Åland islands last year just after Midsummer but thrilled to see just what decorations had been produced a few weeks earlier.
People decorate their houses with wreaths and bouquets of summer flowers. The menu tends to include pickled herring and new potatoes cooked with dill, a piece of barbecued meat and strawberries for dessert, plus well-chilled schnapps and beer for the adults.
Many people go to the village maypole to decorate the pole with greenery and flowers and raise it in the company of others from the village and summer guests. Some villages still organise a midsummer dance in the local youth centre or village hall until the sun rises again in the middle of the night.
Midsummer’s Eve is always celebrated on the Friday in the period 19–25 June.
There is a maypole in nearly every village in the whole of Åland. The maypole that is properly decorated with green leaves and flowers is typical of midsummer in Åland and is an ancient symbol of fertility and greenery.
Every village has its own traditions in terms of celebrations and the look of the maypole – no two maypoles are alike.
Some maypoles are decorated with colourful midsummer crowns while others are completely green and adorned with wreaths of leaves and garlands of juniper twigs. The leaves represent a good harvest and make hourglass or wheel patterns when they are fastened between the maypole and ropes.
There are many interpretations of the symbolism behind the different details relating to the maypole: the weather, shipping, farming, fishing or the wish to create a more magnificent maypole than the neighbouring village.
What the Åland maypoles have in common is that the 10- to 25- metre-tall maypole either has a simple bend of rope or crossed ropes. Simple maypoles are most common in the archipelago whereas most maypoles in the countryside tend to have crossed ropes.
In the countryside the ends of the ropes tend to be adorned with crowns. The beautiful and colourful crowns are related to Christmas crowns made of straw and are a symbol of virginity, youth, health and every happiness for the future.
At the top of the maypole is a wooden “Fäktargubbe”, a man waving his arms in the wind as a symbol of diligence and work. Under the “fäktargubbe” there is a streamer or flag, often in the Åland colours – blue, red and yellow.
Some maypoles are decorated with a sun, symbolising life-giving heat. Small sailing boats sail around the maypole as a symbol of Åland shipping.
For several hours now most of the population of Scandinavia will be found deep in the countryside, busy decorating the midsummer pole, picking flowers to wear in their hair, scrubbing the last new potatoes, putting the final touches to the strawberry cakes, singing and dancing, and - of course - washing it all down with some delicious schnapps.