Midsummer in Scandinavia – is like something from another world
Apart from the Christmas season midsummer’s eve is probably the biggest celebration in the country as every man, woman and child celebrates the longest day of the year. Midsummer 2020 is on June 19th. But the whole weekend is celebrated from Norway to Sweden to Denmark to Finland and Iceland plus the Baltic States.
Midsummer is one of the oldest and most widely celebrated holidays of the year, but to the uninitiated, some of the festivities can seem a little bit... odd.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic means that large gatherings are not advised, with authorities asking people to celebrate only with their closest friends and family, keep a distance from people from other households, and of course keep following good hand hygiene.
While it may look different this year, here's a look at the usual ingredients of a typical Swedish Midsummer, and how they became traditions all across the Scandinavian nations.
The Midsummer maypole (Midsommarstången) At the centre of the traditional celebrations is the maypole, in Swedish called the Midsommarstången. And if you were thinking there's something rather phallic about a tall pole with two large hoops at the top, that's sort of the point -- many people believe it originated as a symbol of fertility.
Others say the shape has its roots in Norse mythology, and that it represents an axis linking the underworld, earth, and heavens. Whichever story you choose to believe, there's no denying it's a little strange to have a festival that boils down to erecting a large pole and dancing around it.
The frog dance Ah yes, the dancing. The peak of the festivities sees the Swedes imitate frogs, hopping around the maypole while singing the classic tune 'Små grodorna' (The small frogs), which describes frogs in (biologically incorrect) detail.
An excerpt from the lyrics: "The small frogs, the small frogs, are funny to look at. No tails, no tails, they have no tails. No ears, no ears, they have no ears."
All the herring
Herring is a fixture of most Swedish celebrations, and Midsummer is no exception.
The Swedes eat tonnes of the stuff, in all its forms: pickled, smoked, fermented, served with onions, served with dill... there's a lot of fish.
Small talk might not exactly be a big thing in Sweden, but Swedes do tend to talk about the weather a lot. This is turned up a notch as the three-day Midsummer weekend approaches and the entire country and media keep their fingers crossed for sunshine ... but invariably end up with rain, and occasionally even snow. At this point, the disappointing weather, and the chance to moan about it, is all part of the fun.
The drinking songs
If you were wondering what leads the generally reserved Swedes to spend their Midsummer dancing like frogs around a maypole, it may not come as a surprise that alcohol is involved -- a lot of it. Along with Christmas, Midsummer is one of the biggest drinking days in Sweden. Watch out for flavoured snaps, which are far stronger than you might guess.
And note that it helps to plan ahead: since alcohol can only be bought at the state-run monopoly which closes its stores on public holidays, the shops get very busy in the days before and may even run low on the most popular beverages.
All this day-drinking comes hand in hand with drinking songs. One of the most common tunes you'll hear is Helan Går ('The whole thing goes', referring to the drink). A loose translation of some of the lyrics would be "Chug it down, Sing 'hup-de-la-la-la-loo-lah-lay', chug it down, Sing 'hup-de-la-la-lah-lay, And he who doesn't chug it down, then he won't get the other half either".
You'll see people wearing a flower wreath in their hair, regardless of age and gender. Flowers are also used to dress up the maypole.
According to Swedish tradition, you should also pick seven kinds of flowers (in some parts of Sweden it's nine flowers) and put them underneath your pillow. Then you'll dream about your future husband or wife.
Swedes also believe that flowers can help them in their love lives. This isn't just because the garlands will attract potential partners, but rather tradition states that if a Midsummer reveller collects seven different species of flower from seven different spots, then puts the bouquet under their pillow, they will dream of their future spouse that night.
Strawberries are another fixture on the Midsummer menu. But for traditionalists, they absolutely have to be Swedish.
This results in months of press coverage about the state of the strawberry harvest -- will they be ripe in time for Midsummer? Will the harvest be bigger or smaller than usual? Swedes are fiercely proud of their rather tiny but super sweet variety of strawberries.
Meanwhile in Finland
Rich in tradition, Midsummer occupies a special place in the Finnish calendar, representing the high point of summer and the most popular time to start your annual vacation. It takes place on the Saturday between the 20th and 26th of June. Originally a pagan celebration, it was a tribute to Ukko, the god of thunder. Since he controlled the rain, you had to be nice to him in order to get a good harvest.
Bonfires were burned on the occasion, a ritual that continues today. However, in the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland – it’s a bilingual country – people have been happy just to put up a well-decorated maypole.
One of which I saw on the island of åland a couple of years ago.
In the old days, unmarried women would use special charms and bend over a well, naked, in order to see their future husband’s reflection. In another, considerably more modest tradition, one that continues today, a young lady can collect seven different sorts of flowers and place them under her pillow. She will see her future husband in a dream.
Nowadays, Midsummer is also a celebration of Saint John (hence the Finnish name for the holiday: Juhannus), a time for some people to consume vast quantities of alcohol and a popular weekend for weddings and confirmations.