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Midsommar in Sweden: a celebration of the pagan past and a bright future

After a long and dark winter, Sweden sings, dances and drinks during Midsummer, a three-day celebration to mark the start of summer

The cynosure of all eyes during midsummer celebrations is the midsommarstång, a maypole usually decorated with flowers and foliage.
The cynosure of all eyes during midsummer celebrations is the midsommarstång, a maypole usually decorated with flowers and foliage. (Photos courtesy: Skansen)

The white cloth-clad table is groaning under the weight of a delicious buffet, the likes of which I have only seen on Pinterest. Sill (pickled herring) take the starring role, buoyed by a strong supporting cast: gravlax (salmon), new potatoes with dill, sour cream and chives, skagenröra (a mix of prawns, mayonnaise, crème fraiche, lemon, and dill), västerbottenpaj (a cheese quiche), and new strawberries with whipped cream. Buntings, paper lanterns, fresh flowers, green leaves and vines create a rustic and romantic setting created with one aim: to eat and drink, laugh and enjoy, all in the company of friends and family. 

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Given the long and dark winters that they live with, it’s no surprise that Swedes live for Midsummer, or Midsommar in Swedish. Dating to the country’s agrarian past, the three-day celebration marks the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and the harvest season. Midsummer celebrations originated from a Christian holiday for John the Baptist (24 June), according to information at Sweden’s Nordic Museum. In 1953, however, the Swedes decided to fix the day; rather than having the celebration fall on different days of the week, it was set for the Friday that falls between 20 and 26 June. This year, it’s 23 June. 

The Midsommar merriment marks the start of summer and the season of fertility. Everyone around me seems to be in an exceptionally good mood, all with glasses of akvavit—lemon, elderflower, or herb-flavoured snaps—in hand. A holiday that began as a pagan celebration to welcome summer and ensure a successful harvest has become the most important date in the Swedish calendar. 

“Summer solstice reportedly endowed plants with healing and magical properties. The forces of darkness that had a free run during the shorter days were quelled by lighting bonfires,” says my friend Maja who I am accompanying to her neighbourhood Midsommar celebration. 

Even if you don’t have family or friends in Sweden, head to Stockholm to enjoy Midsummer. Every year, the open-air museum hosts a massive Midsommar party, a family-friendly celebration with traditional music, dancing, games, and workshops where you can learn about Swedish culture and history. Make a floral crown, help raise the maypole, listen to tales about the spirits that appear during this time, enjoy a musical concert, and more.

Maja's neighbour, Nils, chimes in that Midsommar is essentially a festival that celebrates nature, and is considered to be a time of good fortune and healing. The Vikings are believed to have turned to Freyia and Freyr, the Norse gods of fertility, to seek an abundant harvest. It is also associated with Ukko, the god of thunder who controlled the rain and consequently the land’s fertility. Midsummer is traditionally celebrated in the countryside, which means the cities see an exodus on the days leading up to it. 

In the countryside, it’s time to attune oneself to the shifting, cyclical rhythms of nature. The revelry typically starts at noon with friends and family members gathering for a picnic. The cynosure of all eyes is the midsommarstång, a maypole usually decorated with flowers and foliage and often said to represent a phallic symbol. The pole is usually placed in an open space—a park, garden or farm—a tradition that’s said to have originated in Germany, most likely in the late 17th or early 18th century. 

Despite the many debates surrounding its origin and purpose, Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade famously theorised that maypoles are a part of public rejoicing to mark the return of summer, and the growth of new vegetation. Young and the old, clad in traditional dress, come together to dance around the pole. To me, the highlight is the Små grodorna (Little Frogs) dance, where people jump around the pole pretending to be frogs. Many family games, commonly called femkamp, and including croquet, sack race, and others are played. 

Alongside, the cycle of eating and drinking continues unabated as the outdoor celebrations carry on well into the night. Toasting is an important part of a ‘Glad Midsommar’ (happy Midsummer) and is traditionally accompanied by raucous singing. I say skål (cheers), looking my fellow drinkers in the eye. I have learnt that this is another Swedish tradition and must be done just right. I hold my drink up like everyone around me, looking directly at the person in front of me and giving a modest smile, one that “isn’t a grin, or flirtatious, overbearing, or accompanied by a smirk”. The crowd around me breaks out into a loud rendition of Helan Går, the most popular drinking song in Sweden, one that’s better known than the national anthem. 

Helan (the whole) signifies the first glass of spirit (akvavit or vodka) in a series, and går stands for goes (down). The phrase, which loosely translates into ‘Bottoms up!’, sets the tone for the night. Incidentally, if you don’t drink the first one, you can’t have the second, called ‘Halvan’ and meaning ‘the half’. Drinking songs are unique to Sweden and Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. Stockholm’s Museum of Spirits has a collection of more than 12,000 drinking songs, but the Swedes aren’t done yet. New ones, set to known melodies, are composed and sung all the time. 

I realise that the day has a cyclical pattern: eat a bite, down a drink, and sing a song. Over time, the singing gets louder, which works well as the brash behaviour is supposed to ward off evil spirits.

Sammilsdal in Leksand in Sweden’s central region, Dalarna, is known for hosting the largest Midsummer celebration in the world, attracting more than 20,000 people. People tog up in traditional costumes, there’s professional folk music and dancing, the maypoles are feverishly decorated, there’s a parade with garlands, and even a boat race. 

Sweden isn’t the only country that celebrates Midsummer; all the Nordic nations do. In Finland, large bonfires known as kokko are lit to ward off evil spirits and ensure an abundant harvest. Finns also believe that their luck during the year is directly proportional to their loudness quotient during the celebrations. The harvest is also predicted to follow a similar pattern – the more one drinks, the better the yield.

The Norwegians focus on massive bonfires – going up to 50 feet – to quell evil spirits. In Denmark, people toss twig and cloth effigies of a witch into the fire to subdue the dark forces. Iceland has a set of its own traditions to celebrate Midsummer, known here as Jónsmessa, the Mass of John the Baptist. People believe that the day is when elves come out to play (and interact with humans) and cows gain the power of speech. This tradition isn’t for everyone: rolling buck naked in the morning dew is said to bring good fortune round the year! 

In the past, Midsommar was a pagan celebration of fertility and of the forces of light defeating the darkness. In the present, the outdoor jamboree is a celebration of true love, a reminder that we need to value life’s little pleasures with the people who matter the most. 

Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.

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