The strangest and most important Swedish holiday.
Midsummer, or Midsommar in Swedish, is one of the most important holidays in Sweden – in fact, I’ve been told it is more sacred than Christmas, and also the day when you are most likely to have sex with your cousin. Intriguing, right?
Since the prehistoric times, humans have been fascinated with the four natural transitions (solstices and equinoxes), attaching special significance and celebrations to each of them. The summer solstice or Midsummer marks the longest day of the year and also the beginning of summer in many countries, occurring on the 24th of June in the Northern hemisphere. It is probably the most popular of the four, as it is still widely celebrated in many places today, particularly in Northern European countries.
Midsummer was always a magical time of hope, merriment and greenery, as the arrival of summer meant warmer weather, plenty of food and new life. With the rise of Christianity, Midsummer was appropriated as the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, with St. John’s eve celebrated with candles and church ceremonies the night before. However, unlike the Pagan celebrations of Midwinter or Yule, which got completely absorbed into Christmas, the traditional Midsummer celebrations managed to survive until today. Lighting huge bonfires and dancing through the shortest night of the year was and is a common tradition in countries such as the UK, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, France and even in my homecountry, Slovenia, although our bonfire night was moved to the 1st of May in modern times. However, the Swedes do it a bit differently.
Since 1952, Midsommar in Sweden is always orderly celebrated on a weekend, which means sometime between 20 – 26th of June, with the big celebrations always happening on Friday. The central point of the Swedish Midsommar celebration is the midsommarstång or the maypole, a huge pole decorated with all sorts of flowers and greenery, which closely resembles an upside down penis. The common belief and what most people told me is that it is meant to be a fertility symbol from the Pagan times, meant to ensure a good harvest and replenish the soil. However, the more serious historical sources I’ve found claim that the maypole tradition actually came from Germany during the Middle Ages, where they put up the maypoles on the 1st of May. Since it was a bit hard to find greenery to decorate the maypoles in May, the Swedes simply moved that tradition to Midsummer, replacing and moving the Midsummer bonfires to the Walpurgis night celebrations.
Whether you believe the giant penis explanation or not, the Swedish Midsommar festival’s weirdness does not end there. After the maypole has been decorated and raised up, the Swedes dance around it in traditional clothing, singing funny traditional songs, but none are weirder than the one about the little frogs. It is called Små grodorna and it comes with a set of dance moves that made me laugh so hard I cried. You can see a video of the frog dance here (they have no ears!).
My friends and I celebrated Midsommar in Hägnan Open air museum in Luleå in 2019. The whole celebration was not as enthusiastic as I expected, as there were too many people just standing in the way with their phones, but it was fun anyway. They had a live folk band, games for the kids, lots of people wore traditional costumes and I got to dance the frog dance, decorate the maypole and enjoy a picnic with my friends, so I was pretty happy with it.
However, I was less happy with the swarms of mosquitos that chased after us when we decided to walk back home through the forest. Since Luleå is essentially one big swamp, all kinds of mosquitos reign supreme here during the summer, but luckily the repellents seem to work pretty well. Although I took some videos of the Midsommar celebrations, I was laughing so much they aren’t any good. You can see one of my friends impersonating the elephant, a traditional Swedish animal, in the video below.
The weather is supposed to be traditionally bad during Midsommar and it was a bit cloudy when I was there as well. The weather is also responsible for strawberries, as strawberries and cream are apparently a big part of Midsommar celebrations and they must of course be Swedish. I was told that the national news often covers the state of Swedish strawberries or lack thereof in the days leading up to Midsommar in a sort of strawberry watch, as they are that important.
Besides the strawberries, the traditional foods eaten during Midsommar all sorts of pickled herrings, eggs, smoked salmon, boiled potatoes or spare ribs with sour cream and chives and in recent times also my personal favourite, the Västerbotten cheese pie. Since we had a picnic on the day of the actual celebration, we didn’t really have a whole cooked meal with us, but we did eat the cheese pie with boiled potatoes, sour cream and herrings the day before and had some cheese pie leftovers during the picnic as well. Also, another typical Midsommar thing is snaps or schnapps, a strong alcoholic beverage often made at home by adding different herbs to hard liquors. Shots of it are drunk before the meal or at anytime really, and we drank quite a few of them in the evening while playing board games.
Flowers are also an important part of Midsommar. Houses and barns are decorated with greenery, which supposedly brings good luck and good health, and all the women wear flower wreaths on their heads. The legend goes, that if a girl picks 7 different flowers and puts them under her pillow on Midsommar, she will dream about the man she’s going to marry. Like in most countries, the shortest night of the year also has a strong romantic element in Sweden, as the daytime festivities are typically followed by a night of dancing and getting drunk, which naturally leads to dancing of a different kind and possible heavy dosages of regret the next day. Hence my friend’s joke comment about having sex with your cousin in the first paragraph of this post, as apparently Midsommar is an occasion when the whole family got together and people often did not know exactly who their extended relatives are.
Midsommar 2019 in Luleå
As you can see, the weird Swedish version of Midsummer is certainly worth experiencing and the Swedes are pretty proud of it, so there will be a traditional celebration in every town. However, I was told the best place to be for a full-on traditional Midsommar celebration in Sweden is the region of Dalarna, as they take it extra seriously.