Midsummer: the Northern European Festival You Wish You Celebrated At Home
Until a few years ago, I didn’t really get the whole obsession with summer. Warm weather, sunshine, the beach – for a Sydneysider, these things are just a part of daily life – all year round. Our idea of cold is 18 degrees plus celsius. But here in Scandinavia, where winters can plummet to -20 degrees celsius and the sun starts to set at 3pm, people start stripping off their clothes as soon as the sun comes out. In Sydney, I’d try to avoid the sun by staying indoors in the middle of summer, especially if temperatures reach 35+, which make you a walking tap due to the amount of sweat that will leave your body just from walking a few steps. I’m ashamed to say that I essentially took our beautiful weather for granted. Now that I live in Sweden, I understand a little better why the people here look forward to summer so much.
Midsummer preparations involve the whole family.
Here in Europe, summer is kind of a big deal. It’s short (people joke that it only lasts one day but this is a bit exaggerated – it lasts at least a week), so people really make the most of the warm, sunny days and long nights. Midsummer is a time to celebrate the best weather of the year. Midsummer is celebrated in many European countries as well as in places such as Russia, Ukraine and even the United States.
Like some of the other festivals that we’ve written about, such as Walpurgis Night and Holi, Midsummer is a festival that focuses on the seasons. It takes place between the 19th and 25th of June – the exact date depends on which country you’re in. The festival itself predates Christianity and coincides with the summer solstice. But Christianity has also influenced this festival, and Midsummer Eve is actually called “St. John’s Eve” in many places, in celebration of the birth of St. John the Baptist.
Would you like to experience a Midsummer festival for yourself? I was lucky enough to experience a traditional Midsummer celebration while I was working as an au pair in Sweden, and it’s one of my favourite European traditions! Here’s why…
Time Off Work
Here in Scandinavia, Midsummer means one thing: holidays. As of Midsummer, everything shuts down. I mean literally everything. Don’t try to call your Danish lawyer, Swedish accountant or your Norwegian publisher any time between the end of June and mid-August. They won’t pick up the phone. Instead, they’ll be at their summer house enjoying the sun, the nature and weeks of paid vacation. In the week leading up to Midsummer, people frantically try to finish everything they need to get done before the holiday season. And if something doesn’t get done by June 24th, well, you’ll just have to wait a couple of months. The hardest work you’ll be doing after Midsummer involves puzzling over crime fiction novels and pruning the plants in the garden. Unless of course you’re a university student, in which case you’ll probably get a summer job for some extra cash. But you won’t start back at university until September, so at least you won’t have the stress of exams.
Midsummer celebrations can go on all night long. Spending the evening eating home-cooked food, drinking snaps and singing and socialising with your family and relatives outdoors is a chance to kick back and forget about work and simply enjoy life. northern Europe it’ll be light until the early hours of the morning too. Of course, good weather is not guaranteed and sadly some Midsummers can be chilly and rainy – but if the forecast is good then definitely make the most of it.
In many countries, bonfires are lit and various traditions involving them take place around the fire. In Estonia, the fire is thought to ward off mischievous spirits; the bigger the fire, the more successful it will be in scaring them away. In Denmark bonfires are lit to send the witches back to the Brocken mountains in Germany from which they come, a tradition that is very similar to the concept behind Walpurgis Night. The Danes also have a tradition of constructing a witch made of straw and cloth and burning her over the fire. In Finland, bonfires are called kokko and are traditionally burnt near the sea or lakeside.
In some countries, people are a little more daring and perform challenges involving fire. For instance in Bulgaria the tradition of Nestinarstvo is performed, which involves walking barefoot over smouldering embers. In Estonia, Jaanik (Midsummer) is celebrated by lighting a bonfire and jumping over it as a means of guaranteeing prosperity. This act is also part of celebrations in Hungary, where jumping over a fire is considered a means to ensure purity. Those whose jump is very successful might get married in the ensuing celebrations.
The idea of marriage and procreation comes from the tradition of fire being considered a symbol of fertility. In Finland and Sweden fire is not as prominent in the celebrations, but an old tradition involves unmarried women collecting seven different flowers and putting them under their pillows so that they will dream of their future husband during the night.
And then there are some more recent traditions that have taken hold. Since 2000 in the town of Kuldīga in Latvia, Midsummer has been celebrated by people running naked through the town at 3am in the morning. Upon completing the run, participants are rewarded with a nice cold beer. Police also show up, but not to stop the parade. On the contrary, they’re there to make sure that no one interferes with the nudie run! There’s even a YouTube video showing the event taking place, which you can watch here.
As with most traditions, food is a big part of Midsummer celebrations, both the preparation and the eating. In the southern hemisphere in Brazil, where Midsummer is in fact mid-winter, festivities coincide with the corn harvest so most of the dishes eaten are made with corn, but they can also include sausages, potatoes and some sweet desserts. In Scandinavian countries potatoes, sour cream, crispbread and pickled herring are staples, while fresh berries will likely be served for dessert. Mmm…
And don’t forget that as with most celebrations, all of the yummy food is inevitably washed down with a drink or two. These days most people tend to enjoy some beer or wine, but in Denmark and Sweden you’ll probably be drinking snaps (schnapps). There’s no limit to the amount of snaps that can be drunk at Midsummer, only a limit to the number of songs you are willing to sing. That’s right, in order to drink you have to sing a song first. It’s the rules.
Jumping Around Like Frogs
And all those beverages make it a little easier to participate in the proceeding revelry. Song and dance are central to any Midsummer celebration. Brazilians celebrate with a style of square dancing known as quadrilha. The Danes like to get patriotic and sing a midsummervise (Midsummer hymn) called “Vi elsker vort land” (“we love our country”).
And the Swedes? Well, they jump around a maypole imitating frogs while singing the song “Små Grodorna” (small frogs). And no, this is not something that’s only for the kids (or the person who’s had a little too much snaps). Even Academy Award-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander does this dance at Midsummer. I’ve done it, it’s very weird, but after a while you sort of get into it. The dance is performed around a midsommarstång or majstång (maypole), which is a central part of Scandinavian Midsummer festivities. The maypole is a large pole decorated with greenery and flowers and is actually erected on May Day in many places throughout Germanic Europe (as the “may” part of the name would suggest). However, for some reason, it’s become a key part of Midsummer celebrations in Scandinavia. Some believe that it’s a phallic symbol of fertility, but this hasn’t really been confirmed.
So Midsummer is a bit weird, a bit wacky, and overall bucketloads of fun. After all, at what other festival do you get to jump over fires, run nude through the street, and jump around like a frog and have this considered perfectly normal behaviour?
About the Author: Clarissa Hirst is GoCambio’s Content Manager. A born-and-bred Australian, Clarissa currently calls Sweden home. She’s travelled to over 40 countries, loves learning foreign languages, and her passion is inspiring others to learn about and explore the world around them. She hopes to one day speak fluent Russian and ride the Trans-Siberian railway. You can connect with Clarissa on Twitter.
COVER IMAGE CREDIT: Marcus Hansson