Not Just Reindeer: Sweden’s Midsummer Festival
Every year, Swedes celebrate a national holiday called “Midsummer.” The roots of the festival go back to the 6th century A.D. Originally held to usher in the season of fertility, Midsummer also honors the summer solstice. The traditions began in the southern areas of Sweden and then gradually spread to the rest of the country. People dressed up, decorated buildings and homes, and danced around maypoles. The maypole was originally a phallic symbol, tying into the fertility origin of the holiday. Festival-goers lit bonfires all around as well because many believed they could keep away witches and bad spells. Although the festival began as a pagan holiday, Christianization turned it into more of a celebration of John the Baptist. Regardless, even though Midsummer has changed over time, many of the old ways still represent the very essence of the holiday celebrated today.
Aside from Christmas, Midsummer is Sweden’s most important holiday. Celebrations start on a Friday evening between the 19th and 25th of June, right at the beginning of the Swedes’ vacation season. Midsummer welcomes the powers of light, warmth, and regeneration that follow the long, cold, dark winters. Everything gets decorated with wreathes and flowers, and people abandon the cities and migrate to the countryside to party. Then, everyone partakes of the food, drink, and physical activities traditional to Midsummer. With Sweden so close to the ocean, fish are a main ingredient. Some type of pickled herring usually makes an appearance on the menu. Boiled potatoes, hard boiled eggs, and gravlax — a Nordic raw salmon dish — accompany the herring. Most dishes include dill, a common ingredient used in Swedish cooking. A very special strawberry cake might also show up on tables throughout the country since strawberries are a Swedish favorite. Specific drinks accompany the fine menu of hearty foods. During the duration of the day, cold beers, vodka, and flavored schnapps will make their way in. Along with alcohol comes new drinking songs with every refill.
After lunch, the Midsummer participants raise the maypole for traditional ring-dancing, oriented mostly for children and some adults. The festival-goers do a dance called “The Little Frogs.” While it looks silly, it makes complete sense for Swedes to do once a year, for some reason. Meanwhile, bands play traditional folk music for dancers dressed up in traditional Swedish garb. One can also expect some group activities like tug-of-war, egg races, three-legged races, apple bobbing, and horseshoe tossing.
Once the daytime festivities end, the coming of night sparks a different breed of fun. After all of the strenuous work, it’s time for barbecue. Mostly Swedish men take this opportunity to show off their creative grilling skills. The men put everything from meats and fish to fruits on the grill. Once dinner is over, people will do one of two things: relax or party. Some choose to take a nice evening swim and sauna, accompanied by some drinks with friends.
On the other hand, many decide to hit the dance floor. This is one night where Swedes can let their hair down, and maybe even let a little romance blossom. Baby booms typically happen around March from the previous year’s evening shenanigans. But, if one doesn’t have a partner, he or she should pick seven different types of flowers and put them under a pillow. The flowers will supposedly inspire dreams of a future lover, according to Swedish legend. But even if the romance and those dreams don’t happen, at least the day ends up being a smashing success given all of the food, drinking, and fun.
Why is Midsummer so important to Swedish culture? Located in Scandinavia between Finland and Norway, Sweden borders the Baltic Sea. The country is very foreboding during winter. Despite events like the Northern Lights and activities like skiing, it’s still very cold, and the winter lasts a long time. So when summer comes, it only makes sense for Midsummer to be the centerpiece for an inspiring new season. It represents one of the few times of the year for people to actually go outside to enjoy the warm air and fertile land. Living in a country where winter remains the most prominent season, why not take the chance to shed the winter gear and break out the grill?
Many consider the Swedes very conservative. Midsummer gives them a chance to deconstruct this stereotype. Everyone can let loose at this time of the year and socialize more than they normally do, meeting new people along the way. Since events like Midsummer are rare, their liberating influence becomes even more delectable. Plus, people can always look forward to a baby boom approximately nine months later to brighten up the following March. Once Midsummer ends, most Swedes tend to return to their quiet, reserved homes and lives. That’s the way they like it. It’s nice to get out all of the major social interactions at once.
The idea of living a desirable life that focuses on individual development through interaction with large groups of people, but only about once or twice a year, makes sense. And why not celebrate this open cultural collaboration out in the beautiful country with friends and family? Dancing, drinking, eating, partying, and living the old traditions is a dream in itself. Most people will never get to experience something like this, and the Swedes get to do it every year! Midsummer is very special to Sweden as a cultural identifier that marks the country as unique and independent (Sweden is not just full of reindeer). The country recognizes that at least once a year, fun and relaxation should be mandatory. More countries should take note of Midsummer. The world would be a better place. One should never dismiss the elements of magic and mystery that fairly conservative people are willing to explore in order to lead richer lives. This might just be the key to furthering happiness and unity — connecting to the roots of history and culture through an expression of food, music, and fun.