Midsummer. The mid-summer celebration is known for many things, its connections to Scandinavia, or as the setting for the movie Midsommar, starring none other than Florence Pugh. The awareness of its existence has proved elusive, and in any case, consider this article a guide to all you need to know (kind of) about the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival!
Midsummer celebrations featuring flower wreaths
Who, When, and Where
First things first. The basics of Midsummer’s Day, also known as Midsommar (in Swedish); is a festival with pagan and Christian roots, celebrated by people in Scandinavian and northern European countries, especially Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, usually around June 21 - 24, or the middle of summer in general. It usually occurs around the summer solstice, however, does not consistently coincide with it.
Sweden in Summer
While regarded as a pagan festival, which is in its customs and celebrations, Midsummer has Christian roots regarding its date and name, a combination caused by a long history. The first evidence of a pagan mid-summer celebration in northern Europe comes from historical carvings. Such remains indicate the pagan sun worship around the period of midsummer, since the Iron Age (58-79 BCE), in areas around southern Germany, “expressing joy and thanks to the sun for its life-giving power” [Pagan Kids, 2022]. Furthermore, pagan celebrations unrelated to sun worship took place in the middle of summer before 930 CE, and similar to the sun worship celebrations, had no set date. This timing may have been due to the often long-anticipated June return of Viking warriors from voyages, from which community celebrations ensued, involving festive drinking, dancing, and storytelling.
Transferred Depiction of Sun-Worship Carvings
Christianity came into the picture in the late 10th century, when the King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, fixed the date of the now-named Midsummer Festival. To have the celebration coincide with Saint John’s Eve, which takes place on June 23, and involves celebrations the night before Saint John the Baptist’s Feast Day, on June 24. This combination resulted in a named, dated, pagan and Christian celebration known in the modern world as the Midsummer festival. It was further officialised in Sweden and Finland in 1953 when decided that the Midsummer festival would take place on the Friday between June 19 and 26. However, for other countries, the date of celebration varies significantly. For example, in the Baltics, the now public holiday of Midsummer takes place on June 24 - the date that the summer solstice took place in Roman times.
King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway
While the form of Midsummer has evolved over the centuries, its meaning has prevailed over time. Besides the celebration of Saint John, the Baptist, the pagan traditions remain important to many people, especially within northern European countries where the Midsummer Festival is celebrated on a large scale. Considered to be one of (after Christmas) most significant celebrations of the year. Bringing the communities together through the celebration of the summer solstice calls for the - rejoicing over summer, a time of brightness, warmth, and life which, understandably, “people look forward to throughout the year, especially during the long, dark Scandinavian winters” [Culture Trip]. Midsummer night itself holds its mysticality and is considered to be a time when plants possess healing powers as mid-summer is the time of the year when spiritual beings are most active through nature. Moreover, it can be used to determine future predicaments, leading to the tradition of people picking seven fresh flowers in silence, these flowers were to be placed under one’s pillow at night, causing dreams to arrive of present or future true loves.
Collection of flowers for Midsummer celebration and healing powers
Traditions and Customs
However, Midsummer traditions and customs are much more than flowers, though their significance should not be underestimated. It is believed they are of service to one’s health to walk or roll without shoes and sometimes clothes, to allow the Midsummer night’s dew to work its healing magic. Commonly, the presentation of floral wreaths or for women to wear flowers in their hair, are considered the traditional symbols of fertility and rebirth. To maintain the impact of this magic on one’s life, flowers are dried, and in some cases put into the Christmas bath later in the year. Besides this, there are other forms of celebration, with “singing and dancing, and gradually increasing levels of intoxication throughout the evening” [Forbes, 2021].
Celebrations of Midsummer in Sweden with the maypole, dancing, and flowers
These celebrations do vary from place to place, with celebrations in Sweden commencing around noon, people gather around the local green spaces for a picnic and maypole dancing, usually involving the first dance around the pole being done by those wearing traditional dress. Following the first act, anyone can join in a variety of dances, for example, the ‘Små grodorna’ (Little Frogs) dance, when people act as frogs, jumping around the maypole. The maypole itself, or ‘midsommarstång,’ is a pole decorated with greenery and flowers in order to create a display publicly for communal dancing originating in Germany at some point between 1600 and 1700. Besides dancing, games are also involved in the festivities, including sack races, croquet and distinctly Swedish ‘kubb,’ the objective of which “is to knock down ten small wooden blocks (‘kubb’) and one large wooden block (‘the king’) by throwing wooden sticks” [Visit Sweden, 2022].
However, perhaps the most important of all these celebrations are food and drink. Usually, the drinking takes place during the games in the evening, where Aquavit (‘snaps’) or beer are consumed. Traditionally, every toast, a new drinking song is sung, providing some explanation for the excess of 12,000 drinking songs the Museum of Spirits in Stockholm has collected in research, the most common of which being ‘Helan går,’ or ‘the whole goes (down)’. As for the food, which is considered to be the best of the year. Staples include fresh potatoes, seafood buffets with pickled herring, salmon, and shrimp, and fresh strawberries, either individually, on a cake or with whipped cream. All meals used in celebrations have room for individualisation, as family versions have evolved.
Traditional Midsummer Meal
While these types of celebrations extend over northern Europe, customs vary. Places like Denmark and Norway celebrate with bonfires, which traditionally symbolise the maintenance of land fertility and deterrence of witch activity, leading to some bonfires donning a witch doll. Though the majority of the bonfires are small and local, the Midsummer bonfire in Ålesund involves a spire of wooden pallets extending over one hundred feet into the sky. Built by locals, the burning of which takes place on the summer solstice with many watching from the harbour in boats and on the shore. Interestingly, this well-known tradition broke the world record for the tallest bonfire in 2016, reaching a height of 155.5 feet (47.4m).
Overall, the Midsummer festival is one with a rich history and importance to the people and culture of northern Europe. Midsummer celebrations have emigrated with them around the globe, sometimes called ‘Midwinter’ in the Southern Hemisphere. It is a festival with meaning for people, with a large array of dancing, drinking, eating, playing, bonfire construction and time spent with the community, honouring aged traditions. It is not without its individuality and is certainly a time of year to appreciate.
To end on a humorous note with a final piece of knowledge on Midsummer, interestingly, the celebrations in the west Latvian town of Kuldīga, involve, for the reward of a beer, locals running naked at 3 am through the town. A tradition that originated in 2000, and since then has been protected by police, who stand by “in case any “puritans” attempt to interfere with the naked run” [Nordic Baltic Translation Blog, 2016], certainly providing insight into the enthusiasm of those who celebrate Midsummer and the significance of that time of year.
Happy holidays everyone!