These days, Midsummer Day is a flexible holiday practically celebrated on a Saturday sometime between 20 and 26 June. This means that Midsummer Eve, one of the biggest festivities in the Swedish calendar, is always on a Friday. In the case of 2021, that’s tomorrow.
Bit did you know that this has only been since 1953? Prior to 1952, Midsummer Day was always celebrated today – the 24th June – coinciding with John the Baptist’s birthday. This was regardless of the day of the week it landed on. So today’s strong association with Midsummer being a long weekend is actually only around 70 years old
John the Baptist was a person who foresaw the birth of Jesus. He is considered a prophet in several of the world’s religions. He was a prolific preacher whose severed head was notoriously presented on a silver platter to Salome. His birthday has been celebrated since 300 AD on June 24 in many countries around the world.
An interesting fact is that Midsummer Day is still associated with John the Baptist in the other Scandinavian countries. For example, in Finland it is not called Midsummer but Juhannus. In Iceland, it is Jònsmessa. And in Denmark and Norway – Sankt Hans.
Midsummer’s Eve is possibly the biggest public celebration in Sweden, and it’s happening this week on Friday. Swedes gather to eat, drink and be merry together.
So, what are the origins of Midsummer and why is it celebrated? Well, according to authors Po Tidholm and Agneta Lilja, the origins of Midsummer date back as far as the 6th century:
‘In agrarian times, Midsummer celebrations in Sweden were held to welcome summertime and the season of fertility. In some areas people dressed up as ‘green men’, clad in ferns. They also decorated their houses and farm tools with foliage, and raised tall, leafy maypoles to dance around, probably as early as the 1500s.
Midsummer was primarily an occasion for young people, but it was also celebrated in the industrial communities of central Sweden, where all mill employees were given a feast of pickled herring, beer and schnapps. It was not until the 1900s, however, that this became the most Swedish of all traditional festivities.
Ever since the 6th century AD, Midsummer bonfires have been lit around Europe. In Sweden, they were mainly found in the southern part of the country. Young people also liked to visit holy springs, where they drank the healing water and amused themselves with games and dancing. These visits were a reminder of how John the Baptist baptised Christ in the River Jordan.
Midsummer Night is the lightest of the year and was long considered a magical night, as it was the best time for telling people’s futures. Girls ate salted porridge so that their future husbands might bring water to them in their dreams, to quench their thirst. You could also discover treasures, for example by studying how moonbeams fell.
Also that night, it was said, water was turned into wine and ferns into flowers. Many plants acquired healing powers on that one night of the year.’
There is still an element of magic in the otherwise well-organised Midsummer celebrations of today. One example is the erection of a large phallic flower-clad maypole, and the dancing around of said pole. This is an ancient fertility rite. Related to this, is the association of love to the festivities of Midsummer. In fact many Swedish babies are made around this weekend.
Another example is the gathering of 7 types of summer flower to place under your pillow at night. It is said if you do this, then your future husband will appear to you in your dreams.
And then there’s the light. On Midsummer’s Eve is doesn’t really get dark. Depending on where you are in Sweden, it ranges from a dim glow in the south to full on daylight in the north. In Stockholm, where I live, it is a magical dusky twilight that conjures up associations of witchcraft, druids and paganism.
So while today’s Midsummer might be a well-orchestrated gathering of friends and family, there is still some magic to be found if you look hard enough.
With Midsummer rapidly approaching, it is worth planning for your survival. Midsummer’s Eve is the craziest custom in the Swedish calender and the time of the year when Swedes go a little bonkers.
As a non-Swede, get ready to brace yourself. And follow this simple survival guide to make sure you make it to Midsummer’s Day in one piece.
Greet like a Swede. In Sweden it is considered polite to greet everybody individually, even if you plan to never speak to them again or remember their name. The appropriate way is as follows, shake hands and look direct in eyes, say ‘hej’ followed by your name. They will do the same. If you are feeling adventurous, follow it up with a ‘trevligt’ or even a ‘Glad Midsommar’. Job done. Now you can hit the booze.
Snaps is not the same as a shot. A lot of alcohol gets drunk on Midsummer’s Eve, especially beer and snaps With the popularity of shots in recent years, it’s easy to make the mistake that Swedish snaps is the same thing. Believe me, it is not. Snaps can be up to 40% proof, considerably more than your normal shot. So, go easy and sip the snaps or see yourself slipping sideways off your chair before the dessert has even been put on the table.
Take tissue. Midsummer’s Eve is a looong day and you probably will need the loo at some point. The trouble is, so will everybody else – to the detriment of the supply of toilet paper. There’s a big chance you will be seeking relief in the woods so come equipped with the appropriate amounts of paper for your needs.
If shy, bring swimwear. Bathing in the icy June waters is a common activity at Midsummer. Swedes generally are not afraid of showing a bit of genital when they do this. If you are, then come prepared with swimwear and a towel.
Shelve your maturity. Part of Midsummer is dancing around the maypole, playing silly games, pretending to be a frog, participating in competitions. To survive this, it helps to conjour up your inner child and forget you are an adult for a while.
Rubbers will save the day. Given the amount of alcohol consumed at Midsummer, it is no surprise that the most babies in Sweden are made on this day. If you don’t want to join the ranks of parents, remember to put in on before you put it in.
Throw in the thermals. Perhaps you think it’s going to be sunny and warm on Midsummer’s Eve? Well, think again. It is not unusual that temperatures fall into single figures and that pesky rain pours down onto the smorgasbord. So bring a jumper, a rain jacket and even thermals to enhance your experience.
Same, but different. Don’t expect culinary excesses on Midsummer’s Eve. The food is exactly the same as is eaten at Christmas and Easter, with a few small exceptions – strawberries and new potatoes.
Learn a drinking song. On Midsummer’s Eve, food and alcohol is accompanied by Swedish drinking songs. Learn one in advance and shine at the table. Even better sing one in your own language and you are guaranteed to use those rubbers you packed just for the occasion.
Argue over the rules. At Midsummer a popular Swedish garden game is called kubb. Involving the throwing of sticks, everybody seems to have their own understanding of the way to play. If you want to feel really Swedish, make sure you start an argument about the rules.
That’s it! Follow this guide and you are sure to have a wonderous Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden. Glad Midsommar!