by Po Tidholm
Summer in Sweden is short. It starts showing its face in May and explodes into life in June. The summer has to hurry to get things done before the nights turn cold in September and everything stops growing. At Midsummer, the Swedish summer is a lush green and bursting with chlorophyll, and the nights are scarcely dark at all. In the north, the sun never sets.
The start of summer holidays
Swedes are fairly well attuned to the rhythms of nature. At Midsummer, many begin their five-week annual holidays and they, too, are in a hurry to get things done. Midsummer Eve is celebrated in the countryside – as always – and on the day before, everyone leaves town, everything closes and the streets are suddenly spookily deserted.
The country’s main thoroughfares, on the other hand, are packed. Queues of cars stretch away into the distance, and at the end of the road, family and friends wait among silver birches in full, shimmering bloom.
Maypoles and dancing
Midsummer is an occasion of large gatherings – and to be honest, many Swedes take advantage of it to fulfil their social obligations so that they can enjoy the rest of their holiday in peace. In many cases, whole families gather to celebrate this traditional high-point of the summer.
Swedes like the world to be well-ordered, so Midsummer Eve is always a Friday. People often begin the day by picking flowers and making wreaths to place on the maypole, which is a key component in the celebrations.
The maypole is raised in an open spot and traditional ring-dances ensue, to the delight of the children and some of the adults. Teenagers tend to stay out of it and wait for the evening’s more riotous entertainment.
Herring and boiled new potatoes
A typical Midsummer menu features different kinds of pickled herring, boiled new potatoes with fresh dill, soured cream and raw red onion. This is often followed by a grilled dish of some kind, such as spare rib or salmon, and for dessert the first strawberries of summer, with cream.
The traditional accompaniment is a cold beer and schnapps, preferably spiced. Every time the glasses are refilled, singing breaks out anew. Swedes like drinkingsongs, and the racier the better.
Midsummer is an occasion invested with a certain nostalgia. Deep inside, Swedes are all agreed on what it should look like and how it should proceed. So after dinner, many people still want to go out dancing, just like in the old days. Preferably on an outdoor dance floor beside a lake as the evening mist settles and the sound of the orchestra echoes back from the rocky hills on the opposite shore.
On their way home, girls and young women are supposed to pick seven different species of flowers and lay them under their pillows. At night, their future husbands appear to them in a dream.
Legend has it that the night before Midsummer’s Day is a magical time for love. It still is, in a way. During this night many a relationship is put to the test. Under the influence of alcohol, the truth will out, which can lead both to marriage and to divorce.
Like Whitsun, Midsummer is a popular time of year for weddings and christening ceremonies. Despite their poor showing as churchgoers, Swedes still like to wed in a country church with a flower-bedecked, arched entrance and beautiful hymns.
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Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic with the Stockholm daily, Dagens Nyheter. Po Tidholm wrote the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today.