‘Tis the season to do as the Scandinavians do…
What is Midsummer all about? In a similar Pagan tradition to how the Summer Solstice is recognised as a day to rejoice, this weekend is one of Sweden’s biggest events in the cultural calendar. Midsummer celebrations (Midsommarfirande) is a moveable gala which happens on the Friday and Saturday that falls between 19th and 25th June. This year, Midsummer blooms on Friday 24th (Midsummer Eve) through to Saturday 25th June (Midsummer Day). In Sweden, Midsummer Eve is classed as a röd dag (‘red day’) which is the equivalent to a Bank Holiday in the UK. The festival can last as long as a five-week summer holiday for those Swedes with a robust sense of preserving traditional values.
The Nordic history
In Denmark, Midsummer is heralded as Sankthans or Sankthansaften (St. John’s Eve). While Midsummer is associated with the Pagan ritual of the Summer Solstice, in Christianity, the date also marks the feast day of St. John the Baptist. In Norway, large bonfires are built in a secular way of honouring St. John or Jonsok, People also embark on pilgrimages across the country that used to take place in the 19th century. In Sweden, the majstång or midsommarstång is erected as homage to the idea that this brought good luck and fortune, such as a prosperous harvest and fertility during the Viking era. In Finland, this time of the year is named Ukon juhla, after the Finnish god Ukko, or in the Christianised terminology, Juhannus. Nowadays, shops and businesses tend to close their doors from noon on Midsummer Eve for the gatherings to commence.
Families in Sweden are known to raise a flag in their garden before sitting down to breakfast. Throughout every town and village, houses and churches are adorned with bunting and garlands of flowers and branches. Women wear traditional dresses that have been handed down through generations and wreaths of flora and fauna can be found on their heads. Lest we forget the Maypole, which is the focal point that is raised to stand at the heart of the town for all to come and see.
Everyone gets together in a community to decorate the Maypole, usually at the village green. People arrive in joyous droves with natural garlands of twigs and flowers laced together. You can expect to see the pride shine through with plenty of colour in the yellow and blue variety. This is not entirely limited to the two patriotic hues but it is there in abundance. Once the Maypole has been festooned, a pillar of society makes a speech before dancing round the Maypole begins. This continues throughout the day and into the night, with sprightly Swedes pretending to be frogs as they circle the totem. When singing and taking part, it is important to hone the lagom mentality; enjoy yourself with the right amount of enthusiasm. Not too little and not too much.
Eat, drink and be merry
Before the long day of dancing and toasting gets under way, the Swedish folk get their energy from the cornucopia of tasty delights. A typical menu of Midsummer lunch includes: pickled herring, served with finely chopped raw red onion and sour cream, grilled salmon with new potatoes and dill, complemented by fresh strawberries and cream for dessert. However, this is only really the beginning as the act of eating during Midsummer is really part of a cycle, much like the Maypole skipping. The pattern is to eat, drink, dance, sing, and repeat. What should you be drinking? Flavoured schnapps will keep your spirits upbeat for the ensuing night’s entertainment – music and parties for the teenagers and adults to relish and keep up with the merry momentum!
Head to the forest or local fields and you can take part in games at the special village fayres. Here, you can win prizes, including the revered delicatessen of smoked eel. This may be a precursor to the ålagille (eel party) which happens in September and involves a lot of eel-themed songs. Crayfish parties are also the norm and are held up until August. If you’re brave and daring, you might want to join in and competitively eat batches of tinned sour herring at the climax of the summer season.
In the north of Sweden, the Midnight Sun is a sight to behold in a more serene part of the celebrations. Drinking whilst soaking in the nocturnal rays is a favoured pastime that gives you time to reflect and appreciate the day. Whereas in the south, Swedes have to make their own lights from flares and dance on wooden boards in the forest, paying tribute to the Midnight Sun from afar.
Here are some useful words and phrases to know about the festival:
Midsommarfirande – Midsummer celebrations
Skål – cheers!
röd dag – ‘red day’ or Bank Holiday
fånga dagen – carpe diem or to seize the day
lagom – not too little or too much; just the right amount
Majstång or Mmidsommarstång – Maypole or Midsummer pole
ålagille – the infamous ‘eel party’
Sankthans or Sankthansaften – St. John’s Eve (Danish)
Jonsok – St. John’s wake (Norwegian)
Ukon juhla – Ukko’s celebration (Finnish)
What’s on in London?
Hyde Park – The unofficial place to be in central London is on the green of one of the Royal Parks in the UK’s capital. The atmosphere will be present, however, a Maypole sadly won’t be. The dedicated LondonSwedes organisation plan to hold a more traditional event in 2017.
ScandiKitchen Café – Not sure what to eat? Before you flock to Hyde Park, stop by the ScandiKitchen for a ‘Midsummer Picnic Box’. The convenient platter boasts a melange of Matjes (mustard) herring, new potato salad with dill and shallot dressing and gräddfil (sour cream), Swedish meatballs with lingonberry jam and ketchup, Västerbotten cheese, Kladdkaka brownies, Plopp chocolates, and more!
Scandinavian Midsummer Market – On 25th June from 10am – 5pm, explore the stalls to take home some vibrant Nordic homeware and clothing designs, with face painting for the whole family to enjoy. The location: Albion Street between the Finnish and Norwegian Churches in Rotherhithe, easy to get to by tube from Bermondsey and Canada Water stations.
You can also indulge in Scandi culture by visiting the Nordic Bakery in Golden Square for a cinnamon bun or two, as well as ordering some schnapps at the Nordic Bar, Fitzrovia.
Skål on this röd dag and, as the adverts of the prized Swedish-made Kopperberg cider have been saying, fånga dagen!