The rigors of a long, dark Scandinavian winter make it clear why Midsummer, a summer solstice celebration of the arrival of spring, is a very popular Nordic holiday. Held in June, Midsummer marks the longest day and the shortest night of the year, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. Afterwards, days grow progressively shorter and nights longer until the winter solstice arrives in December.
Nordic nations (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have celebrated Midsummer since pagan times, when Vikings prayed to the Norse gods of fertility, Freyia and Freyr, for an abundant harvest. Huge bonfires were lit to ward off dark forces. Stonehenge-like circles of large rocks were the site of rituals to further implore the god’s blessings.
Midsummer’s Eve, the night before summer solstice, was thought to be a magical time of year when water turned to wine, plants acquired healing powers and fortunes could be told. Flowers were woven into wreaths and crowns worn to ensure good health throughout the year, and young girls slept with seven different types of wild flowers tucked under their pillows in the hope that their dreams would reveal their future husbands (Is this the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Mid Summer Nights Dream?).
The arrival of Christianity brought changes to pagan Nordic practices similar to changes the Catholic Church imposed elsewhere. Rather than banning them, the Church sought to merge pagan traditions with Catholic ceremonies. The birth of Jesus, Christmas, was celebrated at the same time as the winter solstice, and the birth of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s Day, was recognized near the time of the summer solstice. Midsummer visits to holy springs provided healing waters and reminded people of how John the Baptist baptized Christ in the River Jordan.
The tradition of raising a maypole decorated with flowers and greenery came to Sweden in the late Middle Ages from Germany, where it was raised on May 1. The Scandinavian spring arrives later, and greenery was not available in early May, so the maypole moved to Midsummer. Flowers and greenery also adorned homes, farm equipment and sometimes people, appropriately called “green men.” Modern midsummers retain many of these customs. Bonfires, wildflower crowns, and maypole dances in traditional folk costumes continue. Cities empty as people retreat to the countryside and commune with nature. A few newer traditions have been added as well. Danes toss twig and cloth effigies of witches into bonfires to keep evil spirits away. Finns may tell you that the louder a Finn gets at Midsummer, the better luck he will have in the year ahead, and the more he drinks, the better the harvest will be. In Iceland it is said that on Midsummer cows speak, seals become human and elves interact with people. It also is sometimes thought that a naked roll in the Midsummer morning dew will bring good fortune.
Scandinavian cheese plate with crispbreads (caraway havarti, jarlsberg, saga blue)
Hobbit (wild mushroom) sauce