As the summer approaches, a sentence you will have heard over and over again is “you MUST stay in Sweden for midsummer because NO ONE celebrates midsummer quite like a Swede!” I confirmed this last year with my first midsummer celebration. This year I was home in rainy France (not sure I could survive two midsummers Swedish-style) which gave me ample time to reminisce about that strange and wonderful day.
Midsummer, with its origins in paganism, celebrates the summer solstice; its light and warmth (not guaranteed in Sweden). As it is not an official holiday, Midsummer Eve in Sweden is actually celebrated on the Friday nearest to the solstice. One day to celebrate, two to recover! To be fair, there have been talks about making it into the official national day of Sweden. Sorry 6th of June!!!
So how does one midsummer the Swedish way?
- Midsummer is best celebrated in the countryside
Midsummer is the ideal occasion for the Swedes to leave the city and reconnect with nature – preferably in one of the cheerful, red wooden homes they own all along the country’s coast. The city seems eerie and empty just before midsummer kicks off and the outbound trains are as full as tins of herrings. Why the countryside? Well, illegally picking flowers for your midsummer crown from a city park cannot compare to picking the wildflowers on a friend’s island. A cold shower after a stint in a public sauna (yes, with naked strangers!) is vastly less enticing than jumping into a magnificent, refreshing lake next to a private sauna.
To enjoy the authentic midsummer experience you therefore may need to befriend a Swede. Then just silently hope for an invitation to a midsummer party at their summer home. The countryside midsummer bounty includes wildflowers, rustic saunas, clear blue waters and a stunning vista of the slowly setting sun. All these riches shared with a small group of friends. Yes, it is as heavenly and unique as it sounds.
- Drinking songs and competitive tables are an essential part of the day
As any self-respecting Swedish holiday, midsummer involves a lot of eating and drinking. The lunch or dinner consists of marinated herring, new potatoes, fish or beef, cheese and bread. All these staples help sponge up the shots of homemade aquavit hovering near your plate. To be honest, once you bite into your first marinated herring, you will need pure alcohol to forget the assault on your taste buds. It is an inescapable Swedish dietary rite of passage (one best drowned in mustard)!
Along with the smörgåsbord of food, there will be loads of singing of more or less appropriate traditional Swedish drinking songs (the more traditional, the less appropriate). The aquavit is usually drunk after each song is sung (or shouted). Remember to pace yourself because Swedes sing A LOT of songs. A whole booklet of them! After realizing this, I started taking micro-sips. My first midsummer was an international one. We not only sang Swedish, but also German, Italian and Polish drinking songs. I did not grow up with this kind of tradition, so all I could offer was the French national anthem (I actually didn’t know all the lyrics so I mostly just mumbled French-sounding words). Some way into the party Swedes also started to get distinctly territorial and competitive about their respective table, or their table end. They holler “bästa bordet” (the best table) at each other, while shaking the table with their mighty Viking fists (just kidding – I didn’t midsummer with the Icelandic football team). Beyond this point of the festivities they might also steal each others’ drinks or make toasts under the table. Anything goes. It is midsummer, after all.
- Embrace nature. . .with caution
Midsummer is a moment to embrace everything natural. In the morning you pick flowers for your ‘krans’ (midsummer crown), which is made of birch branches and summer flowers. Then you build (or let the men build – I guess I am not as progressive as the Swedish society) the Maypole, a symbol of fertility. You will dance in circles around that pole or hop around it in a frog-like squat whilst chanting. You will also later compete in a number of games, such as potato racing (the amount of cheating correlates with the number of cider cans finished) or the construction of the mightiest human pyramid. Let’s review – you dance in the mud around a handcrafted phallic symbol with a crown of flowers on your head and a can of cider in your hand. Midsummer is the day on which all Swedes transform into pagan, nature-worshiping hedonists. You will too and love every second of it. It’s the returning to civilization (aka Stockholm) the next Monday which proves to be the bigger (and unwanted) challenge.
You will be unpleasantly reminded of your urban fragility when you return with bites, stings and scrapes a-plenty. Beware of tick bites: you should check yourself for ticks when you come back. If you are a bit neurotic like me – you will search for ten showers to come. The mosquito bites can be huge. Standing a little too close to the sauna heater or walking barefoot like a true pagan will leave its marks. Luckily the vivid memories of the surreal moments shared together will outlast any mistakes or injuries.
And beware, so will the Facebook photos.