When most Americans hear about Sweden, they think of Swedish fish, the Muppet chef, and IKEA—but the response from those who have actually been to Sweden is much different. “The word that came to my mind was pristine,” says Leslie Barnts of her first trip to Sweden. “I will never forget it because it was absolutely, hands down, the cleanest of all the countries I saw, and I think I saw 23 European countries that summer. Whether in the city or out in the little villages, it was like being on the earth 300 years ago. . . . Absolutely breathtaking!”
Quinn Rogers Schulze shares a similar impression of her Swedish vacation: “While driving through the countryside, I was most reminded of Montana. I thought Sweden would be a lot more populated, but it wasn’t at all. It was nature pure, with scattered red-painted homes built out of wood.”
It is this pristine nature that Swedes celebrate at Midsummer—called Midsommar in Swedish—the holiday second only to Christmas in importance. Midsommar falls on the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, but Swedes now celebrate on the Friday between June 19 and June 24. This celebration of the summer solstice has its roots in ancient pagan fertility rites: communities gathered to celebrate the end of a difficult winter, to anticipate a plentiful harvest, and to worship the return of the sun. Now it is mostly about fun and togetherness and enjoying the long daylight hours outside. However, many of the ancient traditions continue, tied inseparably to the Swedish landscape.
Swedes still worship the sun, according to Kristina Olergård Tenney, a native of Stockholm, who recently moved to the United States. As we talk, she mimics the upturned face and closed eyes often seen as Swedes bask in the first rays of bright sun after a long dark winter. While the sun never rises much above the horizon in the winter, around Midsommar the sun is out even at midnight. Nancy Belliston, who grew up in Dalarna, Sweden, remembers celebrating Midsommar at her grandparents’ 400-year-old farmhouse. The children could stay up as late as they wanted to, so they would make tunnels in the hay and sleep in the barn. She loved waiting up with her cousins to watch the sun set, only to see it rise again a few minutes later. It was magical.
On Midsommar, this magic endows all of nature with its power, or so the ancient Swedes thought. Herbs gathered on Midsommar’s Eve were considered more potent than those gathered at other times, and the many wildflowers were thought to be magical, too. Because of this, flowers and greenery still have prominent roles in Swedish Midsommar celebrations.
During the morning of Midsommar, people of all ages gather birch branches and wildflowers like bluets, marguerite daisies, and poppies to decorate the maypole and to weave into garlands for their heads. Because of the brief summer, the flowers in Sweden all come into bloom at once, and because of generous laws, anyone is free to pick flowers from nearly anywhere.
Young women pick flowers in the evening on their way home from the festivities. The folk tradition is that if a young woman jumps over seven fences while gathering seven different wildflowers in silence and puts them under her pillow, she will dream of her future love. Belliston and Tenney both have fond memories of performing this ritual every year and talking with their friends the next day about their dreams—or not, if they happened to dream about the wrong boy. This prominent role of flowers is one reason Swedes abandon the cities en masse and head to the Stockholm archipelago or to other rural areas to celebrate Midsommar.
Swedes go to the country not only for flowers but also for tasty food, such as Swedish strawberries and new potatoes (the tiny, newly harvested, nearly skinless potatoes). Tenney explains that because of the different varieties grown and the cool northern growing conditions, Swedish strawberries are sweeter than most; she says she has never really had a good strawberry in the States. The strawberries are often served with whipped cream as part of a classic cake, the Midsommar Torte. The rest of the traditional Midsommar luncheon consists of pickled herring called sill, and new potatoes served with sour cream and dill.
Don’t be deceived by the humble sound of this menu. The taste is phenomenal, as any Swede or experienced foreigner will attest. When Tenney was a teenager, one of her American friends came to visit for Midsommar. In the middle of the night, her mother found this friend at the fridge eating the new potatoes cold. Eaten outside under the summer sun with good company, the food tastes even better.
After lunch, revelers wrap the maypole with birch branches and tuck flowers in among the leaves. Once the maypole is ready, musicians playing traditional instruments, like the accordion and fiddle, and folk dancers in traditional dress lead the procession to erect the pole. Once the pole is set up properly, the dancing begins.
Trained dancers perform first, followed by group dances that everyone participates in. Many of these songs and dances are boy-meets-girl courting songs, but one particularly well-known song, Små grodorna, is quite silly. The first line of the song, “små grodorna är lustiga att se,” means “little frogs are funny to watch.” Any observer will certainly find it funny to watch old and young alike hop around like frogs while singing and making frog noises. (Swedish frogs don’t say “ribbet” but “kou ack ack kaa.”)
After the folk dances are completed, families and friends continue to visit and play lawn games for many hours. Belliston remembers going for a swim and catching fish in the streams as a child. Other children play soccer. As the evening wears on, teens flirt and get to know each other.
It was during one of these late Midsommar evenings as a teen that Belliston enacted another folk tradition: if a young woman closes her eyes while walking around a well seven times, the first person she sees when she opens her eyes will be her future husband. Belliston remembers doing this only to be furious when she opened her eyes and saw the school bully. He saw her walking around the well and intentionally placed himself so he would be seen first. She walked off in a huff, and he teased her unceasingly about it for weeks afterward. Ironically, she did end up dating him for a while the following year.
Dancing for teens and adults goes late into the evening, with the traditional music and folk dances replaced by pop music and modern dances. The drinking songs begin in the evening—often silly and sometimes raucous. Traditional drinks like schnapps, aquavit, and vodka are drunk from traditional shot glasses called nubbes. Celebrants head home in the early hours of the morning full of food, dance, drink, and fond memories.
Visitors lucky enough to experience this celebration of nature firsthand will have fond memories of their own. And next time they hear of Sweden, they too will think of more than red gummy fish and flat-pack furniture.
Skansen: As Swedish As It Gets
Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in Sweden for Midsommar, you have several options for enjoying yourself. The best scenario is to befriend Swedes who will include you in their celebrations so you can experience the holiday like a native.
If that is not an option, you should look into the festivities at Skansen, a 75-acre outdoor historical museum in Stockholm. The wildly popular Midsommar celebrations have taken place in Skansen since 1892 and last for three days (to accommodate tourists) instead of the usual Friday only celebration. In addition to the traditional maypole dances and games, there is a handicraft market where you can purchase Swedish crafts.