Midsummer’s Eve is quite possibly the most Nordic of celebrations, and one that is so important that it even rivals Christmas as the most important holiday in the Nordic calendar. Midsummer marks the start of the annual summer holiday and of course is a time to celebrate the midsummer solstice: when the Earth’s northern axis is pointed towards the sun, and the sun doesn’t go down, or if it does, only for a few hours. It’s a time to celebrate nature and light and warmth before the darkness of the Nordic winter freezes over everything.
Midsummer is steeped in tradition and appreciation of nature – a feeling of excitement that summer is here, nostalgia for the good old days, and a time for gathering with large groups of friends and family to appreciate the outdoors.
Each Nordic country has their own unique way of celebrating Midsummer, from maypoles to sauna time to rumours about talking cows. Find out more about how the Nords celebrate Midsummer below…
Midsummer’s Eve is a huge thing in Sweden and basically a great excuse to have a piss-up in the countryside. For Swedes, this always falls on the 3rd Friday of June and is a great source of excitement. Everyone leaves the city and travels out to their summerhouses on the coast or on a lake to celebrate the longest, sunniest day of the year with large groups of friends and family.
Maypoles are erected for dancing around, beers are gathered for drinking, and fresh flowers are picked for making krans – a headband made of soft birch and wild summer flowers. Swedish folklore has it that if you place this flower crown under your pillow that night, your future lover will appear to you in a dream.
Once the afternoon’s annual midsummer dance around the maypole in traditional dress is complete, the foodie festivities can commence. The Midsummer feast is typically a three-course feast starting with various types of pickled herring accompanied by boiled new potatoes, creme fraiche/sour cream and fresh dill and chives. This is followed by a barbecued/meaty course which normally involves lamb, beef or salmon and tomato salads, and the meal is finished off with fresh strawberries (the first of the summer) and cream. Supper is accompanied by cold beers, knocking back schnapps and plenty of catchy Swedish drinking songs.
By the time the feast is over, everyone’s had far too much schnapps and the evening continues with dancing, folky singalongs and midnight dips in the midsummer sea. Sounds perfect.
Finnish Midsummer celebrations – known as Juhannus – are similar to the Swedish form of the celebrations. Finns take the opportunity to escape to summer houses with saunas in the countryside over the long weekend in June. The sauna is heated up, sauna whisks are made out of birch twigs, and sausages set to sizzle on the barbecue.
The most traditional Finnish way of celebrating Juhannus is by lighting a huge bonfire – a kokko – for everyone to gather around. The kokko is ceremoniously lit before midnight and normally situated by a lake.
The Finns use a great excuse to get drunk and rowdy over Midsummer – an age-old Finnish belief is that the louder a Finn is when celebrating Juhannus, the more luck they have in the following year. (The noise also has the added benefit of driving away evil spirits apparently…) And the more a Finn drinks on Midsummer’s Eve, the better their harvest will be at the end of summer. So really, why on earth would you not celebrate?
Danish and Norwegian Sankthansaften
Both the Danes and Norwegians have a slightly more laid-back approach to celebrating Midsummer than the Finns, with less shouting and more crooning with guitars and playing wholesome family games. In Denmark and Norway, Midsummer’s Eve is always celebrated on the 23rd June (they don’t move it around like those pesky Swedes). It’s known as Sankthansaften (which translates as St John’s Eve) or sometimes called Jonsok (John’s Wake) in Norway, and is supposed to mark the birth of John the Baptist, although of course the pagan traditions of celebrating Midsummer were around long before Christianity rocked up late to the party…
Like the Finns, Danish midsummer celebrations are mostly centred around making the biggest bonfire you can, preferably on a beach.The bonfire is used for many things – namely cooking sausages on sticks and sitting round with beers, sometimes with singing. Bread dough is also wrapped round wooden sticks to make snobrød, which is thrust into the fire to cook (usually unsuccessfully as it takes forever and people tend to want to go back to the beer-drinking and singing). Straw and twig witches are also placed on top to burn, harking back to the days when the church used to set those poor ladies on fire. Back to the singing and beers, please.
The Norwegians also love marking midsummer with a bonfire, either in the mountains or by the fjords. Family games like egg-racing and sack-racing are played, and mock weddings with children are also staged – complete with bride and groom outfits – to symbolise the new life of summer.
Like with other Nordic Midsummer celebrations, traditional food plays a key part: hotdogs, buttery, sugary pancakes and rømmegrøt – a sour cream porridge topped with cinnamon – are classic Norwegian Midsummer dishes.
Iceland celebrates Midsummer – Jónsmessa – on 24th June. Jónsmessa is named after St John the Baptist, but like it’s Nordic neighbours, Iceland’s midsummer traditions are seeped in folklore and based heavily on Pagan rituals and superstitions rather than anything Christian. According to Icelandic folklore, on Midsummer’s Eve, seals shed their skins and turn into humans, and cows gain the power of speech for the night. (No evidence of this has yet to be discovered.)
The summer solstice is also said to magnify nature’s healing powers: medicinal herbs are supposed to be at their most effective, healing stones float up in lakes, and rolling around naked in the morning dew on the 24th is also supposed to have cracking health benefits, as it will cure the dew-roller of any ailments…
Probably the most bizarre – and specific – Icelandic folklore rumour is that if you sit at a crossroads where each of the four roads leads to a church, elves (Huldufólk or hidden people) will try to seduce you with money, food and gifts, which sounds great. Apparently if you stick it out until the sun rises and manage to not get whisked away by said elves, all of the treasures will be left. Bonza.
Though the celebrations may vary somewhat from country to country, it’s clear to see a pattern; Midsummer’s Eve is all about celebrating life, light and summer with your family and friends. And what better way to do this than by grabbing a couple of beers, sitting around a bonfire on a warm summer’s evening, and reliving centuries of tradition? Eat, drink and be merry underneath the midnight sun.