Midsommar

Midsommar is a celebration of summer, an important holiday in Swedish culture, rivaling Christmas in its popularity and social significance in Sweden. Originating as a pagan Summer Solstice festival celebrated throughout Scandinavia and most of Europe, with the coming of Christianity Midsommar was nominally Christianized as “St. John’s Day” and celebrated on June 24th. Still, the holiday remained a rousing celebration of seasonal vitality. In the 1950s the Swedish government fixed the holiday observation on the weekend (Friday and Saturday) nearest St. John’s Day. Since then, Swedes have flocked to the countryside on this one glad Friday each year to begin their summer reveling and frolicking around the Midsommarstäng.

Why?

Midsommar is a celebration of life and friendship without need of a pretext, but here are some reasons to celebrate:

* We have a primeval need to celebrate with each other. We are not as detached and sophisticated as we pretend to be. Our ancestors partied by hopping around in circles singing songs; so can we.

* These are the longest days of sunlight in the year. Life is short. Enjoy what is passing!

* The natural world, when viewed with humility, is marvelous and mysterious. There is still magic in the air on Midsummer Eve.

Midsommarstäng (Midsummer Pole)

Similar to the “Maypole” known in the States and most of Northern Europe, where it is associated with May Day celebrations, the Midsommarstäng is a wooden pole decorated with flowers, foliage and ribbons. While many insist it is a phallic symbol representing the Sky’s impregnation of the Earth (many Swedes, I imagine, relish the suggestion), the Midsommarstäng is a tradition with obscure origins. Something like it probably served as a prop in a variety of older forms of worship and celebration. For contemporary Swedes the pole serves as a fun community craft project, a visible marker of the Midsommar holiday, and a cynosure for Sma grodorna — the frog dance.

Midsommar greeting: “Glad Midsommar!”

Midsommar eating:
The Swedes have a passion for fresh, boiled baby potatoes dipped in butter, freshly chopped dill and salt. They pride themselves on growing the best potatoes in the world. For Midsommar baby potatoes are dug up before maturation and paired with fresh or pickled fish (usually herring). The meal ends with fresh strawberries, the first of the Swedish strawberry season, served with cream.

Midsommar Singing:
The two essential Midsommar songs are Sma Grodorna (video here; lyrics here; techno version here) and Helan Gar (video here; lyrics here).

Midsommar dress:

All celebrants, regardless of gender, are invited to make and wear a flower crown (midsommarkrans) during the festivities.


Midsommar drinking:

The Swedes love their snaps [pronounced schnapps], particularly akvavit, a liquor distilled from potatoes and grains then soaked for weeks in caraway seeds and other herbs or berries. Drink akvavit cold and in shot size portions — its high alcohol content is around 80 proof . Although some purists object, akvavit drinkers often sip pilsner beer while pacing themselves with shots of the hard stuff.

Sweden has an elaborate drinking culture. Akvavit, as one Nordic émigré puts it, is “a Scandinavian version of communion wine, fraught with ritual.”[1] The ritual belongs to all Scandinavian cultures:

A group of people are clustered around a table for a typical [meal] that will include several courses and a clear, fiery drink. The host pours the ice-cold liquid into frosty, conical glasses with long stems. He raises his glass, at which point the diners turn to one another and make eye contact, making certain not to leave anyone out. “Skål ” [/skol/] calls out the host, and everyone takes a sip. Again there is eye contact, and then the glasses are set on the table, not to be lifted again until the host raises his. [2]

As a Danish participant observes, “It’s that staring … silently … into the eyes … of … everyone … that can be awkward for novices. For Danes, famed for their uncommunicative style, this might be the most intimate act most will perform their entire lives.”[3]

Equally disconcerting to novices is the distinctive Swedish enthusiasm for belting out drinking songs. Swedes often incorporate communal a capello singing into the tradition of “Skäl!” When shots are drunk in company with others each shot is counted off by its traditional name (based on sequence) and a corresponding drinking song is sung. The first shot of the evening is called helan [literally, “the whole”] and its accompanying drinking song is perhaps the most famous of all Swedish ditties, “Helan gar” [loosely translated, “The whole thing goes down the hatch!”]


Midsommar Events:

* Set up camp.
* Create midsommarkrans (flower crowns).
* Decorate and raise the midsommarstang.
* Dance and sing Sma grodorna .
* Eat a smogarsbord of Swedish foods. . .or our own version of Midsummer food.
* Build the bonfire.
* Skol! and sing Helan gar (and other folk songs).
* Play the game Werewolf (rules here).
* Skol! some more. Save a few drops of Akvavit for the Yule fire.

[1] Finn-Olaf Jones, “A Pour. A Staredown. A Civilized Bonding.” New York Times: October 20, 2006

[2] Blue, Anthony Dias (2004). The Complete Book of Spirits: A Guide to Their History, Production, and Enjoyment. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 42. Quoted by Wikipedia article on “Snaps.”

[3] Finn-Olaf Jones, ibid.

[For a more detailed history of the festival, addressing its earliest documented celebrations in England, click here.]

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