The mystical pagan traditions that are still celebrated in Sweden during Midsummer


You may have seen the viral YouTube video in which Hollywood actress Alicia Vikander explains to talk show host Jimmy Kimmel what Swedish Midsummer is all about (she even taught him the classic “frog dance,” jumping around in sky-high stilettos).

Or maybe you just heard that the summer solstice is a big deal in Scandinavia.

Well it is. And while all Nordic countries, as well as some Eastern European countries, celebrate the longest day of the year in different ways, the Swedes do it the best.

Midsummer is the ultimate Swedish festival and a highlight of the cultural calendar. For many, it is also a holiday synonymous with a certain degree of decadence and debauchery, whether that was originally intended or not. Either way, it’s a holiday that Swedes look forward to and often plan for months in advance.

Usually it is spent with friends and family at someone’s summer home. (There can’t be many countries with more summer houses per capita than Sweden – owning a small red-painted house surrounded by fields or on the coast is something that almost every Swede who wasn’t lucky enough to inherit one would look for strives).

The traditional midsummer lunch is a highlight of the celebration, with a smorgasbord of pickled herring and dill-spiced new potatoes, smoked and salted salmon, cheese quiches, meatballs and strawberry and cream cake for dessert. It’s all washed down with shots of snaps (Aquavit), which are played back while traditional snaps songs are sung.

But before you sit down for midsummer lunch, there is the obligatory dancing around the maypole. According to centuries-old tradition, you should erect a maypole decorated with birch leaves and wildflowers and dance around it while singing and holding your hands.

Except during the “Little Frogs” dance, where you jump around like an amphibian and wave your hands around your head and buttocks to illustrate that frogs have no ears or tails while making croaking sounds. It all makes perfect sense to the Swedes.

As Vikander told Kimmel: “Everyone between the ages of five and 95 in Sweden knows this dance and does it every year.”

The Midsummer Maypole tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, while the celebration of the summer solstice dates back to Norse pagan times, when culture revolved around the mystical natural world. For centuries, Midsummer’s Eve was considered magical, a time when the divide between the physical and spiritual realms blurred and plants took on powerful healing powers and could be used for divination.

Young women picked seven different types of wildflowers and placed them under their pillows to dream of their future husbands, a tradition that is still popular today. Wearing a wreath of flowers in your hair is an ancient symbol of rebirth and fertility, and these were dried and preserved all year round, sometimes used to soak the Christmas bath to keep the family healthy during the long, cold winter.

Likewise, walking barefoot in the dewy grass on a midsummer morning – or, better yet, rolling around naked in it – was a way to ensure good health.

Midsummer Eve is always celebrated on a Friday between June 19 and 25. This year it falls on June 21, but many places in Sweden hold festivities throughout the midsummer weekend.

Jeppe Gustafsson/Shutterstock

Traditional Midsummer celebrations take place at Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum.

One of those places is Skansen. This tourist destination in Stockholm, the world’s oldest open-air museum, showcases the different regions of Sweden with houses and farms from all parts of the country.

Here, solstice celebrations begin mid-morning on Midsummer’s Eve with wreath-making and a Midsummer Market. At 11 a.m. everyone gathers to watch the maypole being erected, after which the dancing and playing begin, to the irresistibly catchy sound of folk music performed by the musicians of Skansen. The folk dancers, dressed in the colorful costumes of their respective provinces, lead the routines, including everyone’s favorite, the frog dance.

Given the number of international visitors, the MC runs the program in both Swedish and English, so that everyone can participate. If you’re more of a spectator, the Skansen folk dance troupe also performs traditional peasant dances, accompanied by violinists and important harpists. day.

For others, however, the highlight is the evening dance – a return to the kind of public dancing that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, both in Sweden and the United States. Anette Björlin, program officer at Skansen, explains that for many, Midsummer at Skansen is simply an event not to be missed.

“Last year we had around 28,000 visitors on Midsummer’s Eve alone,” she says. “The record is 35,000. People look forward to these celebrations all year long. Families come in first thing in the morning to take part in the kid-friendly activities, and then we have a steady stream of people coming to enjoy the dances.”

Myths and legends

There’s no denying that Midsummer still inspires a sense of wonder and awe, even if the average Swede no longer has the urge to roll around naked in the morning dew. Girls still pick wildflowers and place them under their pillows, hoping to dream of their future husbands.

Throughout history, people have turned to nature for medicinal purposes and to predict the future, but it is difficult to know exactly how far back these traditions date because there is a lack of written sources, says Kerstin Holm Söderkvist, heritage interpreter at Skansen.

“Many aspects of our celebrations can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and it is possible that some even date back to the time of the Vikings,” she says. “But we can’t know for sure. There are so many parallel stories surrounding Midsummer, not least because the Church has renamed it a Christian holiday in honor of John the Baptist rather than pagan beliefs.

One myth she is keen to debunk is that the maypole is a pagan fertility symbol.

“I doubt it,” she says. “It’s more likely to be a German influence, like the Christmas tree.”

Midsummer is also a culinary celebration, as evidenced by the aforementioned traditional lunch.

Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden

Midsummer lunch is an important part of the festivities in Sweden.

“Looking at midsummer lunch through the lens of the traditional Swedish farming community is a welcome change after months of living on soup and oatmeal,” explains Holm Söderkvist. “We can finally look forward to enjoying freshly harvested seasonal produce.”

Fortunately, the Swedish diet has improved since the 19th century, and today Midsummer mainly marks the start of the long-awaited holiday season. Most Swedes only take four to five weeks off from work in the summer (five weeks of annual leave is a legal right). It is a time for rest and relaxation, for visiting friends and family across the country, and for strolling around your summer cottage, decorated with leaves and flowers for midsummer.

Holm Söderkvist will celebrate with friends at their lakeside summer house in the scenic central province of Värmland, where they will indulge in the traditional feast. In addition to connecting Sweden with their cultural history, she also sees Midsummer as an important social event.

“It is a very inclusive meeting, people of all ages and backgrounds can participate,” she says. “Anyone can bring a picnic and go to a local park to join in the festivities.”

The park gatherings she talks about are not limited to Sweden. The summer solstice is a time of year when Swedes living abroad tend to get extra homesick and seek out parties in their adopted hometown. In cities like London and New York, with significant Swedish populations, midsummer celebrations are popular events.

What started as an impromptu gathering in London’s Hyde Park has grown into an annual tradition, one that is growing thanks to social media. Described as a ‘flash mob picnic’, the celebration usually takes place on Saturday, i.e. Midsummer’s Day rather than evening evening. It is not a formally organized or ticketed event, but still attracts hundreds or even a few thousand people.

Someone always sets up a small maypole, and the festivities continue until the park closes at midnight.

For those keen to celebrate in style, the LondonSwedes expat community is hosting a gourmet Midsummer Eve dinner and Midsummer Day lunch at Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt’s restaurant, Ekstedt in The Yard, at the Great Scotland Yard Hotel. Expect flower garlands, live music and of course lots of snapshots and singing.

“Swedes have a reputation for being a bit reserved, but during Midsummer we let ourselves down,” says Charlotte Ågren, the group’s founder. “The snaps help.”

For Ågren, celebrating Midsummer is not only a way to keep a beloved tradition alive, but also a chance to showcase Swedish culture to her British and international friends.

“It’s such a wonderful occasion and we’re proud to invite our wider social circle to take part,” she says.

“I’d say about a third of London partygoers are people of all nationalities who just appreciate tradition and love a good party.”

Editor’s Note: Lisa Kjellsson has celebrated many midsummer celebrations in her native Sweden. Follow her adventures around the world on Instagram: @tlkedit

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