How To Survive a Swedish Midsummer

By Nomadic Matt | Published June 20th, 2010

celebrating swedish midsummerThis is a guest post by Sofia of As We Travel.

The 25th of June is fast approaching, and in Sweden that means it is almost time for the Midsummer holiday. Midsummer is the biggest celebration of the year in Sweden and is a tradition that celebrates the summer solstice (the longest day of the year). It dates back hundreds of years and was used to ensure a good harvest and the fertilization of the ground.

Traditionally, young people pick bouquets of nine different flowers and put them under their pillow in the hope of dreaming about their future spouse. However, you will see many adults wearing these flowers too. While the roots of this holiday may be about the harvest, today Swedes use the day as an excuse to have a massive party, spend the day outdoors with friends and family, and celebrate the summer weather. After all, we don’t have many warm days here in Sweden.

The centerpiece of this celebration, and the most recognized symbol of midsummer, is the maypole. This a tall green pole covered with many leaves and flowers, with a ring of flowers hanging on each side. The maypole is actually a phallic symbol that has been stuck into the ground to fertilize the dirt for next year’s harvest. After we stick the pole in the ground, we do what anyone else would do- we dance around it of course. We dance around the maypole in circles doing strange dance moves, pretending to be frogs, crows and other animals, and other games.  Dancing around the the maypole is one of the most time honored Swedish Midsummer traditions there is.

Snaps, Rotten Fish and Dirty Songs
After dancing, comes the eating, drinking and singing – you will find around any midsummer table a huge array of pickled herring, potatoes, chives mixed with sour cream, and more schnapps than you’ll ever see in your life. This is the most important thing on the table. Schnapps are small bottles of really strong alcohol, which is designed to be drunk as a shot. One very important rule is that before every shot, someone (or everyone, it doesn’t really matter) sings a dirty song. Since we drink A LOT of schnapps, we also sing a lot. Singing adds to the festive spirit of the holiday and, as the evening proceeds, the songs get dirtier and the words become more slurred. (I told you this is a celebration after all!)

sweden midsummer foodThe second most important item on the table after the schnapps is the pickled and fermented herring. Fish is very important aspect about life in Sweden and herring is the most commonly eaten fish. While the fish smells even worse than it looks, appearances are deceiving and the fish is delicious. There’s no good celebration without food and just as a BBQ is important to the American July 4th celebrations, herring is important to our midsummer festival.

Swedish Midsummer is the one real festival we have in Sweden. It’s the day we celebrate the summer, enjoy the nice weather, drink, eat, sing, and dance. It’s our day to live without rules and where anything goes. If you are coming to Sweden, coordinating your arrival with this holiday should be your top priority. Try to celebrate outside and away from the city. Midsummer is, after all, about nature, the warm weather, and the coming summer.

See you Friday around the maypole!

Sofia lives in Gothenburg Sweden and runs the website As We Travel. You can find out more about their travels and life in Sweden there. They are eagerly waiting to dance around the maypole during Midsummer.

comments 8 Comments

Gianpaolo Pietri

I love the Scandinavian Midsummer Festivals. The spirit of the people really shines through much more than in typical holidays in the US. I had the chance to experience a midsummer bash in Helsinki during my 8-month stay there in 2005 to study architecture. I also spend some time in Stockholm, which I consider the most beautiful city in Europe, and so far it is also my favorite. The old town was amazing, and Ostermalm had some very cool spots to hang out.

I look forward to the day when I can return. In fact, for a while I tried to find a job in Stockholm so I could move there. Now that I’m on this lifestyle design journey, maybe that day isn’t so far off. Enjoy!

Midsummers was the biggest celebration of the year in Estonia – the party went all night. Everyone would get out of the cities and go into the countryside to celebrate. Some of the traditions were similar – girls would make wreaths with nine flowers and wear them during the evening, but then put it under the pillow to dream about their future husband. Also, boys and girls would go off into the forest looking for a flowering fern…which never flowered, but it was a good excuse to spend time in the forest with your girlfriend/boyfriend. Saunas also played a big role, as did endless eating of sausages, potato salad, dark bread and much more. And, of course you had lots of beer, vodka and anything else hiding in the cupboards. Then, the night usually ended with people jumping over a big bonfire – usually not such a great idea after all the beer and vodka :)

Great post Sophia. Interesting stuff – I was in Oslo in December, and it was pretty terrible so I can imagine Sweden in the summer is stunning!

I lived in Stockholm a couple years so thanks for reviving the great memories of midsommar! The only things that could compare were Swedish weddings and the Christmas Julbord… :) Even though I learned barely enough Swedish to get by while living there, I knew *many* drinking songs !!!

Terri

As a Pagan who celebrates Midsummer personally here in Canada (watched fireflies at dusk with my daughter this year), I always love to hear about other cultures who still keep the maypole traditions alive. Thanks for the fabulous story.

You definitely captured the spirit of midsummer Sofia! I missed it this year since I was in Germany and it isn’t a significant day there but you post made me feel a bit of the summer spirit anyway. I need to make sure I am in Sweden for midsummer next year since it will be my last one there.

eileen ludwig

Sofia and Matt,

Midsummer night I was on a train traveling between countries and the youth on the train were very drunk and happy. They unfortunately were out to pick on foreigners on the train. Captive audience. They were relentless with this one woman. I kept my head down and hoped they couldn’t spot I was an American. The next stop I got off to catch a different train and hopefully calmer youth.

I liked the longer light for travel and seeing things. It really extended the day. The locals would work during the day and party all night. It was an interesting time.

Eileen

Faidros

Good post but you got the thing with the fermented fish wrong. That´s not a midsummer tradition. That tradition comes later in the summer and are mostly celebrated by people from the northern parts of Sweden.

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