The mystical pagan traditions still celebrated in Sweden at Midsummer

Damond Isiaka
12 Min Read


CNN
 — 

Perhaps you’ve seen the viral YouTube clip of the Hollywood actress Alicia Vikander explaining 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’ve just heard that the summer solstice is kind of a big deal in Scandinavia.

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

Midsummer is the quintessential Swedish celebration and a highlight in the cultural calendar. For many, it’s also a holiday synonymous with a certain amount of decadence and debauchery, whether or not that was how it was originally intended. In any case, it’s a holiday Swedes look forward to, and often start planning for, months in advance.

Typically, it’s spent with friends and family at someone’s summer house. (There can’t be many countries with more summer cottages per capita than Sweden – owning a little red-painted house surrounded by fields, or by the coast, is something nearly every Swede who wasn’t lucky enough to inherit one aspires to).

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The traditional Midsummer lunch is a highlight of the celebration, featuring a smorgasbord of pickled herring and dill-seasoned new potatoes, smoked and cured salmon, cheese quiches, meatballs and strawberry and whipped cream cake for dessert. It’s all washed down with shots of snaps (Aquavit), which are knocked back while singing traditional snaps songs.

But before sitting down to the Midsummer lunch, there is the obligatory dancing around the maypole. As per the centuries-old tradition, you must raise a maypole decorated with birch leaves and wildflowers, and dance around it while singing and holding hands.

Except, that is, during “The Little Frogs” dance, when you leap around like an amphibian and wave your hands around your head and bottom to illustrate that frogs have neither ears nor a tail while making quacking noises. It all makes perfect sense to the Swedes.

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

Midsummer at the world’s oldest open-air museum

The Midsummer maypole tradition dates from the Middle Ages, while the summer solstice celebration can be traced to Norse pagan times, when the culture revolved around the mystical natural world. For centuries, Midsummer night was considered magical, a time when the divide between the physical and spiritual realms was blurred and plants took on potent healing powers and could be used for fortune telling.

Young women would pick seven different kinds of wildflowers and place them under their pillows to dream of their future husbands, a tradition that is still popular today. Wearing a flower wreath in your hair is an age-old symbol of rebirth and fertility, and these were dried and kept throughout the year, sometimes used to infuse the Christmas bath to keep the family healthy throughout the long, cold winter.

Equally, walking barefoot in the dewy grass on Midsummer morning – or, better still, rolling around in it naked – 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 in many places around Sweden festivities are held during the whole Midsummer weekend.

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

One such place is Skansen. The world’s oldest open-air museum, this Stockholm tourist destination showcases the different regions of Sweden with houses and farmsteads from every part of the country.

Here, solstice celebrations kick off mid-morning on Midsummer’s Eve with wreath-making and a Midsummer market. At 11 a.m. everyone gathers to watch the maypole being raised, after which the dancing and games begin, to the irresistibly catchy sound of folk music performed by Skansen’s musicians. 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 through the program in both Swedish and English, ensuring everyone can join in. If you’re more of a spectator, Skansen’s folk dance troop also performs traditional peasant dances accompanied by fiddlers and key harpists throughout the day.

For others, however, the highlight is the evening dance – a throwback to the kind of public dances that had their heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, both in Sweden and the United States. Anette Björlin, program officer at Skansen, explains that for many, Midsummer at Skansen is simply an unmissable event.

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

Myths and legends

Undeniably, Midsummer still instills a sense of wonder and awe, even if your average Swede no longer tends to roll around naked in the morning dew. Girls still pick wildflowers and place them under their pillows hoping to dream of their future spouses, though.

Throughout history, people have turned to nature for medicinal purposes and to predict the future, but it’s hard to know exactly how far back these traditions date, as 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 medieval times, and it’s possible that some even date back to the Vikings,” she says. “But we can’t know for sure. There are so many parallel narratives around Midsummer, not least because the church rebranded it as a Christian holiday celebrating John the Baptist instead of pagan beliefs.”

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

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

Midsummer is also very much a culinary celebration, as indicated by the aforementioned traditional lunch.

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

“If we look at the Midsummer lunch through the lens of the traditional Swedish farming society, it’s a welcome change after having to subsist on soup and oatmeal for months on end,” Holm Söderkvist explains. “Finally, we can look forward to feasting on freshly harvested, seasonal produce.”

Thankfully the Swedish diet has improved since the 1800s, and these days Midsummer primarily marks the start of the eagerly awaited vacation season. Most Swedes will take four or five weeks off work just in the summer (five weeks of annual leave is a statutory right). It’s a time for rest and relaxation, for visiting friends and relatives around the country, and for pottering around your summer cottage, decorated with foliage and flowers for Midsummer.

Holm Söderkvist is celebrating with friends at their summer house by a lake in the scenic central province of Värmland, where they’ll tuck into the traditional feast. Aside from connecting Swedes to their cultural history, she sees Midsummer as an important social event.

“It’s a very inclusive gathering, people of all ages and backgrounds can take part,” she says. “Anyone can bring a picnic hamper and head to a local park to join in the festivities.”

Summer solstice in London

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

What started as an impromptu gathering in London’s Hyde Park has become an annual tradition, growing in size thanks to social media. Described as a “flash mob picnic,” the celebration tends to take place on a Saturday, i.e. Midsummer’s Day rather than Eve, and is not a formally organized or ticketed event but still attracts hundreds, or even a few thousand people.

Someone always puts up a small maypole, and the festivities go on until the park closes at midnight.

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

“Swedes have a reputation for being a bit reserved, but at Midsummer, we let our hair down,” says Charlotte Ågren, the group’s founder. “The snaps helps.”

To Ågren, celebrating Midsummer is not just 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 happy occasion and one we’re proud to invite our wider social circle to take part in,” she says.

“I would say about a third of London revelers are people of all nationalities who just appreciate the tradition, and love a good party.”

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

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