It’s the day before the day before the day before Midsummer and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, not even a little frog that wants to hop around a very large fertility symbol.
This year, Midsummer has totally snuck up on me. What?! Midsummer?! Since when?!?!
If nothing else, the sun has been a gentle reminder that the summer solstice is on its way. I wake up every morning now to birds chirping and sunlight streaming in through the slats of of our bedroom curtains, feeling totally alert and ready to take on the day.
Then I look at the clock and realize that it’s 4:15 am. And then I curse my ineffective blinds.
The surprisingly complicated question of when Midsummer is celebrated
Midsummer is a feast celebrating the summer solstice, which is when the North Pole is tilted towards the sun to the greatest degree possible, giving the Northern Hemisphere its longest day of the year (source).
The Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute says that the summer solstice will occur on June 21, while Wikipedia says it will occur on June 20. Clearly, the best thing to do is play it safe and celebrate both days.
All the same, this is Sweden, and choosing which date to celebrate Midsummer would never be as simple as just going with the date of the summer solstice.
Starting around 300 AD, the Christian church was in a tizzy about this heathen celebration, so they re-baptized it as Johannes döparens dag, aka the birthday of John the Dope, coolest kid ever. Either that, or it’s the birthday of St. John the Baptist.
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is on June 24, so for a while that’s when Midsummer was held. Nowadays, people have forgotten about the religious significance of the day again, so Midsummer is officially held on the Saturday that falls between June 20 and June 26.
And yet, Midsummer Day still isn’t when you’re going to be celebrating Midsummer.
We’re in Sweden, so of course we have to celebrate everything a day in advance.
So there you have it. Midsummer is just the shorthand for the holiday – if you’re in Sweden, you’ll be celebrating on Midsummer’s Eve, or Midsommarafton. Which is to say that you’ll be celebrating on the Friday that falls between June 19 and 25.
What to do before Midsummer’s Eve
Tomorrow is Thursday, the Day Before the Day Before Midsummer, Midsummer’s Eve’s Eve, and it is your last day to buy alcohol before Midsummer. (It’s also the last day to buy groceries except from the really big grocery stores, so don’t wait until the last minute to buy your Midsummer feast.)
For those of you who are new to this country, listen carefully now. I PITY THE FOOL who goes to Systembolaget at 5 pm on the day before Midsummer’s Eve. I PITY THE FOOL.
You think you know Swedish people – those kind, gentle, law-abiding, nature-loving, peaceful folk. And no, none of those descriptors is incorrect.
But let me tell you, enter Systembolaget in the final hours before a holiday and LO, YOU WILL SEE A DARK SIDE OF HUMANITY.
Ok, you’ve been warned. Onto the next thing.
The food and drink selections for Midsummer are pretty traditional: fish, boiled new potatoes, cheese, salad, maybe some meat, pickled herring, crisp bread, enough liquor to drown a marching band, and a strawberry layer cake.
I’m really sorry to break it to you. If you haven’t already pickled your own herring, it’s probably too late. You’ll have to buy it from the store.
If you get started early today, then you might still have time to flavor your own Akvavit like my friend Anna and I did last year. Akvavit/aquavit is a strong liquor flavored with either dill or caraway or both that you drink in shots as an accompaniment to your herring.
On Midsummer’s Eve, shots and herring go hand-in-hand, so… brace yourself, I guess. If you really want to impress your Swedish-speaking hosts, tell them to drick varannan vatten. The word tönt is totally a compliment.
For a milder alternative to all the shots, check out the recipe I shared last year for bål, a fresh-tasting fruit punch. You can also make an alcohol-free version.
What to expect on Midsummer’s Eve
The first thing you’ll want to do is get up early to collect as many wildflowers as you can. You’ll need them to make your own Midsummer’s Head Wreath.
It is really fun and much easier than it looks. If you’re really worried about it not turning out, you can always get a piece of wire and use it as a base. Otherwise, all you need are flowers and string.
Once you’ve got your head wreath ready, get yourself to the party!
From the two Midsummer’s Eve parties I’ve been to in Sweden, here’s a loose idea of what to expect:
- Light drinking, snacks, and socializing
- Games – one year, it was a trivia obstacle course; another year, it was more like an adult field day, with relay races and candy-eating competitions and, of course, the timeless race to see who can chug a beer that fastest. Don’t drink too much before the games if you have athletic friends.
- Raising the Midsummer pole, dancing around it and singing that you’re a little frog
- Feast!! This is also about the time when it starts to drizzle…
- More feast, more drinking, and lots of singing. Most hosts provide a little booklet with the lyrics to the songs, so if you can read Swedish, you are safe. Otherwise, just look generally delighted and keep drinking.
- Strawberry layer cake
- Full on party
It’s a long day. And then, on top of that, you have the opportunity to channel the power of Midsummer Day to help foretell who you are going to marry. It didn’t work for me last year because I did it on the wrong day… but I won’t be trying again this year.
It involves collecting flowers and climbing over fences in total silence and then sleeping with the flowers under your pillow – get the full story at my blog post from last year, Very Superstitious.
What to expect on Midsummer
If you’re staying with your friends out in the countryside or in the archipelago, there’s probably going to be some sort of brunch, or at least a breakfast period where everyone crawls towards the coffee and starts whining about the lack of pizzerias out in the middle of nowhere.
If you’re at home, then you’ll probably do a very similar crawl for the coffee, then spend the next half hour trying to find a pizza place that’s open and will deliver.
Don’t worry. You have about six months to recover before you’ll be expected to drink shots again at Christmas.
Midsummer’s Eve is my favorite day of the year in Sweden – I hope that you have a great time celebrating the sun, whether this is your first Midsummer party or your fifteenth!
To learn more about Midsummer (and for recipes and instructions for pickled herring, aquavit, bål, and flower head wreaths), check out these posts on blogs.sweden.se!
Poached cold salmon with dill mayonnaise [Food blog]
Classic Swedish Midsummer Cake [Food blog]
Celebrating Midsummer at Farsta Gård [Photo blog]