So, what’s the strangest holiday you can think of?
Perhaps you’d say Halloween, an American creation which – as far as I can tell – consists of children dressing up as witches, ghosts, zombies, and all manner of less-than-kosher creatures and visiting the homes of strangers to ask for candy. Or maybe you’d say Diwali, a five-day Indian festival that involves enough fireworks to rival the energy output of the sun. And don’t forget Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of the dead in which people honor their deceased loved ones by eating skulls made of sugar.
Following basic logic, you’re probably thinking that next I’m going to say that the Swedish Midsummer is the strangest of them all, a holiday that, with its dancing around maypoles and eating more than even an elephant can stomach, makes about as much sense as O.J. Simpson and that infamous car chase.
I could say that but, honestly, Midsummer makes perfect sense. Heck, compared to other traditions it seems – dare I say it – downright normal. Allow me to explain.
Dancing around a maypole is one of the highlights of Midsummer. Photo: Mikael Häggström/Public Domain
June 25 is Midsummer, one of the biggest holidays of the year in Sweden. Traditional events include raising and dancing around a huge maypole (majstång or midsommarstång), an activity that attracts families, neighbors, wild animals, and pretty much anything with a pulse in Sweden. People listen to traditional Swedish music, and some even wear traditional folk costumes that, personally, look much better than those highly stereotyped Bavarian beer maid outfits or whatever you call that decidedly bizarre getup yodelers wear. In addition, many girls wear crowns made of wild springs and wildflowers on their heads. Potatoes, herring, chives, sour cream, beer, snaps and the famous Swedish strawberries are usually eaten, and a variety of drinks are consumed – proving, once again, that you can’t have a holiday in Sweden without eating something.
Like many other things in Sweden (see: winter), the key to surviving Midsummer is endurance. Endurance in the face of a gastronomic smorgasbord that could make all but the hardiest faint. Endurance in the face of talking to relatives you haven’t seen since Christmas or longer. And endurance in knowing that, thanks to almost 24 hours of summertime sunshine, the party might very well go on all day and all night.
But think about it: if you lived in a country where there’s frost on the ground six months out of the year, almost 24 hours of darkness in winter, and occasionally home to some of the coldest winter temperatures on the planet, wouldn’t you want to celebrate once the sun and warm temperatures arrived? Of course you would. And what better way to celebrate than on one of the warmest and sunniest days of the year?
Humans aren't the only ones who love Midsummer weather. Photo: Ben Mack
There’s some interesting history behind Midsummer, too. Because Midsummer was thought to be one of the times of the year when magic was strongest, it was considered a good night to perform rituals to look into the future. Traditionally, young people picked bouquets of seven or nine different flowers and put them under their pillow in the hopes of dreaming about their future spouse. In the past it was believed that herbs picked at Midsummer were highly potent, and water from springs could bring good health. Greenery placed over houses and barns were supposed to bring good fortune and health to people and livestock. To decorate with greens was called att maja (to may), and may be the origin of the modern word majstång. Other researchers say the term came from German merchants who raised the maypole in June because the Swedish climate made it impossible to find the necessary greens and flowers in May, and continued to call it a maypole. Today, however, it is most commonly called a midsommarstång (literally “midsummer’s pole”).
Another Midsummer tradition is that unmarried girls should – before going to sleep on midsummer’s eve – pick seven kinds of flowers and jump over seven roundpole fences and then sleep with the flowers under a pillow. Supposedly, during the night they would then dream about who they would get married to. If only things were that simple today, huh?
O.K., so maybe Midsummer is a little strange. But it’s about as Swedish as anything can get, as quintessentially part of the country’s heritage as meatballs, julmust, and red wooden houses.
Midsummer is a great time to hang out with friends. Photo: Tamar Amashukeli
And if you’re a lonely student looking to see what the big deal about dancing around a maypole really is, never fear: many towns and cities offer public Midsummer celebrations (the annual Midsummer celebrations held in Stockholm’s Skansen Park and Leksand in Dalarna are said to be the largest in the world).
If you’re lucky enough to be in Sweden this time of year, go out and enjoy Midsummer. I promise there won’t be any kids ringing your door at 11 p.m. asking for candy.