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Midsummer celebrations - one of the oldest and most distinguished festivals in the Nordic countries

Midsummer tradition
1936: Midsummer celebration at the Alberts' family in Tulebo Nordgård, Västergötland. Photo: KW Gullers / Mölndal City Museum (CC BY-SA)

Midsummer is undeniably one of our biggest domestic and most popular celebrations here in the Nordic countries. But what was actually celebrated?

Today, Midsummer is mostly about spending time with friends, drinking well and eating well, which is certainly what people did in the past. Especially the drinking thing, because after the long winter and spring, food was probably pretty scarce in the old people's booths. But it was still nice. But all our festivals once had a deeper meaning, as Vilhelm Moberg tells us:

1970s: Woman pictured at Midsummer celebrations at Tingsvallen, Stockholm. Photo: Skansen (CC BY-SA)

At Midsummer, the time of the changing of the seasons reaches its peak. It's good to put green twigs in the field - that's where the grain will green up. Then it is good for man and woman to come together - it promotes all the vegetation in the field. Farming practices such as these - ancient in our time - are Swedish examples of this so-called imitative magic, traces of which have been found by scientists among primitive peoples all over the world: man leads the forces of nature by example and shows them how to behave so that life of all kinds may grow and flourish.

Vilhelm Moberg, The Year of the Farmer

The quote above comes from Vilhelm Moberg's little book The Year of the Farmer from 1966, and the text gives us a clue to what Midsummer meant to our Nordic ancestors. Reading about Midsummer on Wikipedia today you will learn that the pre-Christian connections of this holiday in the Nordic countries are "highly speculative" and that in the grey past, Midsummer may not have been celebrated at all. It is, of course, quite absurd to dismiss Midsummer celebrations as some new invention brought by Christianity, given all the traces of paganism that appear in so many sources about this ancient festival. Vilhelm Moberg says it best himself, that "none of the festivals of the year has preserved its pagan origins so clearly to our own day as Midsummer." As with our other great Nordic annual festivals (except for Christmas), the celebration of Midsummer is linked to the life of nature, to its awakening and climaxes - more specifically, to the sun's zenith in the sky - the summer solstice. Moberg writes:

The time of the two great festivals of the year was determined by the course of the sun and was celebrated at its lowest and highest - when the "greatest star in the sky" turned in its course. At Midsummer the sun was at the height of its orbit, and the weekend now celebrated was the great weekend of the sun.

Vilhelm Moberg, The Year of the Farmer
Midsummer Dance Anders Zorn
Midsummer Dance, painting of Anders Zorn (1897) which you can buy in our shop.

Midsummer is also a celebration to annual, for annual growth and salvage. Now the time of sowing is over, the time of growing has begun. In folklore, Midsummer Night, like the original Lucian Night at the winter solstice, was "the night of the great and hidden powers". Albert Eskeröd writes in Parties of the year (1953):

The dew that fell that night, the waters of the springs, the flowers of the garden and the forest, the green branches of the trees, all were filled with a special power. But it was a power for good or ill, for good or for ill, depending on how one had the sense to use it. The dew of the midsummer night, preferably from the graveyard, cured sickness. Dew from the neighbour's meadow, given to their own animals, also gave them power from the neighbour's fodder. Midsummer dew in the flour made good bread. Sourdough was better if you had midsummer dew in it. Sick people rolled naked on the dewy ground of Midsummer night to be free of their suffering.

Albert Eskeröd, Parties of the year (1953)

In order to promote annual growth and a good harvest, maize poles were erected and "corned" with leaves and flowers. As proof of this thesis, the Swedish peasant culture (1969) describes an incident in a Småland parish in the 1860s, where a religious movement decided to cut down the maypole in its rampage. An old farmer who witnessed the event in tears is reported to have said, "Now no more crops grow in our fields." The maypole, or Midsummer pole, is probably one of the things we most strongly associate with Midsummer celebrations today. But in the past, not only were maypoles used, and in some places no poles were erected at all, but instead the Midsummer bonfire was more common - when large fires were lit and danced around through the Midsummer night. The practice of midsummer bonfires is described by Olaus Magnus in the 16th century and is probably older than that. Even today, the tradition of midsummer fires, or St. John fires as it is also known, is common throughout northern Europe - although not as common in Sweden today. Not least because of the state fire bans that usually prevail around Midsummer. Another tradition associated with Midsummer is the planting of green twigs in the fields, for example in Värend in Småland, in the hope that the grain would flourish. I've even stuck a few birch twigs in my fields myself:

I hope for a good harvest of broccoli on the right

It is of course nothing more than a symbolic act, but I think it is a nice and meaningful act that reminds us that life here in the North during 99% of our history has been anything but a bed of roses. In the 10,000 years since the retreat of the ice sheet, right up to the end of the industrial revolution, people here in the north have been completely at the mercy of nature's whims for their survival. A bad harvest could mean starvation - and death. So when I stuck the twigs in the ground, I felt a genuine sense of gratitude. Gratitude that I don't have to worry about whether or not I'll starve to death next winter (as long as Just-In-Time-deliveries to the grocery store continue undisturbed, of course...). Gratitude that I don't have to rely on the harvest of the fields and the forces of nature to put food on the table. Gratitude for the relative peace and freedom I grew up in. Gratitude for the prosperity the past generations have built and left for us to build on. I also feel an equal responsibilityand duty, to make sure my children have as safe and free a childhood as I did.

But not only did they stick green twigs in the fields, they built whole halls of leaves. In many parts of the country, the Midsummer pole is not known in ancient times, In the book Swedish peasant culture (which Vilhelm Moberg had in his personal library) mentions a late note from Göteryd parish in Småland where it tells about the midsummer celebrations, that around the midsummer pole was made in the past a leaf room and inside it was placed a large table. In the leaf hall they then held guild (firm). From Visby Carl Linnaeus 1741:

A few of the huts had been pledged today, but most of them had pledged their houses with Ekelöf, for which purpose we saw the whole of Hästlassen introduced yesterday.

Also from Dalsland, Linnaeus mentions a few years later that leaf huts were built in several places. The custom was so widespread that the state decided that a ban was needed to curb the Midsummer celebrations. From Swedish Peasant Culture:

The significance of these halls for the Midsummer celebrations is shown by the 1734 prohibition of "the eating up of praise halls, and praising in churches and elsewhere, for which young beehives were used.

The government's ban on the construction of deciduous trees may have had something to do with protecting the growth of the forest, but it had little impact on public morals. In both Småland and Dalarna, people have celebrated Midsummer with arbours since late times.

1907: Midsummer in Sörbäcken, Lima parish, Dalarna. Company in a leafy rowing boat. Wilhelm Wahlberg and Lassar-Johannes Persson stand at the oars. The others are Gilbert Johansson, the sisters Albertina Wahlberg from Orsa and Anna Persson from Heden, Olga Wahlberg and Hildur Johansson. Photo: Per Persson / Nordic Museum

From Kumla in Närke, we can read in a parish meeting minutes from 1766 about a farmer who asked not to leave leaves in the church on Midsummer's Day, because there were few leaves. But the parish replied that his request could not be granted, "as it has been an ancient custom". Green boughs, leafy halls, flowering Midsummer's poles, what do they have in common if not that they are all symbols of fertility? The custom of wedding processions with "summer brides" or so-called "flower brides" that occurred among the youth at the spring and early summer festivals has also been interpreted as reminders of ancient fertility rites. In Olav Tryggvason's tale, which Swedish peasant culture refers to, it is told, for example, that the Swedes gave a woman to the god Seed as a wife, when his image was carried around in their land.

Even in living memory, for example, at midsummer weddings in Småland and Dalarna, the bride has embraced the maypole - obviously to promote fertility in the marriage. It is therefore clear that there is a link between the maypole or the midsummer tree and our ancestors' fertility religion with its magical rites.

Vilhelm Moberg, The Year of the Farmer

This brings us to the question of what Midsummer celebrations were really about in the beginning. Midsummer is a celebration for the renewal of life, nature and the generations.

1969: Kerstin in Forsebol, Dalsland, with a midsummer bouquet. Photo: Stig Olsson / Vänersborg Museum (CC BY-SA)

Today, we no longer live under the constant threat of famine, so it's understandable that generation after generation has let go of more and more of our ancient farming ways. Only a fraction of Sweden's population has any fields or vegetable land nowadays. The vast majority live in cities and buy all their food in the shops. But it wasn't so long ago that life in Sweden looked different. Just 149 years ago, when my great-grandfather Johan Johansson was alive, Sweden and especially Norrland experienced the worst famine in living memory. Under the miscarriage years 1867-1869 many had to live on bark bread, old boots and porridge made from lichens. Many packed their bags and headed for America. Many starved to death. That's why I'm going to have gratitude in my thoughts during the Midsummer celebrations. Of course, I also hope for good annual growth and harvesting, and expect many kilos of potatoes to fill the earth cellar. Just in case the shelves at the ICA are empty this winter.

Happy Midsummer!

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