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Swedish Midsummer – An Ancient Nordic Holiday
This article is the result of a conversation with my Swedish friend who educated me about the treasured Swedish national holiday Midsummer. Enjoy.
Midsummer is an annual Swedish national holiday celebrated on the first Friday after the summer solstice.
Midsummer dates back to the time of the Vikings far before Christianity was introduced; some traditions remain the same while others have changed with time. According to ancient folklore midsummer is a night of magic as are most of the ancient Swedish holidays. When Sweden became widely Christian the church wanted to bring midsummer together with the celebration of John the Baptist's Day, June 24th. In contemporary Sweden, Midsummer's Eve falls between the 20th and 24th of June, following a parliamentary decision in 1953.
During Midsummer Swedes decorate their homes with birch branches and flowers. Midsummer starts with building the flower covered Maypole, a symbol of fertility. In many parts of Sweden people still dress up in traditional clothing; most common of which is the rim of flowers people wear on their heads. Around midday they will dance a mix of traditional, older and newer dances, around the maypole.
Traditional Midsummer foods include different kinds of pickled herring, fresh potatoes cooked with dill, fish and sour cream with chives. Cheese with herbs, dry bread, meatballs and small sausages are also common during the feasts. The kids drink soda or juice, while adults drink beer and schnapps. The dessert consists of strawberries with cream or ice cream or strawberry cake.
Midsummer celebrations continue well into the night. According to ancient traditions girls pick different kinds of flowers, climb over nine fences and go to bed without saying a word. When they fall asleep with the flowers tucked under their pillow they are meant to dream of their true love.
As contemporary Sweden is primarily atheist, Modern celebrations are held with friends and family without church influences.
The true details of the celebrations during the early times of the Vikings are little known and hard to come by. Vikings started to write fairly late; the first form of which was the carvings of runes on stones. or big stone tablets as late as AD 150. The first detailed documentation was recorded during the Swedish period of Christianization.
What has been gleamed from ancient Nordic carvings is that Midsummer was held as a fertility feast for the Gods. They held a festival where animal sacrifices where made to strengthen the alliance between the humans and their gods. Vikings made offerings of food and farming tools for fertility, and people drank and danced.
Myths of ancient sex orgies abound but this has not been confirmed by experts. Mead, or honey wine was popular among Vikings and they are believed to have become quite intoxicated on this special occasion.
A sort of maypole is believed to have existed already at that time, but it did not look like it does today. The bar consisted of two parts, a long pole carried by the men, and a ring worn by the women. Later the pole went through a makeover and nowadays it looks like a cross with two circles hanging of each end of the vertical pole. There are historians that claim that the maypole came from Germany as late as 14 century.
The maypole is commonly thought to be a phallic symbol. But there is not a consensus, and some experts believe that its form is derived from the shape of the Christian cross. Many historians agree that it is covered by flowers as a symbol of fertility; symbolizing the hope that the summer would bring bountiful crops.
When it arrived The Church tried to get rid of this hedonistic (in their eyes) celebration; both by banning it, and trying to sever Midsummer from its pagan roots by tying it to the birthday of John the Baptist. None of these attempts turned out to be very successful.
Folklore and magic:
Mythologically Midsummer was seen as a festival where the supernatural world and the mundane world of humans would mingle and interact; their borders porous.
Magic was believed to be stronger and more potent during Midsummer. Dew drops were considered magical and used to cure disease and to treat wounds and injuries. When this magical dew was used for baking it would make loaves larger and tastier. Walking in the dew covered grass was believed to bestow people with good health for the rest of the year. Some people would drink water from special sacred springs to improve their health and vigour. Birch twigs were considered to contain magical powers and could be used as a bandage. To add a few leaves in the bath water was said to alleviate pain.
Midsummer was also the night when the fairies came up to dance among the mortals and if you were lucky, you could spot a troll lurking behind the trees. Treasure seekers had the opportunity to find enchanted treasures from a magical world that became visible to humans on this day. If they managed to gather them in silence they would keep them – but if they broke the silence, they would be lost and gone forever.
There were believed to be different ways to divine the future during the festival. One method of divination was to eat something salty such as salted herring or salty porridge (also called dream porridge). The person would then go to bed without drinking water. Their future partner would then appear in a dream and offer the dreamer something to quench their thirst. The drink could also say something about whether the married couple would be rich or poor.
Another way to glimpse the future was to wait by a crossroads on a large stone in absolute silence, the future would then reveal itself in the form of a sign such as smells or noises.
Some Midsummer traditions live on in Sweden to this day. The most popular surviving tradition is for young women to pick 7-9 different flowers to help foretell who she is meant to marry. But there are rules for it to succeed. Among them is to climb over the same number of fences, as flowers you have picked, and to then not say a word before going to sleep. The bouquet can also be hung from the ceiling to keep everyone in the house healthy and happy. A couple of young birch trees outside the front door also brings happiness to the people living in the house.