Glad midsommar – happy midsummer/summer solstice!
Although the summer solstice was celebrated (or acknowledged) worldwide already a couple of days ago, today is the day when Sweden celebrates midsummer eve, a day full of pagan traditions, dinner tables decorated with most importantly herring, salmon, fresh seafood, new potatoes, sour cream, and as a beloved dessert, fresh strawberries and whipped cream! For most people this day is about coming together with friends and family, a day of happiness and celebration, comparable with for example the Norwegian proud traditions and celebrations of their national day on May 17th.
So what is it really that we celebrate? Well let us start with a brief look at how the Swedish (Nordic) tradition is connected with those of more ancient cultures, where the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, was associated with the eternal cycle of life.
In Egypt, for example, the summer solstice was identified with rebirth and fertility as it coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile. In accordance with the mythological tradition, it was Isis’ tears for mourning Osiris that led the Nile to rise, resulting in the life-giving nourishment for the fields and previously dried landscape. For the ancient Greeks the summer solstice marked the first day of the year with fertility festivals dedicated to deities of agriculture. The Romans, being no different, celebrated the Vestalia, a festival honoring Vesta, goddess of the hearth. This was the only time during the year when women were allowed to enter the sanctuary and stand face to face with the divine image of Vesta. The word itself, solstice, derives from the Latin term ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘sun standing still’. Pliny the Elder, describes the summer solstice (and the Sun) as "He furnishes the world with light and removes darkness; he obscures and he illuminates the rest of the stars; he regulates in accord with nature’s precedent the changes of the seasons and the continuous rebirth of the year; he dissipates the gloom of heaven and even calms the storm clouds of the mind of man".
In more northern parts of Europe, including modern Germany and UK, summer solstice was greeted with bonfires that included rituals and premonitions of how fertile the fields of grain would be. For the Scandinavians, summer solstice was essential for the seafarers, who at the time came together to discuss legal matters and resolve any problems. Similar to the Celts, our Nordic ancestors celebrated the day with bonfires, but also by visiting wells believed to have healing powers. All ancient traditions, also including those of cultures further away, such as the Native Americans, are associated with fertility rites, of course focusing on the great power and life giving rays of the sun. The bonfires that were lit in the more northern European countries were lit to protect the people from evil spirits, similar to the original celebration of Lucia in Sweden (when candles are lit during the darkest period). Swedish traditions are very similar to the most ancient traditions of the Mediterranean cultures, originating in Neolithic rites connected with rebirth and fertility. Sun worship is documented from at least Swedish Bronze Age and some of the ceremonies, incl. dancing, are documented and preserved as rock carving (known in Swedish as hällristningar). This was the time to sacrifice and ask for divine assistance in a fruitful year to come. The term midsummer is indeed a Swedish name, Midsommar, signifying the lightest period of the year, especially in the northernmost parts of the country where the sun never sets. As said above, this day is still today considered one of the most important national celebrations of the entire year.
Preparing for Midsummer, each house and home was thoroughly cleaned, always including stables and barns. Today, just like before, Midsummer is celebrated outdoors in an open green area with a large green maypole/midsummer-pole placed in the very center. The maypole is considered a symbol of fertility, being a tall wooden pole with a crossing smaller pole holding two large rings, all dressed with leaves and flowers. Still today both youngsters and adults dance around the pole (ring dances) while singing and performing movements connected to the animal world (such as the song “the little frogs”/”små grodorna”), or practical traditions connected to Midsummer.
Another very important ritual among girls (of all ages) is to collect seven (or nine) different flowers which are to be placed under their pillow to evoke a lucid dream of their future husband. The flowers were to be picked under complete silence and each sort should be picked at a different place from the other. Another aspect of the flowers was the belief that they had a healing power and therefore should be picked during night time.
Today friends and families are gathered at open outdoor spaces in the green, bringing with them picnic baskets enjoying the positive energy of all people gathered. The evening will be celebrated with a great feast and the celebrations will continue throughout the night and early morning. It is a day when you as a Swede living abroad really miss your birth home, your family and friends. Midsummer is the day when all things being Swedish come together and when you feel proud of still acknowledging pagan rituals and the most fundamental things in life – life itself, fertility and rebirth!
|Flavoured herring - a typical Swedish dish on Midsummer|
We wish you all a wonderful (Swedish) Midsummer eve and may the symbolism of our most beloved holiday shine upon you all!
|Tylösand, Halmstad, Sweden: this beach will be crowded with celebrators tonight!|