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The many faces of Midsummer: a look at Nordic solstice celebrations

A Midsummer night’s diversity in the Nordic nations

In the Nordic countries, Midsummer is a radiant festival, much more than merely saluting the longest day of the year. It’s a vivid jubilee that warmly ushers in the summer following a lengthy, sombre winter. Packed with deep historical roots and diverse customs, this tradition reflects the vibrancy of Nordic culture and its love for nature, community and summer solstice magic. From Sweden’s merry dances around the maypole, Finland’s awe-inspiring bonfires, to Denmark’s fascinating witch-burning rituals, each celebration weaves a captivating tale, presenting an enticing tapestry of the rich and colourful Nordic cultural heritage.

Photography courtesy of Linda Alfvegren and Odd Molly

Nordic Midsummer guide

When is Midsummer celebrated?

Midsummer’s timing is intrinsically tied to the astronomical calendar. The celebration marks the summer solstice, which typically occurs on or around June 21st each year. This is the longest day and shortest night of the year, a symbol of peak summertime when the Earth’s axis tilts the Northern Hemisphere closest to the sun. This period has been revered by various cultures worldwide due to its significant impact on the climate and crops, and in the Nordics, it takes on a particularly festive character, rich with centuries-old traditions and communal gatherings.

However, the exact date of the Midsummer festivities may vary slightly from country to country in the Nordics. While it’s typically celebrated on the weekend closest to the summer solstice, some countries have specific dates set for the festivities. For example, in Sweden and Finland, Midsummer’s Eve is a public holiday, traditionally celebrated on the weekend between June 19th and 26th. This variance adds to the uniqueness of each country’s celebration, ensuring that Midsummer is not just a date on a calendar but an exciting season filled with joy, camaraderie and a deep appreciation for the natural world.

Nordic Midsummer guide
Nordic Midsummer guide

How did it all get started?

The origins of Midsummer date back to pagan times, when the people of the North believed that magical creatures roamed the earth on the shortest night of the year. These beliefs, intertwined with agricultural practices, formed the basis of many traditions that are still carried on today. Many celebrations revolve around elements of nature, underlining the deep connection between the Nordic people and their environment.

Over time, with the spread of Christianity, Midsummer’s pagan roots have been overlaid with Christian symbolism. However, the celebration remains a tribute to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the triumph of light over darkness and a time to celebrate the fertility of the earth and the joy of life.

Nordic Midsummer guide

How is Midsummer celebrated in Sweden?

Swedes take their Midsommar celebrations seriously. In fact, it’s one of the most important holidays in the Swedish calendar, second only to Christmas. The festivities start with the picking of flowers and making of wreaths, which are used to decorate the iconic Maypole – a key feature of Swedish Midsummer. Dancing around the Maypole, while singing traditional songs (often about small frogs), is a beloved tradition that brings communities together.

Food is a significant part of the celebration, with the Midsummer feast showcasing the best of Swedish summer produce. The menu typically includes pickled herring, boiled new potatoes with fresh dill, sour cream and chives, and for dessert, strawberries – often served with cream. This hearty meal is usually accompanied by cold beer and schnapps, with each drink followed by a cheerful Swedish drinking song.

Nordic Midsummer guide

How is Midsummer celebrated in Finland?

In Finland, Midsummer, known as Juhannus, is a celebration that combines elements of nature, magic and relaxation. As a nod to the country’s pagan past, Finns light massive bonfires, or kokko, believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming harvest. It’s also a popular belief that the night of Juhannus is filled with magic, and various rituals are performed for predicting the future or attracting a future spouse.

The feast is as integral to Juhannus as it is in Sweden, with Finnish Midsummer delicacies often including grilled sausages, new potatoes, fish and a variety of summer salads. The night is completed with sauna, a cornerstone of Finnish culture, where it is believed that a special sauna elf resides, protecting the sauna and its bathers.

Nordic Midsummer guide
Nordic Midsummer guide

How is Midsummer celebrated in Denmark?

In Denmark, Midsummer, or Sankt Hans Aften, is a slightly different affair compared to its Swedish and Finnish counterparts. While it shares the communal spirit and the joyous feasting, the Danish highlight is the tradition of burning a witch made of straw and cloth on a bonfire. This ritual symbolizes the warding off of evil spirits, much like the Finnish kokko. The burning is often accompanied by a chorus of the traditional Midsummer song, Vi elsker vort land (We Love Our Country).

The Danish Midsummer meal often includes a variety of traditional dishes, such as pickled herring, liver pate and cheese, accompanied by rye bread. To wash it all down, there’s often beer and snaps, a Danish spirit typically infused with various botanicals. The night is not complete without enjoying the comfort of a communal bonfire, under the twilight sky, reminiscing and creating new memories.

Nordic Midsummer guide

How is Midsummer celebrated in Norway?

Midsummer in Norway, also known as Sankthansaften, is a more low-key affair compared to the elaborate celebrations in Sweden and Finland. Norwegians often retreat to their summer houses or cabins along the fjords and coastline, turning the celebration into a private, intimate gathering of family and friends. Bonfires are a common sight, symbolizing the light of the summer solstice and warding off evil spirits.

The food served during Midsummer typically reflects Norway’s rich seafood tradition. Freshly caught fish, usually salmon or trout, is a must-have for the feast, along with a range of summer salads and the famous Norwegian flatbread. Dessert often consists of fresh strawberries, symbolizing the bounty of summer.

Guide summer Iceland
Nordic Midsummer guide

How is Midsummer celebrated in Iceland?

Despite its northerly latitude and often chilly weather even in summer, Iceland also celebrates Midsummer, known as Jónsmessa, albeit in a more subdued fashion. This day is wrapped in folklore and superstition, with legends saying that cows gain the power of speech, seals become human, and rolling naked in the dew can have health benefits.

The long hours of daylight – it doesn’t really get dark at this time of year – allow for extended outdoor activities. Many Icelanders use this time to go on hikes, spend time in nature or attend concerts and music festivals that are held around the country. Traditional Icelandic foods, often including lamb and a variety of seafood, are enjoyed during the celebration.

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