Living in Europe for almost five years taught me the importance of immersing yourself in your region of residency, taking part in its culture, events, observances and community interactions. In the region where I lived, this meant going to beer barrel rolling races and pig catching competitions. Literally every soul in the village turned up for these colorful events.
Then living in Alaska for another almost-five-years taught me the importance of embracing the sun while you have it. Oh boy, did it ever.
There is something about living in darkness for so long in winter – as one does in Alaska or northern Europe – that really makes you feel alive when the sun comes back into your world. In fact, I also learned that the human body reacts so magnificently to longer days, such as through Summer Solstice when the sun is up for 24 hours. The extra sunlight boosts your mood and changes your energy. I remember taking the children out to play or going on some wild adventure for several hours on a given summer afternoon, only to realize it was 9:00 p.m., still sunny and we had not yet become hungry for dinner.
As soon as the sunlight warms your soul from one dawn to another in Arctic Circle geographies, the sun starts quickly disappearing from Summer Solstice forward. In Alaska, this means losing an average of five minutes of sunlight each day from June 22 forward. Five minutes of sun loss does not sound like much, until you live through it. By December 21’s Winter Solstice, sunny summer days give way to total darkness around the clock.
So take it from me: The sun is a gift and one to be celebrated. The Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Icelanders feel the same way. While in Alaska, Summer Solstice seemed mostly celebrated by people going out to all night street parties as a sort of precursor to July 4th, Midsummer – as this time is called in Europe – involves different kinds of events. Sweden’s version of Midsummer is particularly bright and lovely, true to the Swedish embrace of all things “outdoors.”
Let’s explore northern European Midsummer celebrations. Maybe we can all learn a little bit more about embracing nature around us and how to join together with family and friends in a fresh way. Then check out our step-by-step guide to celebrating your own Midsummer in Swedish style.
Swedish Midsummer: Midsommar
If you have ventured into an Ikea, you know that “Haj” is “hello” in Swedish. You also get that this beautiful country’s people embrace design simplicity, ingenuity and respect of natural resources. Now you can brag more about your language and cultural skills, as you flaunt general understanding of Sweden’s Midsommar.
Midsummer is the second most important holiday in this country, after Christmas. Swedes celebrate the year’s longest days on the third or fourth Saturday of June in spectacular fashion. Just as for Christmas, the celebrations start the night before on Midsummer Eve. Schools close and most families take an annual holiday in the countryside for five days.
Part of this week’s festivities – a big part – is the traditional lunch table. Like our Thanksgiving, food and drink play a major role along with other traditional customs. No Swedish Midsummer would be complete without schnapps, new potatoes, savory cake, cured salmon or smoked salmon, and pickled herring. Oh, and do not forget the pretty strawberry cake. After all of this food and drink, you are primed to join other villagers and holiday travelers around the maypole for some dancing.
Overall, Swedish Midsummer is about celebrating nature and family, however you define family. During this week of celebration you see parades of people in traditional Swedish costumes and playing band music as they happily make their way through the villages and to maypoles. Even just setting up the maypole has its traditional side, with people coming from all over the village to take part. Floral wreaths also play a role, adorning the heads and homes of both young and old.
Danish Midsummer: Sankthansaften
Midsummer in Denmark is known as Sankthansaften. Broken down to its parts, the word Sankthansaften translates as Saint (Sankt) John’s (Hans) Eve (Aften). In essence, the day commemorates St. John the Baptist while celebrating national pride and Summer Solstice. Although Sankthansaften is today celebrated by the Christians of Denmark, it was once a Pagan celebration.
Midsummer was also when medieval doctors gathered special herbs needed throughout the coming year for use as cures.
As with other countries’ celebration of Midsummer, the Danish version focuses on joining together with friends and family for food and celebration. But in Denmark, the day typically ends at one of the community bonfires or a bonfire of your own.
Danish Midsummer takes place on June 23, the eve of St. John the Baptist’s birthdate. Like American Halloween, the observation combines symbolism, magic and superstitions. On top of some of the big bonfires on Midsummer evening, you can see a puppet of a witch being burned. This symbolizes abolishment of all things evil, quite literally mimicking days of old when women believed to be witches were burned at the stake. Some people stuff the witch puppet with fireworks for an even more spectacular climax to the day’s events. If you can get past that morbid connection to days gone by, it is a time of fun and games.
Like the Danes, Midsummer is celebrated by Norwegians on June 23. Also like celebrations in Denmark, the Norway version usually includes evening bonfires under the name Sankthansaften. But the Norwegians host mock weddings between couples of all ages to symbolize new life, instead of burning witches in bonfires.
Icelandic Midsummer: Jónsmessa
If you think Denmark’s version of Midsummer and its inclusion of witch burning goes a bit dark, you are sure to think Iceland’s Midsummer is slightly strange. In fact, Icelanders focus more on folklore and superstition for their Summer Solstice than their Nordic counterparts. Iceland celebrates on the 24th of June each year, unlike the Danes and Norwegians, who celebrate the day before.
In Iceland, Midsummer is called Jónsmessa. This still harkens back to St. John the Baptist’s birthday, albeit without a real religious connection.
On June 24, Icelanders believe cows can speak and seals turn into humans. You read that right. They also believe that rolling around naked in the morning dew brings good fortune. Holiday die-hards still do that naked roll on Jónsmessa mornings today.
Of course, their laws allow for it, whereas here you will be arrested for indecent exposure, along with the folks sent into holding cells because they believe cows are talking. Despite these cultural differences, Midsummer proves to be a day of celebration, verve and excitement, if for no other reason than the presence of that beautiful summer sun.