Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Midsommar (Midsummer)

Size doesn't matter. 
Every June, Swedes throughout the world gather around a large, green pole and dance and sing and drink. They pretend to be frogs, they pretend to be little old ladies, they pretend to wash clothes and go to church. And they hold hands and skip and dance around the Midsummer pole. Then they eat herring, drink akvavit while singing, hide from the rain, maybe go for a midnight skinny dip in the closest body of water, and if they’re really fulfilling stereotypes, they have sex. All this to celebrate the longest day of the year. Or the shortest night of the year. I suppose it depends on your perspective.

Just like so many of the other Swedish holidays, the big day is not the actual day, it’s the eve. Midsommarafton. Midsummer Eve. Unlike Shakespeare, who was dreaming on the actual night of Midsummer, the Swedes like to get an early start. It might be because of all those supernatural beings hanging out that night. If you’ve been paying attention to the Swedish holidays, you’ve probably noticed a theme. Eves and evils. Or at least eves and supernatural beings. But that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The holiday has been around for a while—at least since the 1500s and probably much earlier than that. Midsummer used to be celebrated on June 24, which happens to be John the Baptist’s feast day. That meant that Midsummer Eve was always June 23rd. But back in 1953, that changed. The Swedish government decided that Midsummer Eve would always fall on a Friday, which means that Midsummer in Sweden can be any day between June 20 and June 26. That’s good for Swedes. Mostly because it ensures that there is no chance that the holiday will fall on a Saturday or Sunday leaving someone with one less day off from work.

Moving it to a Friday also means folks have a couple of days to recover. Because Midsummer is a drinking holiday. In 2014, according to Systembolaget’s sales statistics, over one million customers came in on the Thursday before Midsummer Eve. And the week of Midsummer? Over 2.5 million. Keep in mind that Midsummer week is only four days long because Systembolaget is closed Friday and Saturday due to the holiday and always closed on Sundays. Those 2.5 million customers bought over 14 million liters of alcohol in one form or another. Sweden has a population of just under 10 million. Like I said, Midsummer is a drinking holiday.

But, thanks to some pretty solid alcohol problems in Sweden in the late 1800s and early 1900s, drinking akvavit with a meal became more common. The idea being, of course, that a little food in your stomach will do you good. Luckily, a lot of those 14 million liters are consumed at dinner. Your typical Midsummer menu will include five things. Only three of those are foods. Since the early 1900s folks have been eating herring and potatoes for the meal; strawberries for dessert. Beer and akvavit have wet many a whistle in Sweden. Drinking songs will most likely break out, the classic being “Helan Går.” While the Midsummer menu might be relatively new, “Helan Går” has been around since at least 1845 and, according to ethnologist Mats Rehnberg, much earlier. Folklorist Christina Mattsson points out that August Strindberg even tried convincing people that it should be viewed with the same reverence as the Swedish national anthem. For some folks, that’s probably rings true today.

This holiday isn’t just about drinking though. There’s a big pole standing erect in the middle of the celebration. It’s called either the Midsommarstång, Midsummer pole, or the Majstång, Maypole. And it has nothing to do with the month of May. At least not in Swedish. Maja as a verb means to decorate with green leaves. And once that pole is dressed up in green leaves, people dance around it. Sometimes they dance traditional folk dances in their traditional folk costumes and sing traditional folk songs. Sometimes they pretend to be frogs and hop around. Sometimes they pretend to be washing their clothes every day of the week before heading to church on Sunday. Because people like to dance and sing and celebrate and pretend they are someone else.

Local folk dance enthusiasts cutting a rug. Or a wooden stage.  
That pole, despite what remains of my 13-year old self says, is not phallic according to Jonas Engman over at the Nordic Museum. Instead, the fact that we see it as phallic is more a comment on the way folks saw the world back in the late 1800s. I blame Freud. Of course, the idea has stuck around. Get your mind out of the gutter, is the lesson here. Sometimes a tree is just a tree. Not a penis. And sometimes a big, green pole with hoops to the left and right is just a big, green pole with hoops to the left and right. Not a penis. It might be celebrating the changing of the seasons, the greening of the pastures, the growing of the crops. It might be some sort of reference to pagan beliefs in sacred trees. It might be symbolic of the world axis. Maybe folks just needed something to dance around.

Grow up. It's not a penis.
Picture from Bohusläns museum via DigitaltMuseum.se
"Midsommardans vid Badhuset, Lysekil" by Hugo Hallgren.
But just because the Midsummer pole is not a penis, doesn’t mean there can’t be some sexy thoughts. Or at least marriage thoughts. Because there are so many supernatural beings out and about on Midsummer, it’s a good time to look into the future. One way of doing that is to place a bunch of flowers under your pillow. Usually it is seven or nine different types. Or sometimes it’s the handpicked wreath of flowers that you’ve worn atop your head all night. Either way, those flowers, if placed under your pillow at night, will help you to dream about the person you will spend the rest of your life with. No word on whether or not this is a nightmare.

If you are suffering from nightmares, or just suffering from some sort of health problem, there are plenty of powerful plants to collect. But maybe you’re tired of tramping through fields and meadows and forests trying to cure what ails ya. Have no fear. On Midsummer Eve, you can strip down and roll around in the Midsummer dew to cure your ailments. Without even meaning to, many Swedes still today adhere to this timeless tradition.

Midsummer has become one of those quintessential Swedish holidays. It’s the stuff of stereotypes and movies and beer commercials. It’s a time of tradition, but traditions that have changed dramatically over the last 500 years. Those traditions are changing today and will continue to change tomorrow. They always change. Sometimes those changes are for the better if it means not having to see Grandpa Sven rolling around naked in the grass trying to fix his creaky hip.

Regardless of those changes, for many, Midsummer is a marker of Swedishness. A time to identify as Swedish, whatever that means. For others, it’s a time to identify as part of a family or of a group of friends. Still others will simply eat some herring, a potato or two, and take a shot of akvavit and call it a day. And then there are plenty who don’t do a damn thing. Midsummer Eve is just another Friday. Like all holidays, there is no right way to celebrate, there is only your way.

Welcome to Sweden. And the land of the midsummer sun.

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