Midsummer Party: How to Celebrate Like the Nordics
Enjoy a holiday of bonfires, spells and tons of cheese.
Summer is finally here! This week my Facebook feed has been full of summer solstice posts from people celebrating the longest day of the year at the mystical Stonehenge. Across the pond in Seattle, I saw more than just the sun. My city celebrates with a naked bike ride where riders creatively don body paint. But this week is more than just revelry. In Europe, particularly Scandinavian and Nordic countries, Midsummer is celebrated the weekend immediately after the summer solstice and it’s almost as big as Christmas.
What is Midsummer?
Midsummer is celebrated from June 19 to 25. The holiday was originally a pagan celebration to honor weather gods and celebrate the summer but later conquering Christians adopted the holiday as a birthday for St. John the Baptist and the two holidays merged into one summer festival. Today, many countries celebrate St. John’s Day on June 24 but the pagan traditions remain the same.
Midsummer is a big deal in countries like Finland, Denmark and Norway. And other Nordic countries like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have similar traditions. The biggest feature of the holiday is the “white night.” Similar to Alaska, these countries are so far north that during the summer the sun, known as the “midnight sun,” barely sets, creating a quick twilight with little darkness. “Midsummer celebration has a very special place in my heart and is something I look forward to every year,” said Emma Louise Cox of Visit Denmark. “It is all about getting together with friends and family enjoying the long summer evenings with an average of 17 hours of daylight.”
The pagans believed power came from these strange, long days where the dawn meets the dusk. Much of the Midsummer celebration happens on Midsummer Eve or St. John’s Eve on June 23 where huge bonfires are constructed to ward off evil spirits. These days the only spirits are the ones being imbibed all night.
And with all that drinking, food is important, too. In fact, Lithuanians call the holiday Rasos feast. In Latvia, it’s all about drinking beer and eating tons of caraway cheese. And Norwegians celebrate with the classic combo of hot dogs and ice cream.
“Often we have dinner together, mostly with a menu consisting of local Baltic prawns served on freshly baked sourdough bread, fresh strawberries and champagne,” says Cox. “After dinner we proceed down to the beach to the local bonfire venue. Here a bonfire is lit, and as the sun sets and the fire is roaring we all gather together to sing traditional Danish Midsummer songs.”
Today, celebrating on the beach is just as popular as the woods. And sauna time and boating have become major aspects of the Midsummer celebration. “I lived most of my life on the Oslofjord, in an idyllic seaside village called Son,” says Beate Christin Gram of Innovation Norway, “and our traditional way of celebrating was always to go boating on the fjord, dock at one of the islands in the Oslofjord archipelago, and have a small bonfire and barbeque right on the beach.”
Rituals and Legends
Despite the relaxed recreation, the ancient traditions are not ignored and if you choose to visit during this time of year you’ll see plenty of rituals being preserved.
Midsummer Rule No. 1: Don’t go to sleep. You’re supposed to stay up all night. Drinking and loud behavior was believed to bring a better harvest season.
In Estonia, jumping over a bonfire would bring you prosperity for the year. In Latvia, people would jump to rid themselves of burdens. Couples would hold hands and jump, believing the magic of the flames would bind them together.
At dawn, take a walk through the dew. Morning dew was believed to have healing powers and bathing in morning dew is supposed to bring beauty. Farmers can also roll (naked) in the wheat fields for good luck and a good harvest.
Flowers and herbs have power, too, and were used for love predictions and sorcery. If a woman collects several kinds of flowers and places the bouquet under her pillow, her soulmate will appear in her dreams. In Finland, flower crowns are still very popular as are sauna whisks. These are made by collecting birch leaves and binding bouquets with birch bark.
Celebrate at Home
If you can’t fly to Europe this weekend, you can still celebrate Midsummer at home. Make yourself a bonfire, eat, drink and be merry. Incorporate edible flowers, such as elderflower and lavender, into your desserts and cocktails. And don’t forget the cheese plate.
Fill your home with wildflowers and don a floral crown. Stay up all night with your friends and walk through the morning dew. Don’t go to sleep until you hear the first sound of morning. Whatever you hear is symbolic. It’s your fortune for the next year.