for National Geographic News
In the Northern Hemisphere, the longest days of the year have arrived. For Scandinavians that means one thing: Party time!
"It's just a time when finally nature is awake and alive," said Rose Marie Oster, a Swedish native and professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Maryland in College Park.
For thousands of years, Scandinavians have celebrated summer's arrivalthe summer solsticewith the Midsummer Festival, Oster said.
Highlights of the festival include singing and dancing around maypoles and bonfires, feasting on traditional foods such as pickled herring, and tipping back some schnapps and beer.
Traditionally, Scandinavians celebrated midsummer on the solstice itselfthe longest day of the year. Today they observe it on a weekend around the solstice, so merrymakers can take an extra day off work, Oster said.
"It's a big thing," said Margaret Schueman, president of the American Scandinavian Association, a nonprofit cultural organization in Washington, D.C. "People just love it."
The arrival of summer in Scandinavia means flowers are finally in bloom and trees are full of leavessigns of nature's rejuvenation that appear farther south in the Northern Hemisphere in April and May.
During the festivals, people decorate their homes with birch leaves, which are believed to hold special healing powers, and pick flowers for garlands and wreaths, which are symbols of fertility.
Ellen Rees, an assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene, said many of the Midsummer Festival's traditionssuch as dancing around a maypolewere originally adapted from May Day celebrations in continental Europe.
Then when Christianity spread to Scandinavia toward the end of the first millennium, the midsummer festivities became mixed with the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, which is observed in late June, Rees noted.
"Today it's totally a mix of different traditions that have melded together," she said.
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