In Scandinavia, Solstice Means Fun in the Midnight Sun

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 21, 2005
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 arrival—the summer solstice—with 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 itself—the 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."

Blended Traditions

The arrival of summer in Scandinavia means flowers are finally in bloom and trees are full of leaves—signs 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 traditions—such as dancing around a maypole—were 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.

Regional Differences

Midsummer traditions differ from region to region, Schueman noted. Singing and dancing around a maypole are particularly popular in Sweden.

"They sing song-dances, the kind of songs that tell you what to do," she said. "There're lots of them, and people learn them as little kids."

Rees at the University of Oregon, meanwhile, pointed out that Norwegians celebrate midsummer with bonfires on the beach. Traditionally the fires were meant to protect revelers from evil spirits and witches, she said. Today people in Finland, Denmark, and northern Sweden still party by bonfire on Midsummer Eve.

Excuse to Party

Many of the midsummer fertility traditions have been forgotten or put aside, according to the University of Maryland's Oster. "When I say fertility, you have to go back to a time when crops [and] your survival were dependent on what happened in nature," she said.

Today, Midsummer Festival serves mainly as a good excuse to party, especially if the weather is favorable.

But Scandinavians still recognize the solstice as a special time of year to be outdoors, Rees said. Modern festivals still feature the traditional bonfires, she noted, but now the fires serve primarily as gathering points for drinking beer and eating hot dogs.

"It's light around the clock that day," she said of the solstice. "The focus is on being outside and enjoying the sun. People aren't really thinking about pre-Christian fertility rituals—they're thinking about the light, about being outside, and being with nature."

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