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MIDSUMMER

The seven bizarre traditions that make up Swedish Midsummer

Midsummer is one of the oldest and most widely celebrated holidays of the year in Sweden, but to the uninitiated, some of the festivities can seem a little bit... odd.

The seven bizarre traditions that make up Swedish Midsummer
Crowds won't be a fixture of this year's celebrations, but flower crowns and strange dancing certainly will be. Photo: Per Bifrost/imagebank.sweden.se

In 2021, the coronavirus pandemic means that large gatherings are not advised, with authorities asking people to celebrate only with their closest friends and family, keep a distance from people from other households, and of course keep following good hand hygiene.

While it may look different this year, here’s a look at the usual ingredients of a Swedish Midsummer, and how they became traditions.

1. The Midsummer maypole (Midsommarstången)

At the centre of the traditional celebrations is the maypole, in Swedish called the Midsommarstången. And if you were thinking there’s something rather phallic about a tall pole with two large hoops at the top, that’s sort of the point — many people believe it originated as a symbol of fertility.

Others say the shape has its roots in Norse mythology, and that it represents an axis linking the underworld, earth, and heavens. Whichever story you choose to believe, there’s no denying it’s a little strange to have a festival that boils down to erecting a large pole and dancing around it…

MEMBERS’ QUIZ: Test your Midsummer knowledge

2. The frog dance

Ah yes, the dancing. The peak of the festivities sees the Swedes imitate frogs, hopping around the maypole while singing the classic tune ‘Små grodorna’ (The small frogs), which describes frogs in (biologically incorrect) detail.

An excerpt from the lyrics: “The small frogs, the small frogs, are funny to look at. No tails, no tails, they have no tails. No ears, no ears, they have no ears.” 

3. All the herring

Herring is a fixture of most Swedish celebrations, and Midsummer is no exception. The Swedes eat tonnes of the stuff, in all its forms: pickled, smoked, fermented, served with onions, served with dill… there’s a lot of fish.

4. Weather chat

Small talk might not exactly be a big thing in Sweden, but Swedes do tend to talk about the weather a lot. This is turned up a notch as the three-day Midsummer weekend approaches and the entire country and media keep their fingers crossed for sunshine… but invariably end up with rain, and occasionally even snow. At this point, the disappointing weather, and the chance to moan about it, is all part of the fun.

A typical Midsummer scene. Photo: Werner Nystrand/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se


5. The drinking songs

If you were wondering what leads the generally reserved Swedes to spend their Midsummer dancing like frogs around a maypole, it may not come as a surprise that alcohol is involved — a lot of it. Along with Christmas, Midsummer is one of the biggest drinking days in Sweden. Watch out for flavoured snaps, which are far stronger than you might guess.

And note that it helps to plan ahead: since alcohol can only be bought at the state-run monopoly which closes its stores on public holidays, the shops get very busy in the days before and may even run low on the most popular beverages.

All this day-drinking comes hand in hand with drinking songs. One of the most common tunes you’ll hear is Helan Går (‘The whole thing goes’, referring to the drink). A loose translation of some of the lyrics would be “Chug it down, Sing ‘hup-de-la-la-la-loo-lah-lay’, chug it down, Sing ‘hup-de-la-la-lah-lay, And he who doesn’t chug it down, then he won’t get the other half either”.

6. The flowers

You’ll see people wearing a flower wreath in their hair, regardless of age and gender. Flowers are also used to dress up the maypole.

According to Swedish tradition, you should also pick seven kinds of flowers (in some parts of Sweden it’s nine flowers) and put them underneath your pillow. Then you’ll dream about your future husband or wife.

No-one escapes the flower crown. Photo: Stefan Berg/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

Swedes also believe that flowers can help them in their love lives. This isn’t just because the garlands will attract potential partners, but rather tradition states that if a Midsummer reveller collects seven different species of flower from seven different spots, then puts the bouquet under their pillow, they will dream of their future spouse that night.

7. Strawberry watch

Strawberries are another fixture on the Midsummer menu. But for traditionalists, they absolutely have to be Swedish. This results in months of press coverage about the state of the strawberry harvest — will they be ripe in time for Midsummer? Will the harvest be bigger or smaller than usual? Swedes are fiercely proud of their rather tiny but super sweet variety of strawberries.

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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Everything you need to know about Sweden’s emergency warning system

Sweden's VMA system is one of the ways in which authorities can communicate danger to Sweden's residents. So what is it and how does it work?

Everything you need to know about Sweden's emergency warning system

What is a VMA and when are they issued?

VMA stands for viktigt meddelande till allmänheten, “important message to the public”. A VMA will usually be addressed to everyone located in a specific area where something serious has happened which constitutes a threat to life, health, property or the environment.

How does it work?

When authorities decide to issue a VMA alert, it will be broadcast on public service and TV, as well as on certain websites such as SVT news and krisinformation.se. Some private radio stations also broadcast the alerts, although they have no legal requirement to do so.

Since 2017, warnings have also been sent via SMS to people in affected areas. The sender for these messages will be listed as “SOS Alarm”, so it’s important you read any messages coming from this sender. You don’t have to sign up for these SMS alerts: they are issued to any phone number currently in the relevant area.

Some apps are also signed up to the VMA alert system. These are SOS Alarm, Krisinformation.se and Sveriges Radio.

What do the messages say?

Usually, a VMA will be no more than a few sentences, starting with the phrase viktigt meddelande till allmänheten. This is usually followed by the area affected, then a short sentence detailing what has happened, followed by any instructions from the fire service.

A VMA alert sent in August 2020, informing the public of a fire in a school in southwest Malmö. It tells those affected to stay indoors and close doors, windows and ventilation. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

What should I do if I get one?

Read the message carefully and figure out if it applies to you. If it does, do what it says. Often, in the case of a fire, this will be no more than closing your doors and windows and staying indoors. In the case of a different type of emergency situation, such as a gas leak, the message may tell you to call 1177 if you start to notice any effects.

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