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.
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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.