Swedes are festival experts. They should be, as they get lots of practice. Pagan traditions, the Christian year and the sharp contrast between the seasons all contribute to excuses for a festival. And they do them so well.
In Sweden, festivals often mean a röd dag (red day) or, as we in the UK would call them, a Bank Holiday. Swedes have a lot of red days. In between the röd dagar (red days) are klämdagar (squeeze days). These are extra days off that Swedes are entitled to squeeze in between a röd dag and a weekend. Swedish newspapers even provide guides to explain when you really need to turn into work. So numerous are röd dagar and klämdagar that in May, June and July Swedes normally have more public holidays than Americans get in a whole year.
Midsummer Eve is the biggest röd dag after Christmas and the most Swedish of all their röd dagar. It is a slightly movable feast because it occurs on the Friday between 19 and 25 June. Midsummer Day occurs on the Saturday following Midsummer Eve. For many Swedes it is the start of a five-week summer holiday. I kid you not, it is hard to find a Swede working in July.
Swedes are strong supporters of traditions and so it seems as if everyone in Sweden celebrates Midsummer in the same way. Most Swedish families raise a flag in their garden before breakfast. Houses and churches are decorated with garlands of flowers and branches. Women wear traditional dresses and put crowns of flowers on their heads. Men spend their time avoiding getting tricked into dressing up by busying themselves building an enormous maypole in the centre of their town or village.
In the UK, when we have a carnival it is normally only the participants in a parade that dress up. Swedish women like this dressing up tradition, so half the women in the audience also wear crowns of flowers. Older women often wear traditional dress too, most of which have been handed down from their mothers.
A grand procession of people brings very long garlands of twigs and flowers to the village green to wrap round the maypole. There is lot of blue and yellow used in case anyone might forget that they are in Sweden. Occasionally representatives from other countries are invited and so the Swedes then allow the odd splash of another colour.
Erecting the maypole
After the grand procession Swedes start to erect the pole. In the land where they drive with headlights on, even in bright sunlight, this means a prominent role for a man with a crane and a high vis suit. Someone makes a speech. Being part of the tradition, most people listen and nod sagely. Eventually they erect the maypole. The rest of the day is spent dancing round the maypole pretending to be frogs. This goes on into the night.
The eat, drink, sing cycle
Swedes sit down to a family lunch on Midsummer Eve. The table is decorated in yellow and blue. The room is decorated in yellow and blue. Swedes mustn't be allowed to forget that they are in Sweden.
The meal starts with pickled herring, umpteen kinds of pickled herring. They must be eaten with finely chopped raw red onion and soured cream. New potatoes with dill are compulsory too. Lots of dill. No other herbs are allowed. Some choice of other dishes for a main course is allowed, grilled salmon being a popular choice. The meal has to conclude with fresh strawberries and cream.
The meal has a regular cycle to it: eat a bit, drink a bit and then sing a song. The racier the song the better. This cycle is repeated many times and gets louder and louder.
Before drinking, a toast is proposed and then comes the tricky bit. You have to say Skål (cheers) and look everyone in the eye. It is the Swedish tradition of looking everyone in the eye that is tricky. You have to get the right look. You mustn't wink, smirk or give a flirtaous smile. It has to be a moderate smile. Swedes like moderation. You mustn't stand out. They even have a word for it, lagom. It means neither too little or too much: just right.
Singing is a problem too. Now I really can't sing. But lagom applies here too. You've got to join in, but not become the star or the party pooper. Ordinariness is a virtue in Sweden. My wife, who is painfully familiar with my singing, pushes me to plead lyric ignorance. Miming is a better strategy for supporting Swedish lagom if the group is large enough and your voice is like mine. If you have a good voice, don't showoff. Be ordinary. Swedes like it that way.
Roll up, roll up, win an eel
When the light fades Swedes head down to the fayre, often in a forest clearing. Even teenagers turn out for the evening fayre, having been hibernating for as much of the day as possible. Lots of wooden huts spring up. Sweden has a lot of wood. The games are the normal stuff of village fayres. It is the prizes that are different. I guess smoked eel really is better than a goldfish in a plastic bag. It still feels weird.
Swedes love smoked eel. The happy warm-hearted man above right, like many Swedish men knows everything about eels. To a Swedish man this means lots of eel songs, lots of recipes and the best places to catch eels. Swedes even have something called ålagille (an eel party) on their festival calendar every September. Unfortunately it is not a röd dag. A proper eel party ought to take place in an eel shed, so they say. Otherwise it is simply a party with eels, which is not the same thing. They have waiting lists for parties in eel sheds.
Smoked eel is quite unlike jellied eel. If you see smoked eel on sale don't be afraid to try it. It goes really well with scrambled eggs and makes a delicious light lunch.
In northern Sweden, Swedes drift down to the lakeside to enjoy the midnight sun. Here they appreciate the peace and quiet. Drinking is slower. The songs are less racey.
Legend has it that midsummer is a magical time for love everywhere in Sweden. On their way home, girls and young women are supposed to pick seven different species of flowers and lay them under their pillows. At night, their future husbands appear to them in a dream.
Dancing on wooden boards in the forest
Swedes in the south have to make do with flares. Instead of watching the sun set and instantly rise again, they dance on wooden boards in a forest clearing.
Now dancing in costumes on wooden planks really is the stuff of divorces, not romance. Most Swedish men would prefer to plan their holiday or dream about ålagille. To keep the tradition going, some women have to be roped into learning the men's steps.
Midsummer may no longer be such a magical time for love as it once was, but it's still a fine day and very Swedish. And it's a röd dag.
PS If you are interested in going to Stockholm for Midsummer click here to read more.
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