Midsummer Celebrations

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Yesterday it was Midsummer’s Eve and I visited some friends in Halmstad. Halmstad is situated in the southern part of Halland, the county just north-west of Scania. Before the Swedish conquest Skåne/Scania, Halland and the county of Blekinge, north-east of Scania were sometimes referred to as the Scanian Provinces. Småland north of Scania however has always been Swedish, ever since the formation of Svea Realm/Sweden in the Middle Ages. Today on Midsummer’s Day it’s time to reflect on why we celebrate Midsummer and give a little account of how we do it, and how the celebrations have developed over time.

Midsummer has to do with the astronomic phenomenon of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. In Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia there are stone monuments from the Bronze Age which seem to have been sacred sites for celebrating the sun. Celebrating the sun and midsummer in some way is an ancient phenomenon which seem to have existed in various ways all over the globe since far way back in early human prehistory. Here in Sweden there are also stone carvings, in Swedish called “hällristningar”, from the late Stone Age, but also from the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age carvings which are 2500 – 4000 years old among other things depict people venerating the sun, and different forms of sacrificial rites, maybe some kind of fertility rites as well. From a comparative religious and ethnologic perspective we may perhaps detect some traces of connections to and influences from the Indian subcontinent concerning veneration of sun deities, as well as mercantile affairs with people far away already back then during the Bronze Age.  Some findings in recent years seem to point in that direction. The oldest written descriptions of Midsummer festivities in the Scandinavian countries are those described in the Icelandic King Sagas from the 13th century A.D.

In the 4th century A.D. the Christian Church in southern Europe connected the Midsummer festivities to Saint John the Baptist and his day, June 24th. According to the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus Christ, and since the Church had decided to celebrate Jesus’ Birth in December John the Baptist’s Day was celebrated on June 24th. This then spread and became part of all Christian countries. In  Sweden, Norway and Denmark this day is also called Sankt Hans/Saint John, but the celebrations are generally referred to as Midsummer. According to the Swedish Church Year the Midsummer’s Day and John the Baptist’s Day have been celebrated on the same day, but in 2003 the saint’s day was moved to the Sunday after Midsummer’s Day. Since 1953 Midsummer’s Day always occur on a Saturday between June 20th and June 26th in Sweden and Finland, but before 1953 always on June 24th. In Denmark and Norway they celebrate Sankt Hans Aften/Saint John’s Eve on June 24th with bon fires, games and the burning of paper witches. They also sing “Midsommervisen” by Holger Drachmann and P.E. Lang-Müller.

During the 14th century the nuns at Sko Nunnery here in Sweden asked for permission to arrange Midsummer festivities of a more popular variant, but in decent forms. This in protest against the then widespread Midsummer celebrations which included heavy drinking and sacrilege by some. In 1425 archbishop Johannes in Lund banned Midsummer Night Watches and vigils because of all the hooliganism and mischief that existed.  It was also during the 14th or 15th century A.D. that we in Sweden got the tradition from Germany with a Midsummer Pole or May Pole. May in this case means “usage of leaves”. The Midsummer Pole/May Pole is often in the shape of a large cross, dressed in leaves, twigs, flowers and ribbons. On each side of the cross-beam  a large circle is placed, maybe to symbolise eternity, the passing of the year and the sun.

Ever since the Middle Ages we celebrate traditional Midsummer with dancing around the Midsummer Pole. At the end of the 19th century the traditions began to take a more distinct form, and has been celebrated very much the same all over Sweden the last 130-150 years. One tradition is for girls to collect seven kinds of flowers on the meadow to see who she will marry as a woman, put wreaths of flowers in the hair, mainly for children and women. Another common tradition is to drink alcohol, often Scandinavian vodka/schnaps, but before the 1850’s it was more common with beer and wine. Those bevarages are still rather common on the table. If you don’t want to drink beer, wine or schnaps you always may use cider, soda or something else. Every year there are many, both youngsters and grown-ups, who drink too heavily and don’t know when to stop. Many accidents, rapes, beatings and quarrels occur during this holiday. Every year the police have to make many arrests and children worry over parents or other adults who drink too much. However, used with moderation it might be a nice tradition. The eating of herring with different spices, combined with chive and whipped processed sour milk is traditional. We often also eat meat balls, potatoes, salmon, sausages, and as dessert straw-berries.  The herring which is a rather common dish became part of the feast food on Midsummer first after World War II 1939-1945.

Some of the dances and songs used during the games around the Midsummer Pole/May Pole are songs and games like “små grodorna”/”little frogs”. The melody though is taken from a military march from the days of the French revolution, “La chanson de l’oignon”/The onion song. The games and songs from the late 19th century and the folk dances were however made to shape traditions that venerated the hard-working rural Sweden. The elderly gentleman in one of the pictures above is dressed in one of the many folk suits from the 19th century.

My friends and I  had a great time together yesterday, and also took a trip outside Halmstad to see some sites there, the beach, some old houses from the 17th – 19th century and simply enjoy the day. The weather-forecast had been very gloomy and warned us for heavy rains and lousy Midsummer, and yes it did rain heavily, but luckily for us it was mainly a couple of rather shorth showers of rain, and most of the day was beautiful. When I sat on the train on my way back home to Malmoe last night I watched the sun shimmer from the night sky between 9 and 9.30. pm, and the fact that we had been celebrating the summer solstice, the longest day of the year became evident.

Anders Moberg, June 22d 2013

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