“Skål!” we all cheered, taking the time to look each other in the eye before heads tilt back and down goes the first of several rounds of Snaps.
Feeling content in the bright Nordic sun, we sat around a table with buckets of freshly gathered lupins, daisies and birch leaves, green wire, empty glasses and anticipation of a long night ahead. As we wound the wire around the flowers, crowning ourselves as kings and queens of midsommer, I could not help but feel this was my most Swedish moment yet.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state that I am an American living in Belgium but with a heavy dose of Swedish influence provided by my husband Bjorn. For the last 10 years, I have been steeped in Swedish culture and as a sometimes-insider, sometimes-outsider, perhaps I have some interesting observations to share about the most Swedish of all holidays, Midsommer.
Midsommer is a celebration of renewal, a return of light and fertility. Historically celebrated around the summer solstice in the end of June, the deeply pagan holiday was once somewhat absorbed by Christian tradition and repackaged as St John’s Day. Today, I believe it is closer to the original intent as the typically secular Swedes embrace long held traditions. It is a chance for those living in Scandinavian countries and abroad to come together, renew ties and friendships, dance around the maypole and eat Midsommar Torta, all outdoors if at all humanly possible. You would celebrate too if you just shook off a long, dark winter stretching from November to May.
If you are young and fashionable, there is no cooler way to midsummer than to head out to the Swedish Archipelago along with your closest friends to pack in like sardines (or herring) to one of the many summer houses dotting these 5,000+ islands. All night eating, drinking, dancing and late-night dips in the Baltic Sea are mandatory!
Nowadays though, we spend our midsommers with family up in the very epicenter of traditional Sweden, Dalarna. Dalarna is a beautiful forested area dotted with small villages of red houses with white trim, fresh lakes, wide fields, and loads of wild flowers. Though fairly quiet throughout the year, a huge number of revelers show up from all over Sweden to celebrate this special event during this time.
The festivities often begin at home with a traditional lunch of several types of pickled herring, boiled new potatoes, smoked salmon, and some other fresh dishes. Beer and snaps are served. The first glass of snaps is usually consumed in three sips, each sip taken after someone volunteers to lead a short snaps song. My all-time favorite and the only one I know all the Swedish lyrics to is called Helan går and goes:
The whole one goes down
The whole one goes down
And he who doesn’t take the whole
Doesn’t get the half one either
The whole one goes down
Yes, this is a song encouraging you to drink it all down or you get nothing!
Afternoon downtime finds us gathering flowers and making lovely crowns. There is no way not to get into the spirit of things by now. The afternoon is punctuated by THE most important food of the day, Strawberry Cake or “jordgubbstårta” – a simple and light white cake layered with jam, fresh whipped cream and strawberries. Everyone has their own secret recipe and we love it so much that we asked my mother-in-law to bake enough for 80 people at our wedding.
If you are located in Dalarna, there is a good chance you will head to downtown Leksand with your 30,000 closest friends to raise one of the largest maypoles in the country. This is an amazing and richly traditional process. The procession begins as the wreaths are rowed in the old church boats across Lake Siljan to the town docks, accompanied by musicians and notable locals singing traditional songs and playing violins. It culminates in raising the 28-meter maypole by a group of 40 or so strong folks using a painstaking process of inching it up using wooden poles.
Of course, this all occurs to the playing violins and cheering crowds.
Once the maypole is secured, the dancing ensues. For the next hour, you will find yourself holding hands with your closest neighbor, impersonating a frog and belting out the few words you have managed to pick up. Or was that just me? Dancing around a pole with a group of this size is an unforgettable experience!
It’s easy to lose track of time when the sun sets around midnight and if you wait just an hour or two it is up again, easily turning this event into an all-nighter. Though the main event is often on a Saturday, you will find that each small village has its only celebration and smaller maypole rising – Always accompanied with coffee, songs, good cheer and, you guessed it, more jordgubbstårta! These community get-togethers are a cozy affair and a chance to show off and gain notoriety for your own secret recipe.
Though we do try to get back at least every other year for midsommer, we have taken to having our own celebration here at home in Belgium or out with the Swedish Church which stakes out a corner of Bois de la Cambre [Editor’s Note: a forest bordering the city of Brussels] for a picnic, singing and dancing. If you want to try your hand at a little celebration, you can pick up some snaps, herring, and fresh potatoes at [Editor’s Note: the only Swedish shop of Brussels], Gourmet Food and Gifts on Rue Archimede, or even IKEA.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in the US, Nicole spent her days writing, exploring, and spending every possible moment with her horse, Smokey. After 20 years in the US, her early career as a business consultant took her to over 50 countries and ultimately introduced her to her husband, Bjorn. They moved to Belgium in 2009 and much to their surprise, are still here nine years later. They have three children who consider themselves world citizens and who’s first question upon meeting someone new is “What languages do they speak?”. Nicole is also a photographer whose passion for the art developed after the arrival of her daughter in 2012, and when she started Bear & Dragon Photography. She loves working with babies, children, and families. Her motto in life and work is that it is all a beautiful adventure. You can follow Nicole’s adventures in writing and photography at her blog and on Facebook.
Featured Image Courtesy: Bear & Dragon Photography