During my visit to Sweden, I was fortunate enough to take part in one of the Swedes’ favorite celebrations: Midsommar.
Being avid nature-lovers in a country, well, bursting with nature, many Swedes have country homes. So for this year’s Midsommar festivities we headed to the country home of a friend of a friend. I was the only non-Swede in attendance, so upon arrival I was immediately pummeled with questions about what I knew about Midsommar. I admitted I didn’t know much.
“Well, we make a cross and then bury it in the ground,” one girl explained, pausing to try to find the right English words. “It’s a symbol of, like, fertilizing Mother Nature.”
I admitted that I had not known this about Midsommar. I kept to myself that it sounded a little bit weird.
Oscar and I were promptly sent to the lake to gather wildflowers to decorate the cross. There’s a very “this land is your land, this land is my land” or “what’s mine is yours” philosophy when it comes to land and nature in Sweden. You can pretty much go clip wildflowers from anywhere, except the bluebells which are of course the prettiest but are endangered. You can be fined for cutting them.
Upon returning to the house, the cross was constructed and the drinking had begun. As we sat, waiting for the decoration of the cross to be finished and the consumption of food to begin, I looked around the yard. Nowhere did I see a hole big enough to bury this very large cross. So I turned to Oscar’s friend, Jan, and asked him where the cross was going to be buried.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe up there,” he guessed, pointing up at a hill next to us.
It was then that it crossed my mind that by “buried,” they probably didn’t mean lowered into the earth, but rather erected upon the ground. I asked Oscar who confirmed this.
Then it was time for the first round of food. I was obligated to try sill (herring) though Jan was kind enough to direct me toward some kind of onion-marinated version that was apparently better — or at least less gross — than plain herring. I was informed by most of the table that probably no Swede actually liked sill — at least not to the point that they would ever crave it outside of the major holidays during which it is consumed. Yet it was tradition, and everyone at least gagged down one bite.
The rest of the food — salads and meatballs and much, much more — was accompanied with the favorite Midsommar activity: drinking. Everyone had been sipping beer or wine already at this point, but now it was time for schnapps. Small shot glasses were passed around the table, followed by a bottle of schnapps.
Once everyone had poured themselves a shot, singing ensued. Thankfully, I was never the only one who didn’t know the words. It seems that different regions of Sweden have different drinking songs, and since the gathering consisted of people from Stockholm, Gothenburg, Linköping, Nyköping, Jönköping and maybe a couple other -köpings, there were always others who didn’t know the song. (NB: The k in “köping” is pronounced like “sh,” so it is pronounced almost like “shopping” or “shu-ping.”)
I participated in the first one and a half rounds of schnapps, but they went on much longer. And the singing got louder and drinking messier after that.
Later it was time to “bury” (erect) the cross in the ground. Then the Swedes dance around it and celebrate for a bit, before returning to more eating and drinking. Meat (and, interestingly enough, falafel) was brought out and cooked on the grill. I’d say most people were a little drunk at this point, and from then on things broke down into people talking, people going to hit golf balls in the lake, and people attempting to play some game called “burn ball.” (I’m not entirely sure if this is the name or just how they decided to translate it to me in English.)
Because it stays light so long in Sweden in the summer — particularly on Midsummar, which is to mark the longest day of the year, though it doesn’t always fall on it exactly — I have no idea how long things lasted. But it was a very, very long day.
I mentioned how Swedes love their nature. Perhaps because there are only so many months in the year they can actually be outside and enjoying themselves, they will sit outside long past it being comfortable. The day had been one of the nicest ones I’d experienced in Sweden during my visit — I even had on shorts for a very, very short few minutes in the morning — but as the evening wore on it got cooler and cooler. By the end of it I was layered in two sweatshirts, and everyone else was bundled in coats and blankets. But we stayed outside.
In fact, there is even a commercial in Sweden (which was actually in Swedish, so Oscar had to help me make sure I understood it) that makes fun of this very thing: a group of people outside, warming their hands and bundled in layers of clothing, but refusing to go inside — while one woman looks in at the warm, lit living room with desire. (It’s a commercial for a television provider or something.) So I think this must be a core part of Swedishness, but one they recognize in themselves.
I was also informed that it always rains on Midsommar. Every year. Well, this year (again, the coldest June in over 50 years) it didn’t. So I guess I should be thankful for that. Though it did rain the next day. Actually, I think it rained every day around that time except Midsommar.
The final part of the Midsommar experience is the next day. As it is, Sweden basically has a no-tolerance policy toward drinking and driving. It is common for them to randomly pull people over and breathalyze them. Swedes will not drive if they’ve had even one beer a few hours previous.
So the morning after Midsommar, nobody goes anywhere. The police are apparently out in full force, and driving that morning is just begging to be pulled over. Not to mention, with how much Swedes drink on Midsommar, they probably need almost a full day to be able to pass a breathalyzer!
And so the next day is like a waiting game. Everyone bides their time until an afternoon hour they have appointed as safe, when they think their system will be clear and the cops will be less present. We tried to sleep in as late as possible, then looked at pictures from the previous day, then went for a walk down by the lake to see if we could find any of the golf balls the guys had tried to hit over the lake. (No such luck.) When we eventually did drive back to Jönköping, we made it back without incident. Perfect Midsommar experience!