The Swedish midsummer has medieval roots
Maybe you’ve heard of the Swedish celebration of Midsummer, or midsommar as we call it. Swedes often joke about it being our unofficial national day.
Midsummer celebrations have an old history in Sweden. It was first documented in the year 1555. At the time, Swedes celebrated Midsummer by dancing in the light of bonfires in the fields or in the town squares.
It might seem like the Swedish Midsummer has pre-Christian origins. There is no evidence for that.
For centuries, the Swedish Midsummer’s Day was celebrated on the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. This Christian holiday falls on June 24. The profane festivities are on the day before, on Midsummer’s Eve. This is very close to the longest day of the year, which is on June 20th or 21st.
Since 1953, the Swedish Midsummer’s Eve is always on a Friday and falls between the 19th and 25th of June.
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How midsummer is celebrated in Sweden today
The Swedish Midsummer requires three things: A maypole (majstång or midsommarstång), herring, and strawberries.
You can find Maypoles in all kinds of public places. They are decorated with leaves and sometimes with flowers. The most common form looks a bit like a cross with two wreaths at the ends. But there are local traditions for maypoles. They can have many different shapes and decorations.
Nowadays it’s popular to celebrate Midsummer in Dalarna. The villages there often leave the maypoles standing the whole year and every village has its own style.
No one knows the origin of the maypole, but it probably came to Sweden from Germany in the Middle Ages. The first Swedish depiction is from the late 17th century or the early 18th century.
The maypole is raised to the tune of folk music. When it’s up, it’s time to dance chain dances around the maypole. Many like to wear traditional costume, folkdräkt, for the occasion.
Swedes eat herring for all holidays. Midsummer is no exception. The herring is pickled in the south and sometimes salted in the north. For Midsummer, you eat it with new potatoes, at least in the south, where it’s available at this time of year. Equally important is the sour cream. Top with chopped chives.
Finish your Midsummer sitting with strawberries. Swedes like to eat them fresh with milk or vanilla ice cream. On Midsummer’s Eve, many have them in a strawberry shortcake.
Typically, Midsummer lunch is eaten outside. With the long, dark winters, Swedes take every chance we get to be outdoors. And this is the beginning of summer, so there’s no stopping us from soaking up the sunlight.
Hopeful Swedes may have to brave both cool weather and rain to get through lunch on Midsummer’s Eve.
Your Ancestor’s Midsummer in Sweden
The encyclopedias from 1886 and 1913 describe Midsummer in the same way.
Already at this time, Swedes danced around the maypole. The houses were decorated with leaves and flowers. Stockholm had a special leaf market for leafy boughs and toys. In some regions people still lit bonfires.
A long tradition
As we have seen, Swedes have celebrated Midsummer for nearly 600 years, maybe even longer. And as with all traditions, a lot has stayed the same through the centuries, and some things have changed.
Your Swedish ancestors may or may not have lit bonfires or raised maypoles on Midsummer’s Eve. But you can be pretty sure that they danced.
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- Midsommarafton, Nordisk Familjebok, Stockholm: Gernandts boktryckeri-aktiebolag 1886, retrieved 2020-06-23
- Midsommardagen, Nordisk Familjebok, Stockholm: Gernandts boktryckeri-aktiebolag 1886, retrieved 2020-06-23
- Midsommardagen, Nordisk Familjebok, Nordisk familjeboks förlags aktiebolag 1913, retrieved 2020-06-23
- Westergren, Björn, Bonniers Stora Kokbok, Bokgruppen i Malmö AB and BonnierFakta Bokförlag 1983 Bonnier Alba 1996.