Midsummer is on us and the Scandinavians are preparing to celebrate it in customary fashion. Here in Sweden the ever-practical locals take a pragmatic and serious view of the occasion so Midsommarafton or Midsummer’s Eve is a holiday and celebrated on the nearest Friday to the sun reaching its zenith; something to do with managing the effects of drinking copious amounts of snaps and dancing around a maypole in national dress, I suspect. The celebration demands a lot of singing, pickled herring, strawberries and neighbourly back-slapping and, after a few years of practice, I’m doing well on my personal journey towards mastering the effects of caraway-flavoured alcohol.
The celebration of midsummer is founded in pagan ritual when the white Scandinavian sky makes the evening shimmer with magic. In Sweden it’s said that if you put seven varieties of wild flower under your pillow at midsummer you will dream of your future spouse. I tried that after some of my early flirtations with snaps but all I dreamt of was falling down a deep, dark tunnel. Maybe you have to be Swedish. It’s also said that herbs and water taken from springs at midsummer will bring health to people and livestock so a tradition of ‘greening’ sees flowers and greenery hung over houses or barns. The gathering, feasting and dancing around the maypole can be joyous – to say the least – and have ancient echoes of fertility rites. I don’t know if that’s based on fact but I do know that as the evening wears on and the alcohol warms the northern clime a certain mellowness sets in.
In Sweden midsummer is an important holiday that ranks with Christmas as the principal festival in the year. For our part, we’ll make the ninety-minute ferry crossing to the island of Bornholm, Denmark’s easternmost outpost, where there will be friends, family and a midsummer chef’s competition – Sol over Gudhjem.
Denmark also considers midsummer a big occasion. It’s celebrated with bonfires and is called Sankt Hans aften or St John’s Eve. The fires, especially when placed alongside the sea or bodies of water, are a traditional measure to drive away evil spirits or witches. I’ll maintain a keen lookout for spirits heading south but until then I’m taking stock of the real magic of midsummer; wheeling Red kites, birdsong and the wealth of wild flowers filling the fields and margins at this time of year. Skål!