Things to do
Midsummer in Sweden – like something from another world
Midsummer is here and all over the country, Swedes are getting ready to celebrate. Everyone is welcome to join in the fun. Or why not organise your own midsummer party. Here’s how!
Sweden’s National Day is June 6, but midsummer (June 19-25) is when Swedes truly celebrate. This year, Midsummer Eve falls on June 21 but in many places, festivities are held on Midsummer Day on June 22. You are welcome to join in the celebration!
Midsummer night is filled with magic
The Christian tradition of celebrating the prophet St. John the Baptist on June 24 coincides with the summer solstice. In Northern Europe, the date is still celebrated with the lighting of bonfires and festivities.
From the late Middle Ages, Swedes began raising and dancing around a midsummer pole. Decorating it with flowers and greenery is called ‘maja’, so it is also known as a maypole.
In the agrarian society, the midsummer night was considered a time of magic and mystery when plants acquired healing powers and were used to predict the future. Young women would pick seven different kinds of flowers and put under their pillow to dream of their future husband. The flowers must be picked in silence, or the magic would be broken. Regardless of gender and norms, those feeling curious and intrigued should probably take a chance on this midsummer magic, it might just work.
Walking barefoot in the dew as the midsummer night turned to dawn helped you stay healthy. Wearing a wreath of flowers in your hair is an old symbol of rebirth and fertility. To preserve the flowers’ magic throughout the year, bouquets were dried and sometimes placed in the Christmas bath to keep the family healthy through the long, cold winter.
Today, midsummer is about celebrating that the best time of the year lies ahead of us.
Pickled herring, fresh potatoes and strawberries
Like all major holidays, midsummer revolves around eating and drinking. The midsummer fare boils down to a few musts: fresh potatoes, pickled herring, aquavit and strawberries. When combined, they will give you the taste of real Swedish summer.
Potatoes came to Sweden in the mid-1650s, but it took a hundred years before they were planted, harvested and eaten on a larger scale around the country. At midsummer, fresh new potatoes aka färskpotatis cooked with dill are a must. Small, and with thin skin that is gently scrubbed, they make lovely companions with pickled herring, gravlax and Swedish meatballs
The traditional food served at midsummer is part of the Swedish smorgasbord that Swedes also enjoy at Easter and Christmas. It developed during the 1800s and stems from the ‘brännvinsbord’ that was served as a starter, consisting of bread, butter, cheese, salmon, anchovy or pickled herring, sausages, dried meat and three kinds of brännvin aka aquavit. An old fashioned ‘brännvinsbord’ can be seen at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, which has several traditional table settings on display.
Drinking songs are unique to Sweden
A vital part of enjoying aquavit is the toasting and singing. For each toast a new song is sung. The most popular drinking song is ‘Helan går’. The name meaning ‘the whole goes (down)’ refers to the drink being the first in a series of ‘snaps’. If you don’t drink the first one, you can’t have the second, called ‘Halvan’ meaning ‘the half’.
Drinking songs are unique to Sweden (and the Swedish speaking parts of Finland) and new ones are composed by using known melodies and making up lyrics. The Museum of Spirits in Stockholm has collected more than 12,000 drinking songs. If you were to sing one drinking song every day, they would last more than 32 years!
The meal is finished off with fresh strawberries served with whipped cream. Any Swede will tell you that Swedish strawberries are the best, and they may be right. Due to the long, bright and cool spring nights Swedish strawberries don’t burn their sugar as quickly, making them sweeter. You can also enjoy them in a classic strawberry cake aka jordgubbstårta.
Kubb, femkamp and other fun games
Having enjoyed all that lovely midsummer food, it is time to play some games. At midsummer parties it is ok to be a bit whimsical and people of all ages participate. The different family games played at midsummer are commonly called ‘femkamp’, often with a playful twist. Classic garden games like croquet and sack race are played and creative new games are made up.
A popular outdoor summer game for Swedes of all ages is ‘kubb’ where the objective is to knock down ten small wooden blocks (‘kubb’) and one large wooden block (‘the king’) by throwing wooden sticks.
Kubb is played in local parks and private gardens. Being so widely spread all over the country, there are many variants of the game and players have developed their own understanding of how to play it. Friendly arguments about the rules of kubb have almost become part of the game.
Many nice places to celebrate midsummer
Most Swedes travel to the countryside to celebrate Midsommar with family and friends. Many cities turn quiet, but midsummer festivities are also arranged there and all over the country. Participants are welcome to help decorate and raise the maypole.
The Stockholm archipelago with its 30,000 islands and skerries make for a stunning setting. The islands of Vaxholm, Dalarö and Värmdö are connected to the mainland and easy to get to by bus. The closest islands are Fjäderholmarna, and a ferry will take you there in 20 minutes from downtown Stockholm. Further out into the archipelago you will find islands like Grinda, Sandhamn and Utö.
In Gothenburg, midsummer celebrations are held at Slottskogen and Liseberg as well as on the islands off the west coast. In Malmö you can visit Folkets Park and places like Borrby, Brantevik Backåkra and Skillinge offer music, dancing and games.
If you are looking for the full treat including people dressed up in traditional Swedish folk costumes, professional folk music and dancing, parade with the garlands, maypole raising and perhaps even a church boat race, head to Dalarna.
In Lapland in Northern Sweden you can add the midnight sun to your midsummer celebration as you dance the night away.
All you need for your midsummer party
Midsummer celebrations are big events by nature. Experiencing the holiday with a small group of friends is also fun.
Pickled herring comes in many flavours and can be found in all food stores. Dare to try a few different kinds. Here you can also get fresh potatoes, gravlax or other types of salmon, meatballs, strawberries and whipping cream. Don’t forget crisp bread, cheese and butter!
Systembolaget is the government owned liquor outlet and the knowledgeable staff will help you choose aquavit and other beverages. Stores are closed on Sundays and major holidays so plan your visit in time for midsummer.
Here is how you make your flower wreath for Midsommar:
The kubb game can be found at department stores, sports stores or toy stores.
Now you are all set for midsummer!