Midsummer is one of the longest-standing celebrations in human history. Although it passes us by in the UK, for many cultures it is as significant as Christmas. Just like Christmas, it has its roots in Paganism, with one marking the longest days of the year and the other marking the shortest. Also like Christmas, it combined with a Christian festival (in this case St. John’s Day on June 24th) to become a kind of bumper party – and who doesn’t love a party?
In this country the word Midsummer makes people think of a murderous village or Shakespeare’s fairies and Mechanicals. As we approach the longest days of the year, I thought it would be fun to showcase some of the most interesting Midsummer celebrations from across Europe.
They take Midsummer very seriously in Latvia. They also do it brilliantly: think bonfires, beer and cheese (what more do you need?). Like most European countries with pagan traditions, the festival also includes plenty of mandatory dancing and songs. Men called Janis (John) are made to wear crowns of oak leaves. Obviously.
In Austria, it is traditional to mark the Summer Solstice with the lighting of beacons across the mountains. These fires are said to be an offering to the earth. These days you can use cable-cars, drones or Google Images to get a good snapshot of the tradition, which does produce a rather magical effect.
In Portugal, they celebrate Midsummer (St. John’s Day) as part of a succession of Saint’s days. The festival is most prevalent in Porto. Among the more bizarre rituals, participants can carry flowering garlic and hit each other with them… on the head. This is supposed to represent the chastising of the rebellious young St. John.
In Russia there is a Midsummer tradition whereby couples jump over bonfires holding hands. If they let go as they jump the relationship is doomed to fail. Cheery.
There is also a tradition of making flower garlands – now you’re talking my language – and floating them in water. Their movements are interpreted as predictions of the future.
Aside from popping to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we don’t have many widespread Midsummer traditions in the UK. Well, apart from if you’re a Druid, of curse. Druids and Pagans traditionally head to Stonehenge to see the perfectly aligned sunrise on the Summer Solstice, linking them with revellers across thousands of years who have done exactly the same.
Sweden and Scandinavia
Nobody does Midsummer like the Scandinavians. In Sweden, the festival is the second most important holiday of the year. The iconic symbol of Midsummer (Midsommar) is is the Maypole, which is covered in flowers and foliage and placed in a public place. Traditional foods and drink are consumed (in great quantities, of course) and often traditional clothes can be worn. The party lasts all day and all night, as long as the schnapps keeps flowing.
Traditionally, children must collect seven flowers and sleep with them under their pillow – this will help them to dream about the love of their lives.
In Norway and Finland they celebrate in very similar ways. In addition, they light bonfires as is traditional all over the continent. In Norway plants and herbs are thought to have magical properties.
These are just a few of the most fun and strange Midsummer celebrations from across the continent. Reading about the partying makes me wish I’d booked a trip to Scandinavia to take part! For all of us who are stuck here over Midsummer (and hopefully enjoying lovely weather…) we can always bring a little summery magic into our own homes. If you’re missing some Midsummer madness then be sure to get a delivery of Freddie’s Flowers to brighten the place up!