Maypole celebrations in the early 20th century
Maypole celebrations in the early 20th century
Photo: ullstein bild (Getty Images)

This weekend marks both the summer solstice (the day of the year when the northern hemisphere receives the most daylight) and the beloved Swedish holiday, Midsummer. Both Midsummer and Midsummer Eve are a huge deal in Sweden, second only to Christmas. Thanks to a decree from Swedish Parliament the holiday always falls on a weekend, and Midsummer Eve is always on a Friday between June 19-25. For many Swedes this is the official start of the summer holiday, when people take five consecutive weeks off from work so that they can enjoy the country’s relatively brief summer weather. Because it basically aligns with the solstice this is also when Sweden experiences a crazy amount of sunlight: the Midnight Sun in the north, when the sun simply doesn’t set, and around 19 hours of continuous sun in the south.

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Given that Midsummer is the start of what is basically a nationwide summer vacation, people take their celebrating pretty seriously, and that includes leisurely meals and copious drinking. Swedish food is generally amazing, and one of the biggest food events of the early summer is the appearance of new potatoes, which are so incredibly beloved that they command extraordinary prices when they first become available. In 2018 Sweden’s news site The Local reported that the first potatoes of the season were sold at auction for 2000 Swedish Kronor (SEK) a kilo—around $212 USD a pound! New potatoes (which hopefully have dropped in price by late June) are served with pickled herring, sour cream, dill, and chives. They’re also accompanied by cold beer and schnapps, both of which are consumed with vigor while singing traditional drinking songs.

This is also a time of celebrations with direct ties to the country’s pagan roots. Decorating the Maypole and crafting Midsummer garlands (krans) with greenery evokes pagan fertility traditions that go back nearly 500 years (although unlike in the horror film Midsommer, nobody’s going to be sacrificed by a pagan cult). Traditional dances include Små grodorna (“The Little Frogs”), where people hop like frogs around the Maypole, and a variety of lawn games are played, including horseshoes, sack races, and massive bouts of tug-of-war. This is interspersed with grilled meat or fish and strawberry cake, featuring the first fruit of the year.

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Depending on how large a Swedish population you have in your area, there might be Midsummer celebrations happening this weekend near you. If you’d rather stay socially distant, you can always take your herring and beer in your own backyard and daydream about what five dedicated weeks of vacation might be like.

Jacob Dean is a food and travel writer and psychologist based in New York. He likes beer, less traveled airports, and is allergic to grasshoppers (the insect, not the mixed drink.)

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