Salted Porridge, Pickled Fish, and Frog Dances (An Introduction to Swedish Midsummer)
Preparations begin the week before Midsummer. We take trips to the market to buy strawberries and grapes, cheese, fresh veggies, and baguettes. The night before, we steam up the kitchen baking meatballs and boiling pounds of red potatoes for the potato salad. Then, on Midsummer morning, we pull the mandolin out of the cupboard to slice the cucumbers extra thin so we can prepare the traditional cucumber salad.
Early Midsummer afternoon, we pack everything up and catch a cab from our Brooklyn office into lower Manhattan. Once there, we fight for space on the lawn with the other early arrivals, everyone trying to claim a good spot before the crowds converge on Battery Park City. Finally, as our colleagues, family, and friends begin to arrive, it’s time to pull out the meatballs and lingonberry sauce, start weaving flower wreaths and celebrating Midsummer.
New York’s Swedish Midsummer Festival, held each year in lower Manhattan, has become a company tradition for my firm. As a translation agency founded by a Norwegian linguist, Midsummer gives us to get back to our Scandinavian roots and support the local Swedish community here in New York.
With Midsummer just around the corner, we thought we would share a bit about this holiday, celebrated by Swedes around the world.
Following Christmas, Midsummer (or Midsommar) is the most important Swedish holiday of the year. With Sweden’s long, dark, dreary winters and short summers, it only seems natural to have a festival celebrating one of the longest days of summer — Midsummer!
Midsummer originally began as a pre-Christian solstice festival. However, this was not acceptable to the early church. Rather than trying to stamp out pagan events such as the solstice festival, the church attempted to associate such days with Christian holidays. So, the church declared that Midsummer would be observed on June 24, the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of the oldest festivals of the Christian Church. This is how Midsummer began as both a festival of the summer solstice — a day to welcome summer, the season of fertility — and a commemoration of John the Baptist.
The dates have since become a bit more flexible. In 1952, the Swedish Parliament declared that Midsummer should always be held on a weekend. Now, each year, it is celebrated on a Friday that falls between June 20–26.
The Magic of Midsummer
Midsummer is a holiday traditionally celebrated by hosting outdoor gatherings with friends and family. In Sweden, cities empty out as people travel to the country, where they converge in parks, gardens, and other outdoor spaces.
People once believed that there was magic in the fresh greenery of summer, and so Midsummer was considered a magical time. Today, people uphold the traditions of the past by decorating with flowers and ferns, and weaving flower crowns to wear in their hair. It’s a special day where revelers dress in summery clothing or wear traditional Swedish costumes.
In Sweden, there is a popular myth that if a young girl picks seven types of flowers on Midsummer and put them under her pillow, she will dream of her future husband. A similar tradition encouraged young girls to eat salted porridge (“dream porridge”) before bedtime. If a man appeared in her dreams with water to quench her thirst, he was destined to become her future husband.
The maypole is a centerpiece of the Midsummer celebration. Maypoles are also common in Germany, Britain, and France, and many believe that the Germans introduced the Maypole to the Swedes in the fourteenth or fifteenth century.2 To kick off Midsummer festivities, people decorate the maypole (midsommarstång or majstång) in leaves and flowers. This was originally intended to appeal to please the gods for a generous harvest.
Today, the maypole tradition is still upheld. After the pole is decorated, it is raised in an open space so dancing can commence. A popular dancing game is Små grodorna, where people hop around the midsummer pole while singing about little frogs.
Singing is also a large part of the celebration, and it becomes especially animated with the customary consumption of beer and spiced schnapps.
Pickled Fish and Potatoes
Traditional Swedish food (husmanskost) typically consists of fresh fruits, cream-based sauces, and meats. Much of the country is surrounded by water, so fish are also an important staple. A very popular fish dish often served at Midsummer is pickled herring, which pairs nicely with schnapps. Other staples include potatoes (typically with sour cream, chives, and dill), hardboiled eggs, smoked salmon, gravlax, cod’s roe, and sometimes chicken, lamb, or spareribs. And of course, fresh strawberries.
It’s almost time to head to the market to begin gathering the ingredients for this year’s feast. Let summer begin!