Short but intense, the bright, warm, lush Finnish summer arrives every year like a miracle after the long period of darkness and cold.
Summer is a natural phenomenon, yet it is also a state of mind: The world is again full of possibilities, joys and pleasures. The change is dramatic. Mother Nature, who so recently lay dormant and frozen under a blanket of snow, bursts into wild blossom as summer arrives.
The onset of summer is also reflected in people. They can finally cast off their heavy winter clothes. Shoulders long hunched together against icy winds can finally relax; steps become lighter and faces brighter. The Finns make the most of their summer.
Into the wild
The awakening of nature in the north is an impressive show: tens of thousands of migratory birds arrive from southerly countries to nest, trees fill with leaves almost overnight and everything is abuzz with life. Unlike countries where the hot sun beats down for many months in a row and dries vegetation to a crisp, Finland usually remains green all summer.
In the cities, the silence of the summer streets often surprises visitors. It is particularly quiet from Midsummer in late June until early August. That’s when most Finns enjoy their four to six weeks of summer holiday in the peace of the countryside, preferably by a lake or seashore. Recharging batteries in the sun and near water is a prerequisite for surviving the long, dark winter.
Summer cabins, shoreline saunas
Where do the Finns spend their summer holidays, then? At summer cottages, of course! There are half a million summer homes in Finland, or roughly one for every five households. Many are shared by extended families, while others rent cabins or stay with friends.
A vacation home offers a place to relax, enjoy nature and sports, and spend time with loved ones – to stare at the calm water, savour the aromas of the forest, think deep thoughts and live a simpler life. Most Finns like their summer paradises to be as quiet as possible and as far from neighbours as possible.
Nearly everyone has a sauna, usually heated in the evening. There you can bathe at your leisure, cooling off intermittently on the porch or in the water. For many, this is a great joy: the world quiets down, mind and body are at peace and all is well.
Daylight at night
The high point of the summer is the Midsummer holiday, around the summer solstice. While not the warmest time, this is when the sun is at its highest and shines the longest. In most of the country, the sun does not set at all, or just drops briefly below the horizon before rising again in the wee hours.
The Finns celebrate Midsummer with gatherings out in the countryside or at sea. Flags fly around the clock, saunas are heated up, houses are decorated with aromatic birch branches and large bonfires are lit on the shoreline. The accordion plays poignant tunes as couples dance late into the night.
Around Midsummer, the first harvests of the year appear at markets and shops: new potatoes and strawberries.
The northern sun makes strawberries redder, sweeter and more aromatic than further south. And nothing beats fresh local potatoes, which seem to melt in your mouth.
Summer meals are typically built around new potatoes. The tiny, tender tubers are steamed or boiled with dill and served piping hot with butter alongside pickled herring, fresh fish or grilled meat and a salad. For dessert, strawberries are served alone or with sugar and cream or ice cream – what a treat!
Onto the water
Summer is the time to relish the water, whether swimming, boating or fishing.
Finnish children learn to swim early and family members compete as to who is the first to “throw off their winter fur” by making that first dive into the lake or sea. Those who do so before Midsummer are a hardy bunch, as the water temperature rarely reaches 20 degrees Celsius in June.
There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the water, as Finland boasts nearly 190,000 lakes, 180,000 islands and a mainland shoreline of more than 6,000 kilometres. One in three Finnish families owns some kind of boat – at least a rowboat that can be used to set nets for pike and perch.
When summer comes, culture and art also move out to the countryside. July in particular is the time for the great summer festivals, with Savonlinna Opera, Pori Jazz and Kuhmo Chamber Music among the most internationally renowned events. Also on offer are visual art, theatre, rock concerts, literary gatherings, traditional celebrations, religious gatherings and village events around the country – something in every municipality.
The season culminates with the Helsinki Festival in late August and early September. Tourists and Helsinkians returning from holidays to the capital are treated to a wide array of international orchestras, circuses, theatre and dance performances and much more. In late August, as the nights get darker yet remain warm, the whole city celebrates the Night of the Arts, with a myriad of events spilling into the streets until dawn.
The northern harvest begins to ripen in late July. Many families spend vacation days picking and conserving wild raspberries, blueberries, lingonberries and cloudberries. After the late summer rains come forest mushrooms – boletes, chanterelles and dozens of other edible species.
The king of the late summer culinary season is the crayfish, which can be caught starting on July 21. Families, groups of friends and companies arrange light-hearted crayfish parties, centred around impressive piles of the glowing-red crustaceans. Digging the flesh out of the small shells is a somewhat complicated and messy ritual, but this exotic delight rewards the effort. The crayfish are washed down with cold schnapps and songs.
May we propose a toast: To the joys of summer in Finland!
By Salla Korpela, updated July 2010