An American recounts his many colourful memories of Midsummer in Finland, from heavy metal bands to seaside bonfires, and from barbecues to mosquito bites.
Rich in tradition, Midsummer occupies a special place in the Finnish calendar, representing the high point of summer and the most popular time to start your annual vacation. It takes place on the Saturday between the 20th and 26th of June. Originally a pagan celebration, it was a tribute to Ukko, the god of thunder. Since he controlled the rain, you had to be nice to him in order to get a good harvest.
Bonfires were burned on the occasion, a ritual that continues today. However, in the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland – it’s a bilingual country – people have been happy just to put up a well-decorated maypole.
In the old days, unmarried women would use special charms and bend over a well, naked, in order to see their future husband’s reflection. In another, considerably more modest tradition, one that continues today, a young lady can collect seven different sorts of flowers and place them under her pillow. She will see her future husband in a dream.
Nowadays, Midsummer is also a celebration of St John (hence the Finnish name for the holiday: Juhannus), a time for some people to consume vast quantities of alcohol and a popular weekend for weddings and confirmations.
My first Midsummer
My first Midsummer in Finland took place on an island in the middle of the Turku Archipelago in southwestern Finland. It was a weekend of barbequing, swimming, drinking, storytelling, singing and relaxing on the smooth rocks. We were having such a fine time that we didn’t notice the mosquito bites until Monday.
In Helsinki, I’ve observed several Midsummers on Seurasaari, a forested island with an outdoor museum of historic buildings. Here you find old-fashioned craftsmen, customary games, musicians playing the kantele (the harp-like national instrument), pancakes and burnt sausages. For the finale, they light a huge bonfire and a newlywed couple is rowed around in an old wooden boat. Then I do some folk dancing that I can only fake on Midsummer.
On another island, I once attended a heavy metal Midsummer, which was fun, but I couldn’t hear anything for the next two days. Additionally, I’ve visited a restaurant with a large, outdoor terrace that features live music and is always absolutely packed. That may be a good thing if you want to bump into your future spouse.
On the subject of bonfires: At one Midsummer party near Porvoo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Helsinki, we enjoyed a sumptuous buffet and then our host led a caravan of cars. We drove past as many bonfires as we could find. They came in all sizes, and there were a surprising number of them. It was better than bird watching.
And many happy returns of the day
One year I took a fantastic lake cruise in the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä on a boat covered with so many decorative tree branches that you’d think the whole boat was growing. Onboard, people were grinning so intensely that I’m sure they had sore smile muscles the next day.
One of my friends has an old farmhouse in central Finland, and I’ve enjoyed a couple of Midsummers there. We don’t do anything special except sit around a campfire, chat and sing along to guitar music. If the visitors get bored, everyone goes skinny dipping.
Other enjoyable memories come from visiting a couple at their beachside cabin near Varkaus, a town in eastern central Finland. We’d have a grand barbeque and play mölkky, a type of Finnish lawn bowling. We’d take a boat to the restaurant across the water and dance until two, then go to a snack stand in town and chat with the rest of the village population until morning, returning to the couple’s house for a sauna. Usually some new friends would come along with us.
Overall, I’ve had my share of good Midsummer experiences in Finland. But I’m looking forward to more. Perhaps the best Midsummers are yet to come.
By Russell Snyder, June 2013