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Finland is one of the few countries left in the world which still celebrates Midsummer, the longest day of the year, as a major public holiday. In the pre-Christian era, much of Europe celebrated this time of year with festivals and rituals, which today are generally only practiced by neo-pagans. As Scandinavia was one of the last areas of Europe to be Christianised, the tradition has remained.
However, unlike Christmas or Easter, there is no longer any religious aspect to the holiday. It is a time to celebrate the beginning of summer and take time off work for relaxation and to enjoy the brief summer sun. These are some Finnish Midsummer traditions to try yourself this year:
The most prevalent tradition is to spend the holiday weekend relaxing at a lakeside or island cottage for isolation in natural surroundings. It is such a common practice that the cities will become almost like ghost towns for the weekend. If you aren’t invited to a cottage yourself, there are plenty that you can rent out.
Like Christmas, Midsummer is a popular time for visiting friends and relatives. Younger people who can’t yet afford their own summer houses will usually be invited to spend the holiday at their parent’s or grandparent’s cottage. Unlike Christmastime, there isn’t a social obligation to visit every single relative or exchange gifts. It is simply a chance to unwind and have fun together in an informal setting.
You will likely be able to catch or find your dinner yourself while staying in the country. Going boating and catching fish to be grilled later are common Midsummer activities. It is also an ideal time for picking berries, which can be used in multiple different desserts.
One tradition surviving from pagan times is the building of the Midsummer bonfire and lighting it around sunset. This is done by gathering large fallen branches from the surrounding forest and building a large fire, usually close to the waterside. The fire is used for telling stories, singing songs or for cooking campfire food – such as grilled sausages, s’mores, pancakes or the fish caught earlier.
Its association with ancient religions means that Midsummer is still often seen as a time when spirits are more active and easier to spot. Will-o-wisps are said to be frequent around Midsummer, usually appearing as balls of light over lakes. Finnish folk legends say that they indicate the location of hidden treasure or faerie gold. Other stories say never to follow the wisps as they will lead a person to doom.
Neo-pagans still regularly cast spells or perform rituals around Midsummer due to its supposed heightened spiritual activity. The association of June weddings make it an especially popular time for performing love divinations. One tradition which is still performed today says that if an unmarried women gathers seven different types of flowers and places them under her pillow, she will dream about her future husband. Another version says that if a girl gathers nine different flowers from nine different meadows, she will meet her husband on Midsummer’s eve.
Being with loved ones in the middle of the country makes Midsummer a popular time for taking a group sauna. At a summer cottage this is usually done in the traditional manner – lighting the fire with wood, hitting the skin with birch branches to improve circulation, and cooling off with a dip in the water.
Even if post-sauna skinny dipping isn’t for you, you can still take the rare opportunity for a night swim. The long daylight hours will warm up the water, so you can go swimming even after sunset in clean, clear water.
It wouldn’t be a holiday without plenty of drink to go along with it. However, this means that the one downside to Finnish Midsummer is that the amount of alcohol consumed can lead to some rowdy behaviour. There is a highly morbid tradition of the news reporting how many deaths have resulted from too much drinking around large bodies of water.
But as long as you drink responsibly, sharing beers is a perfect accompaniment to a bonfire, sauna or dinner.
If relaxing in the countryside isn’t to your taste, there are plenty of Midsummer parties as well. Music festivals are frequently held around the holiday for all genres of music. This includes the Haapavesi Folk Music Festival, Music in Ruovesi, and the beginning of the Gergiev Festival Mikkeli.
No matter where you are celebrating Midsummer this year, the Finnish traditions of good food, good company and taking a break from daily life are some of the best ways to welcome the summer.