For many people, the word Midsummer evokes images of people dancing and laughing around a lush Maypole, handmade flower crowns adorning their heads. But what is Midsummer really, and why is it celebrated? We deep-dive into the folksy tradition that takes place on the lightest day of the year all across Sweden, a.k.a. the Summer Solstice, to find out how you should celebrate it, and perhaps most importantly where. From idyllic islands to an open-air museum to Swedish Lapland, we’ve got you covered.
Midsummer may mean in the middle of the summer but it actually takes place already in June. The bank holiday has been moveable since 1953 because of Swedish industrialization and the need to accommodate general industrial holidays that were growing stronger. Since then, it always takes place on a Friday between June 19 and 25, kick-starting the summer holidays for many Swedes. The celebration of Midsummer goes back much further than to the 1950s. Once an ancient Christian celebration to honor John the Baptist, since medieval times, Midsummer has morphed into a festive welcoming of summer marking the summer solstice. In peasant society, farmers across the country viewed the day as a starting point for their most fruitful season, which gave them a good reason to celebrate and from where many of the traditions live on today.
Dancing around the Maypole
The most prominent symbol of Midsummer is the phallic maypole, embellished with leaves and flower leaves to signify fertility for the harvesting season. Believed to have been imported from Germany, the maypole was adapted to the Swedish climate and traditions. Dancing around the maypole is a Midsummer must and what most Midsummer celebrations have in common.
Even though there’s a variety of dances to choose from, the most famous one is called Små grodorna. This translates to “the little frogs” and kids and adults alike mimic amphibians and point out their body parts while singing along to the lyrics describing the movements. The song first appeared in Sweden in the 1920s but the melody dates back to Napoleon’s time when the British adopted a French military song to make fun of their rivals.
Midsummer: all fun and games
As Midsummer is usually celebrated on a spacious lawn, it’s the perfect opportunity to bring out the garden games! The most classic one is kubb, where the aim is to knock over wooden blocks from the opposing team with your own blocks. This game traces back to Viking times and is a Nordic summer classic also known as “Viking chess”. Another popular Midsummer game activity is sack racing. Participants need to hop from a starting line to a finish line with both of their legs placed within a sack. Hilarity inevitably ensues. Lastly, a good old-fashioned tug-of-war round usually takes place with two teams pulling on each side of a strong rope to, literally, bring each other down!
Midsummer in Sweden: food and drinks
The Midsummer table comprises an almost identical set of husmanskost (traditional, Swedish homemade food based on fish, meat, and potatoes) that are served for Christmas and Easter but with a few seasonal updates. Hand-rolled meatballs, pickled herring (a pungent staple that divides the nation), dill, and of course seasonal strawberries are all a must on the Midsummer table.
Perhaps more important than the food are the drinks. This is the biggest party day of the year in Sweden and revelers down countless shots, especially the Scandi-produced, centuries-old spirit Aquavit, which is made of distilled grain or potatoes infused with herbs.
Of course, you can’t do a shot without singing a snappsvisa (a traditional drinking song everyone sings together before downing their schnapps). You may have seen popular YouTube clips of Swedish movie stars such as Alexander Skarsgård and Alicia Vikander doing the rounds on American talk shows singing a variety of funny songs that precede doing a shot of schnapps. As most of them are very simple and repetitive, it’s easy to get the hang of it and join in!
That Midsummer magic
Midsummer is a celebration with pagan elements, and that mystical feeling of the holiday imbues everything. Anyone who has read or seen Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will get the gist. Old and new connect, celebrating life and welcoming summer. There’s a lingering belief in the day’s magic for both fertility in the soil but also for love. One of the most longstanding Midsummer myths that is retold today is that if you walk over seven meadows and pick a different flower from each field, you’ll dream of the one you’ll marry if you put the wild bouquet under your pillow on Midsummer’s night.
Midsummer in Sweden: where to celebrate
If all this appeals to you, perhaps you would like to celebrate Midsummer in Sweden? Being a holiday often spent with close friends and family in a countryside getaway, it can be tricky to access a proper celebration as a visitor. Luckily, there are some places to go even if you don’t have the luxury of knowing people with a summer house on one of the islands.
If you’re in Stockholm, you can easily head out to the archipelago or celebrate at Skansen, the city’s biggest open-air museum, for an authentic Midsummer. Celebrations here go on for three days, set to the backdrop of Swedish wildlife and villages made to look like they did in the olden days. Make your own wreaths, listen to live folk music, and dance around the maypole to the sound of accordion into the bright night on the city island of Djurgården.
If you’re feeling adventurous, travel to Swedish Lapland for some actual midnight sun. The sun won’t go down at all this time of year so you’re in for a treat (unless you have insomnia)! Check-in at the spectacular Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi.
Made of ice sculpted from the nearby Torne River, the hotel is a popular getaway for Midsummer addicts. From there, make your way to the idyllic homestead Hembygdsgården (dating back to 1768) in Jukkasjärvi which will be open for Midsummer celebrations. Enjoy a Midsummer lunch buffet with herring that can be pre-booked via the Icehotel’s restaurant Wärdshuset. The little ones can enjoy pony riding with river views while the adults raise the maypole!
Idyllic islands to celebrate Midsummer
Sweden has plenty of bathing-friendly islands that are easily accessible by ferry. We’ve picked three of our favorites for a guaranteed picturesque and joyful Midsummer’s Eve.
Stockholm’s archipelago boasts 30,000 islands but quaint Vaxholm has been dubbed the capital. Despite only having 5,000 inhabitants, Vaxholm buzzes in the summer with many visitors opting for a day trip here to escape the city. For your Midsummer party, the dressing of the maypole starts at 2 p.m. at Lägret. Once the maypole has been raised, the folk dance team will put on a show before everyone else joins in on the fun. Later on, everyone can partake in traditional games and enjoy an expansive picnic together. If you want to stay overnight, check-in at Waxholms Hotel by the marina with views across Vaxholmsfjärden Bay and the fortress.
The island of Gotland is one of Sweden’s most coveted holiday destinations and with good reason. With its incredible rock formations (raukar) and medieval city (Visby), it’s a hotspot for the rich and famous. For a truly traditional Swedish Midsummer, join the festivities at Paviljongsplan. Follow the throng of accordionists, fiddlers and carted horses who start the procession at Södertorg on their way to the final destination of Paviljongsplan. Here, everyone can partake in the making of wreaths and decorating the maypole before dancing around it to the sounds of folk music.
Jump on a quick ferry ride from Strömstad, a fishing village, to the idyllic island of Koster surrounded by Kosterhavet. This is Sweden’s only marine national park and with some luck, you can spot chubby gray seals on the rocks. Soak in the separate northern and southern parts of the island (Nordkoster and Sydkoster) and rent a tandem bike to explore wooden paths and rugged, rocky shores and sandy beaches. Head to the spacious wooden sun terrace of the hotel Pensionat Ekenäs for magical harbor views where Midsummer celebrations have been taking place since the 1940s or the restaurant Tavernan på Syd, Kostergården to partake in their festivities. If you’re longing for a calmer Midsummer, grab a fika and enjoy a naked Midsummer’s eve dip in the salty ocean by a fiery, very late, sunset! Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone!