Happy Midsummer, everyone! Although we’ve waved bye-bye to the official longest day of the year, in northern climes the celebration can last a full week. The sun is still hanging out near its highpoint for hours, and Scandi types use the extra daylight wisely to party like there’s no tomorrow. Which there kinda isn’t, since the lack of darkness at this latitude means it’s hard to tell exactly when one day fades into the next — especially if you’ve been enjoying some homebrew.
Back in 2017, Matthew and I had a chance to see how the Finns celebrate the holiday. Like most Nordics, they honor the occasion with bonfires, nudity under the midnight sun … and lots of liquor, just as you’d expect. We’d been told by many of our American Embassy colleagues that Seurasaari Island, an open-air-museum-slash-park in Helsinki, was the place to experience some fun Midsummer traditions. So on our way back to Oslo from Chicago, we scheduled a two-day layover in Finland’s capital.
Unfortunately, our flight was severely delayed; it always happens when time matters most, right? After landing, we grabbed a pricey taxi, blitzed by the hotel to drop off our bags, and tore off towards the island like firemen racing to a four-alarm blaze. Rather appropriate, given that the festivities revolve around pyres of flaming birchwood. We finally skidded to a stop outside the park entrance, where rising spirals of smoke in the distance warned us that we were in danger of missing the main event — the wedding-party bonfire (seen in the big photo up top.)
So what’s this about a wedding? Every year, Helsinki selects one lucky couple to get married in the island’s old church. Visitors can witness the ceremony, join in on the wedding waltz, and watch as the newly-hitched get rowed out to sea, where they set fire to an enormous pile of floating logs. If you think this sounds like some sort of strange pagan ritual, you’re right. And now for the backstory ….
As we all know, the ancients were obsessed with the sun’s movements, its control over the seasons, and whether mankind could influence the situation in order to improve his odds of survival. The summer solstice signalled the beginning of the end for the prehistoric farmer. Warmth, light, and plenty had reached their zenith. From here on out, darkness and the chill of the coming winter began creeping slowly over the land. Bonfires on the longest day of the year seemed like the perfect way to pay tribute to the sun god’s life-giving rays and get his blessing for the autumn harvest.
To the ancients, the position of the sun during the summer solstice symbolized the sacred and sexual union between heaven and earth. Their fertile marriage made flowers blossom, seeds sprout, and livestock give birth. All over Europe, many different cultures mimicked the mystical event by hosting mock and real weddings. (Others just skipped the formalities and indulged in a good, old-fashioned orgy.) And the best part about the holiday was that any improper activities could all be blamed on the magical nature of Midsummer and the whimsy of the gods.
“The fairies made me do it,” has long been a perfectly acceptable excuse for bad behavior at Midsummer.
But sorcery wasn’t restricted only to immortals. Regular folk could also get in on the action. Plants with “magical” properties were believed to reach full strength on Midsummer’s Eve. People plucked the designated herbs and flowers before the morning dewfall to preserve their power. Since the season is all about sexual potency and fertility, men typically used the plants to brew up the prehistoric equivalent of Viagra, while the ladies concocted love potions. Most spells required nudity to be effective, of course. Add a little liquor into the mix, and Midsummer often turned into an x-rated event, culminating in a surge in the local population nine months later. Abracadabra, survival is ensured via the birth of a new generation of farmers.
A common Scandinavian proverb says: “Midsummer night is not long, but it sets many cradles to rock.”
So how does this storyline play out in Finnish celebrations at Seurasaari today? Well, we witnessed quite a few amusing traditions during our mad dash towards the main pyrotechnic event. We almost lost an eye while weaving through the huge crowd of folks who were wearing massive crowns made of flowers and greenery. And more than once we stopped to take advantage of a photo op next to a Maypole or a picturesque cottage bracketed by birch saplings. (They’re symbols of protection and welcome.) Check out the gallery below to learn more.
Along the way, we passed several families wearing traditional Finnish costumes, many of whom were collecting plants for Midsummer magic. But sadly, we were too late to try any of the divination spells, charms, or rites that had been offered earlier in the day. Pretty much all of these rituals involved helping maidens and menfolk uncover the identity of their future spouse or lover. For the guys, things were straight-up basic. Throwing a handful of special herbs into the bonfire might conjure up the face of your potential wife.
For the girls, the first few tasks seem tame enough. Swiping a white sheet across the grass could reveal your beloved’s handsome mug in the stain. Or plucking seven kinds of flowers and tucking them beneath your pillow might induce dreams of your ideal match.
But then suggestions got a bit racier. Peering into a well or bowl of water filled with flowers (best done while you’re naked), rolling (naked) in a dewy field, or swimming (naked) in a frigid lake beneath the midnight sun could also do the trick. Are you getting the picture that nudity is important in this equation? Conveniently, Seurasaari has a nude beach, with a wall to segregate men from women. After all, we wouldn’t want to make the experience uncomfortable, would we?
In any case, Matthew and I continued our frantic pace towards the wedding bonfire, trying not to be distracted by all the cute buildings. And that’s not an easy task. Like Oslo’s Norwegian Folk Museum, Seurasaari is a fantasy land of picture-postcard log homes. We’d hoped to peer inside a few as part of the wedding festivities. But unfortunately we’d missed the actual ceremony, which was held in a quaint 17th-century church with an onion-domed bell tower. And we were too late for the reception, hosted in the rustic Restaurant Seurasaari. However we did manage to take some photos of these architectural gems on the fly, so check out the gallery below.
Eventually, several flickering lights beckoned to us through the dense forest that surrounds the historic structures. We made our way towards the glow and found the shoreline path littered with bonfires of all sizes and in various states of incineration. Some were fueled by charcoal that crackled merrily in metal cans staked just offshore. Others were made of moss and brush piles that had been stacked along the shoreline. These were consumed by the flames in mere minutes, leaving behind sullen, smouldering pockmarks. Several birch-log towers burned long and slow at strategic viewpoints, almost like beacons. While a few stately wood pillars still sat awaiting a spark from the designated pyromaniac.
A short walk brought us to the beachfront, where we finally got a look at the fancily dressed members of the wedding party. They’d just arrived via a small fishing boat and had gathered to admire the towering inferno ignited by the bride and groom. To be honest, it looked less like a bonfire and more like a vision from Dante’s Hell, with an angry tornado of flames twisting into the sky. Metal oil cans that kept the pyre afloat popped and rumbled, providing a soundtrack like a tympani drum solo. Atmospheric to say the least.
We watched for awhile, then the distant sound of music drew us to the dance arena, where a quartet played. The first piece reminded us of Russian folk music, but it was quickly followed up by an unsettling medley of U.S. tunes that included Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, The Yellow Rose of Texas, Polly Wolly Doodle All Day, and If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands. What can I say? We Americans export only the best.
Finally, the musicians settled down for some traditional folk dance music that involved lots of hopping, kicking, and whirling. Matthew and I didn’t know the steps, but the tempo resembled a polonaise, so we joined in with our best impersonation of a German polka. We managed to take several spins around the dance floor without causing an international incident and lived to tell the story later.
Needing sustenance after our exertions, we headed over to the snack hut. As we waited in line for our food, we noticed an odd phenomenon. Individuals would go to the window, speak softly to the cashier, then step off to the side door, where the guy would surreptitiously hand them something that they’d quickly slip into their pockets. Could it be that at this family-friendly event, the people who ran the café were also running a nice little side hustle selling illicit drugs?
We were pondering the situation aloud, when the man in front of us perked up his ears. “Are you American?,” he asked. Now this is always a tricky question, as thanks to Trump, Yanks aren’t too terribly popular right now. But we decided to avoid our usual dodge of, “No, we’re Canadian,” and answered honestly. The guy grinned and said, “I married an American, had four kids, and lived in the U.S. for 27 years. In a community of 30,000 Finns, located in Lakeland, Florida, of all places.” (Who knew? I guess the Finns also get tired of the cold weather.)
He followed up with, “I recently got divorced, then deported, and so I moved back here just in time to say goodbye to my mom, who died last week at age 91. I’m here with my dad, at the Juhannus (Midsummer) festival, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence from Russia. My papa, who’s 95, remembers all of the stories my grandfather used to tell about that time.” (For those of you who aren’t up on Finnish history, the tiny but ferocious country has been surprisingly successful in establishing and maintaining its independence from the Russian bear.)
At this point, it was our new friend’s turn to place his order, and he participated in the same furtive ritual we’d observed earlier. When he circled back around to us, he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and offered one. We declined politely and laughingly told him what we’d thought we’d been witnessing. He chuckled and replied, “Nope, in Finland, cigarettes are almost as bad as drugs. Stores can’t advertise tobacco or even tell customers what brands they carry. Customers have to run through the list of their favorites clandestinely, and the sellers dispense whatever they have available covertly, as if it’s contraband.”
Then, noticing our coca-cola can, he advised, “Make sure you try some Sahti beer; it’s an experience you’ll never forget.” We laughed as we’d already been warned about this Finnish joke. Sahti is referred to as “ancient beer,” but it’s closer to homemade hooch. Concocted with a variety of grains, hops, and juniper, it’s reputedly quite a kick in the pants and difficult to find. It really does have its origins in pagan occult rituals. Sounds like my kinda witches’ brew. But alas, there was no Sahti in sight during our trip.
At this point, those of you who are Christian might be feeling anxious about the heathen origins of the holiday. So I’ll add one small clarification that might make you more comfy. The celebration “got sanctified” long ago, when some outwardly Christian but inwardly pagan mathematician figured out that John the Baptist’s birthday fell roughly around the time of the summer solstice. Thereafter the astronomical event became know as “St. John’s Day,” which gave everyone a church-approved reason to continue partying. That’s also why the Finnish name for the holiday is Juhannus (John) or Juhannuksena (John’s Eve).
“Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy,” thus wrote Ben Franklin (in French).
Before Christianity came to Finland, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla (“Ukko’s celebration”) so named for Ukko, the Finnish god of the skies. By plying Ukko with alcoholic offerings during the solstice, farmers were guaranteed good summer weather and a correspondingly great autumn harvest. This also helps explains the Finnish custom of drinking oneself into oblivion during the solstice. According to the ancients, the more a man drinks at Midsummer, the bigger his harvest will be in the autumn. By the looks of it, 2017 must’ve been a record-breaking year for farm productivity.
Hope you’ve enjoyed my reflections on Midsummer — and on that note, I’ll end with a few more pictures of the “white night” that we witnessed as we left Seurasaari.