Partying in Sweden for the solstice
Midsummer is the party of the year that calls for a lot of singing, a smorgasbord of salty fish, bottomless glasses of beer, and aquavit. And maybe a maypole dance.
The New York Times
“Bring wine? To Midsummer? That is a funny joke,” said my Aunt Anna-Greta with a hearty peal of laughter and a knee slap. “Maybe you think you are in Italy!”
Eighty-two years old, with thick white hair and a face weathered by years of vacations in the Canary Islands, Anna-Greta Johnson is feisty, strong-willed, even more strongly opinionated and very Swedish. The matriarch of my extended family, Anna-Greta has never shied from putting someone in her place. And right then, standing in the middle of a breezy, green meadow in bucolic southern Sweden, that someone was me.
It was Midsummer in the pastoral southern province of Smaland — a holiday I celebrated for years as a child — but apparently I was a little rusty on tradition.
The Midsummer party, usually held the Friday after the summer solstice (this year’s will be June 21, the day of the solstice itself), is a day — a very long day — that calls for a lot of singing, a smorgasbord of salty fish, bottomless glasses of beer, and aquavit, the local spirit distilled from potatoes, typically served chilled, drunk without the buffer of club soda and the reason my uncles always had to call a cab on Midsummer. In other words, this is the party of the year. And you definitely don’t bring wine.
Many solstices had passed since last time I was here. My mother is Swedish, my father was an orphan from Brooklyn — and for nearly 20 years we spent every summer in Smaland. It’s why I have never felt completely American. It’s also why I have no relatives who aren’t Swedish.
I have strong memories of growing up in Sweden; over the past 20 years, those memories have become almost fablelike. And in all those summers there was no day more special than Midsummer. It was the one day we were all together. It was the one day I wanted to share with my own child.
It was time to teach my 3-year-old daughter, Frankie, how to sing and dance around a maypole (assuming I could even remember), see the cousins I still envisioned as 10-year-olds, and find out how Smaland had changed over the past two decades — or rather, whether it had changed.
It’s always risky to return to a place that gave you happy childhood summers. At worst, you may find that new four-lane highways have run over your personal memories. At best, you realize those memories have inflated. But Smaland, I learned, may be impervious to change.
Most cultures have their pagan hand-me-downs, and in Scandinavia it’s Midsummer. Or, more accurately: Midsommar. Back in the Middle Ages, the point of covering a maypole — a midsommarstang — in leaves and flowers was an appeal to the gods for a generous harvest.
Over the centuries, traditions shifted, and every Midsummer party I’ve been to has been less an offering to the gods and more a really fun garden party, but also a special one — particularly to those who grew up with it.
It was early afternoon on a brilliantly blue day last summer, the air warm and scented by wildflowers. Frankie and I had joined the entire population of Jat (all 20 of them) in the town square — really less a town square than a grassy knoll. Yet here in the middle of Swedish farm country, it might as well have been an opening game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. At the center of it all was a 20-foot-tall maypole.
“Hejsan!” My cousin Hans — once blond, now bald — came over from behind and bearhugged me. “The last time I saw you, you were almost her size.” He bent down, scooped up Frankie and bearhugged her, too. “We would never have come all the way to Jat, but we heard there was an American in town.”
Elsewhere, the musicians were unpacking their guitars, the townspeople were setting out coffee and cakes, cars were pulling into the neighboring field, and young, blond people with flowers in their hair were filling up the knoll.
Calico cows grazed on the hilltop. Birds, butterflies, the sounds of children giggling — it was one big, summertime cliche. But in this spot, at this time of year, it was all genuine.
Every town in Sweden has its own Midsummer party and virtually all are open to the public and to tourists — the bigger the city, the bigger the party, though the small village versions tend to be the most authentic. Every June for nearly 20 years, my parents would pack up my three older sisters and me and we’d make the daylong journey from New York to Tingsryd, a small town on Lake Tiken that, in my memory at least, consisted of no more than an ice cream stand, a toy store and a church.
Even as a child, I knew Smaland was special in a particular way. The region and our home, Dianella (in a place like this, homes have names), feature all the trappings of a fairy tale: Birch forests that go on forever. Idyllic meadows covered in Queen Anne’s lace and pink lupines. Bottomless black lakes. Wandering families of elk.
Children are taught to believe that there are tomten, or gnomes, lurking in the forests. We used to forage for blueberries or, after it rained, chanterelle mushrooms. I even had an aunt who, right out of central casting, lived in a little red cottage with no electricity in the middle of the forest. She seemed to be perpetually baking kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls) and kringla (small, crunchy doughnuts) for my sisters and me.
Everyone shows up to Midsummer — and enthusiastically. Even the teenagers with their slouched shoulders and asymmetrical haircuts who you’d expect to be sullen or have their heads buried in their smartphones, were holding hands, skipping around the maypole and singing about sleeping bears and jumping frogs without so much as an eye roll. The older citizens clapped along from wooden chairs on the sidelines. Young mothers swayed with sleeping babies clasped on a shoulder.
Really, though, Midsummer is a holiday made for little girls. Dripping ice cream cones, running races, crowns of flowers — Frankie, who doesn’t speak a word of Swedish, was having all of it.
The Johansson clan — my kinfolk — represented well that day. Sure, cousin Eva had gone gray, Aunt Kerstin moved a little more slowly, and my little cousin Emma had babies of her own, but basically nothing had changed that much since the last time we all danced around a maypole together two decades ago.
Smaland is only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle and, this being the longest day of the year, nighttime comes very late and is very brief. (Coffee — two or three big cups of strong, black, bitter stuff — becomes critical.)
By 6 p.m. on Midsummer — which looked more like noon — the crowd started to break up. It was time for the feast. All over Sweden at that moment, drinks were being poured. Smorgasbords were being assembled. Accordions were being unpacked. And revelry was poised to begin.
“Now we go to Ravagard!” Aunt Anna-Greta clapped her hands as much in celebration as in command, referring to the farm where my grandparents lived almost a century ago, where my mother and her nine siblings all grew up, and where my Aunt Ann-Marie and Uncle Birger were now hosting our Midsummer feast.
Cows lowed in the barn. Chickens clucked in their pen. And in the garden, surrounded by trimmed hedges and vibrant flower beds, Frankie climbed on a swing set with the second cousins she’d never met before this day.
“We celebrate Midsummer every year,” my cousin Gun-Marie told me. “This is usually when Swedes take their summer holiday, but most of us haven’t been to Ravagard since we were kids. It’s hard to get here.”
Aunts, uncles and cousins chatted and laughed and sipped cold beer and whiskey, and munched what passes for hors d’oeuvres in Sweden: peanuts.
Once the bowls were whittled down to a politely unfinished nut or two, Ann-Marie announced that dinner was ready. This was the next chapter of the evening: the sprawling smorgasbord, an opportunity to show off some impressive culinary skills. My aunt’s dining room table was packed end to end with platters.
There was pickled herring in cream sauce and pickled herring in tomato sauce. There was a large bowl of herring in dill sauce and a small bowl of herring in dill sauce. There were the buttery new potatoes, tossed with fresh dill. There was the platter of gravlax (cured salmon) covered in a thick coat of still more dill. There was Janssons frestelse, or Jansson’s temptation, a casserole of potatoes, onions, cream and anchovies. Next to it, a bowl of prinskorv, miniature fried hot dogs.
There was more fish, a few platters of cheese, a heaping breadbasket filled with dense dark bread and crunchy dark crackers. There were small mountains of meatballs and slightly smaller mountains of vegetarian meatballs. Oh, and salad.
This was a table that could feed a small country — a small country of people who really have a thing for salty food served with a lot of dill.
It seemed as if it might not happen, but eventually the light started fading and the sky grew dark. Frankie crawled onto my lap, tucked her head into my shoulder and drifted off. The cake came out, the singing continued, and the merriment showed no signs of slowing down.
When third and fourth servings of aquavit were poured, though, I felt myself getting sleepy. And as my daughter shifted in my arms, I realized it was time to take her home. The party would last for a few more hours, the eating and drinking until sunrise.
But in this country where celebrations happen with families more than with friends, there would be no worry about imposing. The singing would get a little louder, and it wouldn’t just be the young people. In fact, Aunt Anna-Greta would be the one commandeering both the conversations and the songs. Magdalena would document it all with her smartphone. And chances are we wouldn’t all gather around the same Midsummer table again for many years. There were some people here I may never see again.
I’m determined to go back, though, joined next time by my husband and my son. Frankie and I will show them this wondrous fairy tale of a tradition near the top of the world.