Traditional Finnish Midsummer Celebration
At midsummer, the people in the Nordic countries celebrate the lightest time of the year and the proper start of summer season. Although an ancient feast, midsummer is still an important national festival in Finland, as well as in Sweden and Norway.
Midsummer is also the time of summer solstice, the culmination of summer and a turning point after which the days begin to slowly shorten again in the northern hemisphere. During the period called polar days, the nights are short and light, while in the regions north of the arctic circle the sun does not set below the horizon at all for several weeks. In the village of Nuorgam, situated near the northernmost point of Finland, the sun does not set between the mid-May and the end of July.
At midsummer, after the spring sowing, the ancient Finns celebrated the feast of Ukko, the pagan Finnish god of thunder, fertility, and growth. Although the Christian church has celebrated June 24th as the birthday of John the Baptist since the 5th century, the day is not a major festival in the Finnish Evangelical-Lutheran Church. The modern Finnish midsummer celebration is a mixture of pagan and Christian traditions.
Many Finns like to spend the midsummer in the countryside. People head for their cottages and summer cabins, leaving towns and cities deserted. A summer cottage with a lakeside sauna is a summer dream for most Finns. They long to escape the busy city life to spend their holiday quietly in the bosom of Mother Nature, chopping firewood, fetching water from a lake or a well, bathing in sauna and eating barbecued food for days on end.
Burning bonfires to celebrate a great feast is an old tradition that has been practised in many countries. In the old times, bonfires were burnt to dispel evil spirits and bad fortune or to enhance light and warmth and the fertility of domestic animals, crops and people.
Everyone in the village gathered to watch the bonfire burn and to dance, sing and play games together. This custom spread throughout Finland and is still practised here today.
In Sweden, and in some Swedish-speaking regions of Finland, tall midsummer poles are erected on Midsummer Eve, similar to the maypoles raised in the continental Europe and Britain.
An old tradition is to decorate the house and yard with young leafy trees like birch or aspen. The cut trees were placed standing at either side of doorways, gates or doorsteps, and windows were bordered with leafy branches. Fresh birch twigs are also gathered to tie up special switches that are then used to slap oneself while bathing in Finnish sauna.
Many magical and supernatural aspects have traditionally been linked to midsummer night, the shortest night of the year, giving cause to various religious and superstitious beliefs. Strange things were known to happen on midsummer night, when evil spirits and witches were thought to be roaming around. By performing magical rites people believed they could secure a better future for themselves, to ensure a good fortune for the household, an abundant crop and protect the livestock from illnesses.
Various herbs and medicinal plants picked on midsummer night, before the morning dew had fallen, were thought to be at the peak of their power. The dew formed on midsummer night was believed to have healing powers. Dreams could be made come true by sleeping through midsummer night with nine different flowers placed under the pillow. According to some beliefs, the flowers had to be picked in the lands of three different farmsteads, without uttering a word.
One could even see the devil himself if one would strip oneself naked and run thrice around a rye field. On midsummer night, one could catch a treasure by keeping an eye on will-o’-the-wisps, the phosphorescent lights that can sometimes be seen flickering over marshlands. The light would reveal a spot on which a treasure has been buried.
There are various magical tasks and tricks for young girls (and boys) to perform on Midsummer Eve in order to know whether they would soon be married or to get a glimpse of their future spouse: A girl picks seven or nine different species of wild flowers and places them under her pillow for the night. While sleeping, the face or the name of her future husband will be revealed for her in a dream. If a girl rolls around naked on a dewy field, she is sure to meet her fiancé during the passing year. If a girl goes up to a well or a spring naked on midsummer night, she will see the face of her future husband briefly reflected in the water.
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