Friday, June 20, 2014

Midsummer Night’s Dream Summer solstice in Scandinavia

SCANDINAVIA, June 20 2014 – If you are ever fortunate enough to be traveling during a national or regional holiday or festival, take the opportunity to participate.

Midsummer is one such event that is especially important in Scandinavia during the month of June.  Its roots lie in the pagan celebration of the summer solstice which pays homage to the longest day of the year.  In Sweden since the mid-twentieth century the holiday has been celebrated on the weekend between June 19 and 26.

The festivities are carefree and high spirited, featuring folk dancing, traditional clothing, parades, bands and, of course, plenty of traditional Swedish food.  Each village throughout Sweden observes the day in its own way, but much the same as the Fourth of July in the United States, certain traditions are similar throughout the country.

Typically a small band of revelers will begin the Midsummer festival by gathering at the far end of a village during early morning hours.  When enough people – ten or fifteen is enough -- have assembled, a cheerful parade is organized and runs through the streets of the town.

Flags wave.  Horns blare.  Neighbors greet neighbors encouraging others to join the party.  It’s a spontaneous affair signaling the onset of a daylong celebration.  There are no uniforms, floats, or marching bands, no clowns or massive balloons.  There is no pomp or ceremony other than the serendipitous invitation to partake in the fun.

The parade typically ends at a local park or an open area large enough to accommodate the revelry that will continue throughout the day’s journey into night.  Crowns of wildflowers are woven and placed on the heads of the women, especially the youngest girls who delight in honoring their Swedish heritage.
One of the primary responsibilities for the women and youngsters is decorating the maypole, which is an ongoing activity throughout the day until the big moment when the pole is raised. 

Often an elevated stage with a dance floor is constructed for the band and local entertainers to perform time-honored folk dances.  While many celebrants watch, others join in on the grass, swinging and swaying to the native music of the country.  Especially popular is the Chicken Dance, which is played on multiple occasions and always attracts the largest number of participants.

The big event comes in the early evening with the raising of the maypole.  Now the women and children yield to the burliest of the men who take to the testosterone challenge of lodging the pole into its resting place as the band plays an anticipatory drum roll.  When the task is accomplished, a roar goes up from the crowd and the band signals the achievement with a resounding blast of horns.

From that moment forward, dancing centers around the maypole as the food, drink and festivities linger until the soft twilight of day’s end.

At the popular island park of Seurasaari in Helsinki, Finland, Midsummer has a much different 
ambiance.  While parades with traditional clothing and flag waving are part of the ceremonies, the Finns take a slightly more somber approach to the holiday.  Dancing takes place in a large open area with seating for several hundred people.
At mid-day, a wedding is held at the small chapel on one end of the island.  It is regarded as a significant honor to be chosen to be married at Seurasaari on Midsummer’s Eve.  The festival proceeds through the remainder of the day with a variety of events that also include plenty of eating, drinking and dancing.

One of the more popular sporting events is the rousing game of Finnish skittles known as kuukka.  Originally a Russian sport, Finnish skittles consists of two teams throwing rolling pins at small cylindrical pegs which are about half the size of a soup can.  Several pegs are stacked on top of each other at either end of a rectangular court.  Team members take turns trying to knock the pegs out of the playing area with their rolling pins.  The first team to get all the pegs out of the court wins.

As the day draws to a close, Finns begin to gather at the shoreline of the park for a ceremonial bonfire.  Longboats that have been piled on lengthwise on end are heaped upon a small outcropping of rock in the water. 
As the Finns sing their mournful folk songs along the shore, the couple that was married earlier in the day is rowed around the rock in a procession of longboats.  The bride and groom are then docked near the pyre and leave their boat to walk up to the wooden stack of vessels to ignite the bonfire.
The blaze is tremendous, but the mood is solemn as the singing continues in the lingering lumens of light that bring a close to the longest day of the year.

Traditions are one of the best parts of the cultural awareness of travel.  Cherish those moments.  They are unforgettable.