On the second longest day of the year, I was wide awake at 4:30 am, thinking I had missed my alarm. Just a few short hours after the sun disappeared, it returned; light was already filtering in through the high windows to spread a gray glow throughout the room. After languishing a while longer beneath the warm duvet, I blinked the sleep away from my eyes and dragged myself out of bed. There was no time to waste, as today was to be my first Swedish midsommar celebration.
Despite the early hour, the train station buzzed with activity. It seemed that I wasn’t the only person doing my holiday travels on the day of the celebration. With a farewell to my lovely hosts from Malmö, I hopped onboard the roomy SJ train, which smelled oddly of sea water, and settled in for the long, roundabout journey to Alingsås. Because I booked my train sista minuten (“last minute”) that morning, I would be taking a journey northeast to the interior of Sweden and then back west towards the coast to my destination. The train line I took encompassed such tongue-twisting Swedish names as Falköping (“fall-show-ping”), Jönköping (“yawn-show-ping”), the bewildering Nässjö (the “sj” somehow turns into a “hw”), and Skövde (wait for it… “hove-duh”). But despite my bemusement at the town names, I spent most of my journey staring out of the window and listening to music. Sweden is the perfect place to travel by train – no books or distractions are needed.
Darting by outside, the Swedish countryside in Skåne is a study in beauty. Hidden lakes flash into existence between breaks in the trees and are gone just as quickly. Miles and miles of forest, comprising tall, spindly birches and drooping, silvery evergreens, will go by unbroken; then suddenly there will be manicured fields rolling away to the horizon with a lazily turning wind turbine and a lone red house. Every so often a shock of yellow rapeseed flowers can be seen in the distance.
The morning began with threatening storm clouds and spitting rain, but somewhere around the time I crossed from Skåne province into Småland, the skies turned brilliantly blue and the sun made a reappearance. Småland is littered with lakes that glittered in the sunshine and the fields were dotted with what appear to be lavender and pink veronicas. As we reached the towns of Huskvarna and Jönköping on the edge of the Vättern, the landscape became slightly more alpine; colourful houses receded down into valleys and hazy, blue mountains hid behind clouds in the distance.
I finally reached Alingsås station at 11:30 am after a pleasant morning whisking through much of Skåne, Småland, and some of Västra Götland. My Couchsurfing host, Pauline, picked me up and after a quick introduction, began to fill me in on what sounded like a very exciting midsommar. The farmhouse where it was being held would play host to much of Pauline’s extended family, friends of family, and friends of Pauline and her boyfriend Jonas. There would be people from all over the world – Chile, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Norway, France, and even some other Americans. I felt a bit panicked, wondering how I would fit in and how the day would go. But my worries were needless – Pauline had me jump straight in by helping them prepare for the day. As it was, only some of her family and friends were there, and much needed to be done before the other 50 or 60 people arrived later in the day.
Pauline, her friends Agnes and Olga, some of the younger children and I walked back out to the roadside to gather the many flowers that were growing there. We needed bunches and bunches for everyone to make their midsommarkrans (flower crowns) from, as well as to decorate the midsommarstång (maypole) with.
There was much to be done still, so I joined Pauline and Agnes in the kitchen. We busied ourselves scrubbing kilos of beautiful small Swedish potatoes (so fresh that they still had soft soil clinging to them) as well as preparing some light lunch and coffee for everyone who was arriving.
When the potatoes were finished and set aside for boiling later, I went on a little tour of the farm, past the lake where some guests were setting up tents for the night, to a forested area where four little ponies grazed to their heart’s content in the mild weather. They walked over to the group, swishing their tails, nudging and sniffing at us to see if we had brought them any treats. When they figured out that we had none, they huffed and wandered off to find greener patches of grass.
Meanwhile, the midsommarstång was being built from scratch – two long, narrow birch trunks were procured and stripped of their branches, which were then used to wrap around the trunks and make wreaths to hang from the crossarms. Those who weren’t working on the maypole set about making their midsommarkrans, which were as varied and individual as the people wearing them. Some were, of course, more impressive than others.
It is said that many hands make light work, and with almost everyone pitching in to help build the maypole, it was done in no time. With the storm clouds gathering once more and the threat of rain looming ever closer, everyone was quickly gathered together to take part in one of the most famous midsommar traditions. Most people know the “Små grodorna” (“little frogs”) dance and song, the translated lyrics of which go, “The little frogs are funny to observe; no ears, no tails have they. Koo ah ka ka, koo ah ka ka…” The last bit is meant to imitate the sounds the frogs make, whilst the Swedes dance in a circle and put their hands behind their backs to imitate the tails that these poor amphibians are lacking.
I took part in that song, mumbling the lyrics that a few people tried so valiantly to ingrain in my memory five minutes before the singing and dancing began. I’m not sure how I got on with the verses, but I think that I did the “koo ah ka ka” and the dancing fairly well. I stepped back to watch the rest of the songs, which included a song about a sleeping bear and a version of tag.
Right as the last chorus finished, the rain began to fall, lightly at first with increasing intensity. With giddy shrieks, everyone dashed up the hill to the barn where our potluck feast was waiting. The last few stragglers were unlucky and entered the barn already soaked; spirits were high and couldn’t be brought down by trivial things such as wet clothes. As the winds blew and the thunder rolled, everyone grabbed a plate and helped themselves to the various dishes that had been brought – a mix of traditional Swedish fare like potatoes in gräddfil (soured cream) with chives and Västerbottenostpaj; and various other offerings like pasta salads, meats, cheeses, fruit, and casseroles. And it goes without saying that there was a daunting selection of matjes and sill (pickled herring) and a large portion of aquavit.
Throughout the course of the meal, we were interrupted many times by someone standing to raise a toast or start a round of song, followed by much cheering and clinking of glasses and downing of spirits. Once everyone had their fill of savoury foods, a parade of cakes and sweet pies appeared, followed by one of the very best offerings of a Swedish summer – fresh, wild strawberries with cream. And once all the strawberries were gone? That’s when the party began. There was a quick clearing of the tables and furniture was shuffled to the side to free up the barn floor for dancing. Shoes were kicked off and everyone began to jump, jive, swing, and throw shapes to the most eclectic mix of music I’ve heard at a party in a long time. Jonas and Pauline are hugely into swing dancing, so there was plenty of foot-tapping music from that era, as well as ABBA (it was inevitable), Elvis, Madonna, the YMCA song, Swedish Disney songs, and more. Later on, some of the South Americans brought out drums, maracas, a birimbao and all manner of percussive instruments and set up a drum circle that would continue thumping out their rhythms for the rest of the night.
At this point, the rest of the evening was left to everyone to while it away as they wished. Some people played drums all night; some people danced; some people ran around to the lake for a swim; some people sat outside the barn, watching the clouds roll by and slowly smoking cigars. Everyone came together again briefly at midnight, in the hazy gloaming around a maypole now lit with rainbow LED lights, to join hands, dance, and sing once more.
After this, another midsommar tradition took place – the midnight sauna visit. I think most people were content to sit in the sauna and not run out to the lake for a “refreshing” dip between sessions, but some brave souls may have done so. For the most part, we gathered in the sauna, discussing everything from work, world politics, and travel to Burning Man to 3d printing, sometimes pausing to listen to stories, like an old Swedish sailor’s tale of a father losing his son to the wild and unforgiving sea. Time waned on until somehow it became not the late hours of the night, but the early hours of the morning.
One by one, people left the sauna, heading to bed. When I’d had my fill of the stiflingly hot room, I put my dress back on and wandered back into the barn in a last attempt to wake myself up and push through til dawn. The sky was already light – the sun had never fully set anyways – and some people were still drumming, dancing, drinking, and laughing in the barn. I stayed for a minute to watch, smiling at the merriment and admiring the tenacity of the one or two kids who were still awake and whose midsommar celebration would outlast mine. But I was beat. I fell exhausted onto the camping mattress that had been set out for me in the room next to the sauna, drifting off to sleep as the sounds of drumming and chatter floated in through the window…
When I awoke a few hours later, I was the only one left in the room. I made my way upstairs to the kitchen where most everyone was already awake and tucking into a glorious spread of breads, jams, spreads, fruit, freshly cooked Swedish pancakes (the thin kind), cheeses, and multiple cups of black coffee. Lots of people were bleary-eyed with little sleep, and others looked as though they hadn’t slept at all and were sobering up on their coffee. As breakfast finished, people began to pack and say their goodbyes. Most of the family and some friends stayed behind to do the clean-up, and we were rewarded soon after with another delicious meal, a hearty “grill-up” with all the Swedish trimmings (and some good Chilean wine to boot).
As I was chatting to one person before they left, he shook his head slowly and said, “You are so lucky. This is the best midsommar I have ever been to. It’s always a good party, but this was something special. You’re lucky you came to this one.” I knew that I was lucky to not only have stumbled upon a great party, but many people I would come to call friends. Not that I knew it at the time, but I would be returning to Sweden quite soon and seeing some of them again. But that’s a story for a later date.
Read the previous post on this trip here.