Midsummer in Sweden: Origins and Traditions

Maypole closeupGiven Scandinavia’s long, dark winters, it’s not surprising that the arrival of summer is a big deal throughout the Nordic countries. In Sweden, Midsummer’s Eve is one of the most important days of the year, rivaling Christmas with its festive spirit and traditions.

Traditionally, Midsummer was celebrated on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but the holiday has its roots in a pre-Christian solstice festival. Rather than trying to stamp out such pagan festivals, the early Catholic Church found it useful to coopt them by associating them with Christian celebrations. By establishing December 25 conveniently close to the winter solstice as the date when Jesus was born, the Church was able to absorb the pagan midwinter festival of Yule into the Christian celebration of Christmas. Biblical sources suggest that St. John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, meaning that his birthday could be equally conveniently associated with pagan summer festivals.

Raising the maypole on Midsummer's Eve

In 1952 the Swedish Parliament decided that Midsummer should always be celebrated on a weekend. This took effect the following year, and as a result, the observance of Midsummer now varies between June 20 and 26.

In many countries the summer solstice is celebrated with huge outdoor bonfires. This was once part of the Swedish festival as well, but these days the bonfire is most associated in Sweden with Walpurgis Night celebrations on April 30. Instead the focus of Midsummer celebrations is the maypole (or Midsummer pole) decorated with greenery and flowers. As it turns out, the maypole is a comparatively new part of Swedish Midsummer tradition. It came to Sweden in the late Middle Ages from Germany, where the pole was decorated with leaves and raised on May 1 (hence the name). Since spring comes later to Sweden it was hard to find the greenery to decorate the pole on May 1, so the tradition was moved to Midsummer. Some sources also attribute the perpetuation of the term majstång, or maypole, to the archaic Swedish word maja, meaning “to decorate with green leaves.”

Dancers in folk costumes on Midsummer's EveThough the tradition of decorating the maypole with leaves seems to be a Germanic addition, the origins of the maypole itself date back to early medieval festivals in France, when the Carolingian kings would muster their troops on May 1. Among other contests archers would compete in shooting at a bird (real or fake) placed at the top of a tall pole. These so-called parrot-shooting contests became very popular throughout Europe. Reflecting this history, some maypoles are still decorated with a rooster or other bird at the top.

Dancing round the maypole on Midsummer's EveThe tradition of dancing around the Midsummer pole is an old one, though of course the dances have changed over the centuries. Today organized Swedish Midsummer festivals typically include exhibitions of folk dancing in traditional costumes, as well as ring dances and games for people of all ages to join in. No Midsummer celebration is complete without Små grodorna, a dancing game in which people of all ages hop around the pole while singing about little frogs. The goofiness is part of the fun!

Midsummer was considered to be a time of magic, and anything to do with nature was thought to have a special power. Gathering flowers to weave into wreaths and crowns was a way to harness nature’s magic to ensure good health throughout the year.  Even though most people these days probably are unaware of the magical origins of the tradition, weaving crowns of flowers is still a major part of any Midsummer observance.

The magic of Midsummer also extends to the realm of romance. A Swedish verse says, “Midsummer night is not long but it sets many cradles to rock.” For unmarried girls, it’s said that if you pick seven (or sometimes nine) types of flowers and place them under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future husband.

Girls with crowns of flowers on Midsummer

And if all of this makes you hungry, then sit yourself down for a Midsummer meal of herring and new potatoes, a shot of schnapps, and some strawberries for dessert.

Related articles:

Syttende Mai: The Most Norwegian Day of the Year

Sweden’s National Day: Flags, History, Strawberries, and Song

Bringing Light in the Darkness: Celebrating St. Lucia Day in Sweden

A Night of Bonfires and Song: Celebrating Valborgmässoafton (Walpurgis Night) in Sweden

16 thoughts on “Midsummer in Sweden: Origins and Traditions”

  1. Wish I had known about this festival before booking my flight and accommodation to spend a month in Sweden this summer! I actually stumbled across it by accident when planning to do a blog post on Swedish National Day as a sort of “preview” to my trip. That’s when I discovered that Mid Summer’s Eve was more important to Swedes than their national day. Oh, well … if only I had known. There are so many things to consider when planning a trip. I was under pressure to pick dates quickly because of a special promotion with limited seats and available dates and time was running out. There’s always next year!

    1. How lucky you were to trip into the wonderful Swedish Midsummer celebrations.
      Glad Midsommar


  2. In Stockholm during the festival. But no one seems to be able to explain where the festivals are. We have asked repeatedly and get vague answers. Searching the internet does not seem to help either.

    1. Look at all the local parks – that is where most of the authentic celebrations are held. We attended one last year about an hour north of Stockholm.

  3. I am so bummed. I live in the US but it is important to me to observe my Swedish roots. I have a family obligation (wedding of all the inconvenient things) on the day that I had my midsommar party planned. Can I celebrate it the following weekend? Do Swedes extend their celebrations?

    Thanks, Matt in New York

    1. Hi Matt,

      In Sweden, Midsummer celebrations are held at Midsummer and not at other times. But in the US, I’ve been to Midsummer celebrations hosted by Scandinavian heritage groups both the weekend before and the weekend after Midsummer. If you’re having your own party, especially if it’s in the US, then do what works for you and don’t worry about it. Have fun!

    2. No Sweden does not extend the Midsummer holyday. Does anybody extend Christmas?
      Midsummer is as important as Christmas for a Swede.

    3. No, Swedes don’t extend the celebration. It’s only for that day and like the article says, it’s mostly at night. Do you even know what Swedish midsommer really is and what the customs are? It’s not mostly celebrated in the South of Sweden, it’s celebrated all over Sweden with the people, dressing in the regional dress. They raise a maypole for which is usually brought to the place by boat. It’s decorated with greens and flowers and they sing and dance around it all night with it ending in the single people finding someone to take home for the night. It’s sort of considered a love ritual for those who are single but all Swedes celebrate with traditional food, clothing, song and drink.

  4. We’re having a Midsomer celebration in West Palm Beach Florida! It’s a ticketed event and we will have ALL the traditional aspects of a Swedish Midsomer! Fresh flower crowns for all to make, traditional smorgasbord & drinks, strawberry cake, snapsvisor (drink song) booklets, Swedish/English singer and dancing around the maypole. Please come if you’ll be in the area! Tickets available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/swedish-midsomer-festival-tickets-46022020101?aff=ehomesaved
    Thank you! Johan’s Joe Swedish Coffee Shop & Cafe

    1. Hi Anton,

      I am glad you enjoyed the movie Midsommar, but it is not a documentary. It is horror movie that presents an extremely warped version of Swedish Midsummer, with a lot of bizarre made-up things that are not part of traditional Midsummer celebrations.

      1. Annika, an archaeologist I follow actually dug into the movie. It is relatively accurate of how it would be, to a degree, if we continued to practice the religion of our ancestors. Completely discounting it and stating it as only a horror movie is incorrect. The man who wrote it dug into historical data.

        1. Thanks for your perspective, Jen. I haven’t actually seen the movie, since it’s not a genre I enjoy. I based my comment on several Swedish newspapers’ reviews of the movie and its portrayal of Midsummer traditions. They mostly liked the movie overall, but also called its version of Midsummer traditions “fantastically f-ed up” and “very screwy.” Also, a US media outlet contacted me when the movie was about to come out, asking me to comment on some of the things that were shown in it. I didn’t have time to do it, but the questions they sent me mentioned some very bizarre “traditions” shown in the movie, like putting menstrual blood and public hair in food and drink. That said, I did also read that the director had done a lot of research, so I am sure these “modifications” were deliberate, for the horror effect. My intent was not to discredit the movie entirely, but simply to refute its characterization as a documentary, since I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about modern-day Midsummer celebrations. Apologies if my words came across as too dismissive of the movie as a whole.

    2. We just watched the movie Midsommar . It had a documentary feel we wanted to know what was a real part of the festivals origins what I found seems vague . Is there a folk tale that is reflected in the movie

  5. I’m Swedish and have celebrated Midsummer for 49 years, in different parts of Sweden. It’s a pity if the horror movie Midsummer gets people to think this is how our beloved tradition is celebrated. Some parts of the movie might be an old tradition specific for a region, a few parts are correct but it seems some parts are taken from pagan tradition. The seriousness and quietness is very strange because Midsummer is a festival with laughters, song and dance.

    The Vikings celebrated the pagan gods Frej and Freja, who were the fertility gods, during the time we now have Midsummer. Hens and goats could be sacrificed for pleasing the gods to get good harvests. Slaves or voluntary people could chose to be sacrificed which was an honor in that religion. People might have dressed up in white during this time. It was a festival with food, dance, singing and drinking of a beverage similar to beer.

    When Swedes became Christians the sacrifices stopped. I’m sure though some people in more remote locations kept doing sacrifices for some time. I think the movie mix the pagan summer sun festivities with the later midsummer festivities.

    Midsummer today (and same for at least a hundred years) starts in the morning by picking flowers. Some make flower crowns, some leave flowers for the people dressing the pole. Midsummer lunch could be at home with friends and family or as a picnic at the place for the festivities. The midsummer food is as described different kind of herrings (mustard herring/dill herring/lemon herring/midsummer herring etc.), cheese pie, smoked and/or graved salmon, egg halves with rom (fish eggs) or mayo, new potatoes, sour cream, chives, rye crisp bread, schnapps and strawberries (with cream). The food intake is made with songs and laughter. Always flowers on the table.

    The folklore music and dances are in the afternoon around 2 pm. There can be performances by folklore dance teams or music groups, the pole is raised and then the traditional dance around the maypole begins. There is a dance leader who helps singing the songs at the larger areas of festivities. People of all ages dance and women often have a dress with floral print on and the men dress in shorts with a short sleeve shirt or t-shirt in colors or light summer colors (beige, white). Some have summer jackets and are more dressed up. The people that own a regional traditional folklore dress wears this (they are beautiful but gets a bit warm – I have performed folklore dances in these dresses).

    At some areas there are games for families to play, anything from competition where you carry an egg on a spoon between your teeth and should run a certain distance, to jumping in sack a certain distance, to the sleeping bear at the maypole where children dance around and try not to be taken by the bear when it wakes up, to a tug of war which often is the end of the games.

    Many go swimming if they live close to water after the dance festivities. In the evening we often have barbecue, and strawberry cake is common (if not eaten during the day). Young adults may go to the maypole again and dance around it and have games. Most people stay up late to see the sun go down around 1 am and then up again at 3 am (at the north of Sweden the sun doesn’t go done at all).

    People love Midsummer because it’s a time of joy and love. Friends and family gather, you sing, you perform goofy dances with lots of people you don’t know which gives you this kind of a happy feeling of belonging to something bigger, everyone is happy, it’s light all day and you eat good food.

    Picking flowers (7 different kind of flowers, some areas have 9) is still a tradition which some girls/teenagers do and place underneath the pillow to dream of their future husband.

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