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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Midsummer in Sweden

The longest day of the year is a treasured and celebrated event in Sweden. I would imagine that other places that experience long, dark periods of minimal day light during the winter months take some time during the summer to celebrate the long day light that provides the vitamin D one needs to endure the next cycle of darkness that we all know awaits us once the sun goes to bed again.
Swedes love midsummer. It is easily the most Swedish of all the holidays in Sweden and for the past several years it has become our tradition to spend the midsummer holiday with close friends who happen to have the consummate summer "stuga" (cottage) in the tiny little village of Mellösa. Mellösa is about 200 kilometers south of Stockholm. The train rumbles by, the cows moo with satisfaction, the flowers bloom wildly around every corner, the old church anchors the town with its constant presence. A beautiful lake awaits us down a dirt lane and we enjoy the festivities among the town folk of this little corner of Sweden.
To the overstimulated, big production, way over the top American, midsummer celebrations can seem a bit understated. Simple at its core, Midsummer reflects Swedish culture to a tee. Swedes are basically a simple folk, content with nature as their primary source of entertainment. The food of midsummer is that classical Swedish mixture of raw salmon (gravad lax), a zillion types of herring, boiled potatoes in fresh dill, and hard flat bread washed down with plenty of vodka and singing. The celebration itself involves decorating with birch branches and wild flowers a maypole and then raising it in all of its phallic glory. And even before the vodka shots start flowing, the Swedes gather around and sing silly songs about small frogs and the chores one must do in order to survive. Young and old alike, the girls' heads adorned with wreaths made of wildflowers, they gather with broad grins and much laughter and love every minute of it as if it were the first time they have ever experienced such wonder and delight.
Now, admittedly, as an American I long to fire up the grill and throw on the ribeyes, reflecting my own summer holiday, the 4th of July. Sometimes I marvel at how excited the Swedes get in such a simple celebration and then I also feel strangely warmed by the whole experience. The joy that I experience at midsummer is brought on by the glee that our host exhibits throughout the entire day. He loves to be a part of the raising of the pole. At 70, Sven is among the most enthusiastic of the dancers. He steals away just before dinner to assemble a bouquet of wildflowers that dress our midsummer table in the finest splendor. Around the table he toasts, he sings, he eats and drinks with vigor and delight. He is so Swedish on midsummer and we delight in his joy. At the close of every midsummer he always proclaims, "This was the best one yet." His wife is from Ghana and yet over the years has developed a keen sense of celebrating this most Swedish of days alongside of him. She has learned to make gravad lax from scratch and while it is perhaps my least favorite food on the planet I always have one piece in honor of Hannah who has labored long and hard to create what is perhaps her husband's favorite meal on the planet.
Weather is a constant topic as most of the time it rains on midsummer. Part of the ritual of the day is to carry the dining table in and out of the house about 20 times, wondering if we can actually eat outside without getting wet. This year we skipped the dance of the table, decided to stay inside and of course, it never rained. Even so, the clouds threatened all day and the temperature barely cracked 65 f.
The day ends with a walk to the Lake and a jump in the ice water, some wearing a swimsuit, others not. Tanner loves it. We love it. The daylight dazzles well into the evening and for one brief moment we soak in all 22 hours of daylight that midsummer offers. This year, a rainbow greeted us in the late, light sky and all of God's promises came into view.