Here comes the sun in Sweden
A local picks wild flowers in preparation for the Midsummer Eve festivities on the island of Blidö, in the Stockholm archipelago. (Matt Munro)
Per Olof Osterman, a farmer who has spent every one of his 84 Midsummers in the village of Hysingsvik, on the far eastern shore of the Swedish mainland, is supervising the decoration of a Midsummer pole. Beside him, seven-year-old Ida Ek, whose last name means ‘oak’, is tying wild flowers and birch leaves to the upright. Tomorrow, the pole will be raised up and planted in the ground to mark the beginning of the village’s festivities. The swags of wild flowers glow in the evening sunshine, which will finally dim for a few hours between midnight and 2am. Cut grass floats in a haze of gold light.
'We're celebrating summer, the happiness of the sun coming up, and the first hay being cut,' says Per Olof as he fastens the flowers with gardening twine.
Across Sweden, Midsummer is greeted with an exuberance that's hard to understand unless you've experienced the cold and darkness of a Swedish winter. The festival even has its own salutation: Glad midsommar (Happy Midsummer). The origins of the festival lie in the fertility rituals of pre-Christian Sweden, and there's a subtext to the pole that you don't need to be Sigmund Freud to grasp.
'I think originally the pole looked like this,' says Loulou Nyman, an ordained minister, as she helpfully draws a phallus in my notebook. 'Then I think they added this crosspiece to cool it down a little bit and make it seem a bit more Christian.' She's leading a Midsummer service the day after the festival, but accepts that she's got her work cut out. 'We're the most secular country in the world,' she says. 'It makes my job very interesting. Sometimes I feel secular as well. But Swedes are spiritual. They're very close to something, nature maybe, or creation, they just don't want to call it God.'
Midsummer Eve is celebrated across the whole country on the first Friday after 21 June every year. The festival has no parallel in southern Europe, but it's Christmas's non-identical twin: it holds a special place in the national psyche with its own customs, memories and social pressure.
As with much else in Sweden, there's a profound national consensus about the right way to do things. Work stops. Cities empty, and people head to summerhouses. Swedes pride themselves on their closeness to nature and the ideal elements of a Midsummer festival include being with friends in a remote spot, singing, and eating and drinking a lot. A notorious Swedish beer ad - Pripps Blå - portrays the perfect aspirational Midsummer party: buff Swedes jumping off a jetty into the water, and feasting on herring and new potatoes.
The Stockholm archipelago consists of over 24,000 islands and islets scattered across the Baltic Sea. Those nearest to the shore are divided by causeways from the mainland and possess all the amenities of modern Sweden. Other islands are served by free and efficient public ferries. The outer islands are reachable only by private boat. The rule of thumb is that the further out, the greater the isolation: first plumbing, then electricity disappears, until finally, out in the Baltic Sea, tiny huts share a few metres of exposed granite with just the wind and seals.
The archipelago is a place of beauty at any time, but during Midsummer it's the place to be. On the way out to the archipelago from Stockholm, the road winds through the radiant green landscape of a fairy-tale: forests, timber houses, rye fields, fat cows. Wild flowers nod in the hedgerows. Road signs warn of rogue moose.
In Norrtälje, the gateway town to the archipelago, the supermarket is packed with trolleys the day before Midsummer Eve. The prescribed Midsummer foods of strawberries, herring, new potatoes and sour cream are flying off the shelves. A worker complains that they're shifting a tonne of potatoes every hour. Heavily laden cars leave the car park for the islands.
There's also a rush on at the state-run liquor shop. Sweden has a complicated relationship with alcohol - immoderate consumption goes hand in hand with fearsomely high prices, official disapproval and a state monopoly on selling liquor.
For my inaugural Midsummer Eve, I'm heading to the island of Blidö. It's not remote - just two short ferry trips to cross the bay - but the pace of life soon slows. The air is luminously clear and, scoured by sea breezes, feels like it's rejuvenating the lungs. Roe deer skip out of the path of bicycles on the roads.
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