In the land of the Midnight Sun, on the longest day of the year, Swedes flock to the countryside, the seaside, or any side that isn’t touching a city. Though the sun never dips below the horizon on the summer equinox, lovingly referred to as Midsommar in Swedish, the air doesn’t feel hot and often a sweater or light jacket is still required. Many Swedes pack up their cars and head out to their summer houses in the countryside, but for the lonely few who don’t own a summer house, we peasants head to the nearest island in Stockholm’s vast archipelago. With over 24,000 (the actual number is hotly debated) islands to choose from, last year we chose a traditional favorite destination near Stockholm—Grinda—a 45-minute ferry ride from our closest town, Vaxholm.
The ferry boat is jammed full of merry Swedes—women are dressed in all white with wildflower wreaths in their hair and men are sporting colorful pants. The atmosphere is lighthearted, celebratory, and hopeful that the summer will be long and warm. My little family of four push the stroller up the gangplank and crush into the passengers—today, there is no personal space, and everyone sits at communal tables with long benches. We find an open spot on the outer deck of the ferry and watch the sailboats floating by as we pass by numerous private islands inhabited by only kayakers. Summer in Stockholm is best experienced on the sea.
Upon arriving at Grinda, we all file off the ferry, and the crowd disperses throughout the island. Everyone climbs a hill, and we pass fields full of off-white and brown wooly sheep. A phallic maypole erected on the open grassy plain serves as the focal point for the families picnicking all around. A musician is strumming an acoustic guitar and singing Swedish folk songs about summer and frogs, and everyone links hands to dance around in a circle. Children run around naked with parents enjoying wine or champagne in hand. The stress-free nature of the day would calm even the most uptight person, and it is easy to play the part of a carefree Swede on Midsommar.
We slowly trudge past the maypole crowd, drinking in the festivity, and we keep strolling past other picnickers—despite only living here a few years we already have a favorite picnic location. On the far side of the island, away from the Swedish folk songs, we settle our picnic blanket on a large flat rock that slopes into the sea, overlooking the five sailboats that have set anchor in the nearby harbor. We make a day of watching speedboats zoom by and imagine shapes in the clouds against the bright blue sky. The only sound is that of the water lapping against the rocks as waves are generated from the fleet of sailboats skirting around the archipelago.
Today, we have gone native, and our picnic holds typical Swedish food—knäckebröd (a flat, hard bread), brie cheese, salami, caviar, grapes, and snaps. Swedish snaps is an earthy liquor that has a strong bitter taste. It is not an unpleasant drink, but not one that I savor. Our children explore the nearby rocky shore and splash in the cold Baltic waters. It isn’t hot enough outside to warrant a full dip so just the toes will do.
In the mid-afternoon, we head to the maypole and link arms with strangers to dance to the song, “Små grodorna”—a tribute to frogs or summer or silliness, I’m not sure. If anyone didn’t know the lyrics to the song, there’s no need to worry as the song is played incessantly throughout the day. As shot glasses of snaps are drunk, the dancing becomes more festive and reckless. Children disappear to take naps in the shade and droves of adults wielding wine glasses start to stumble around.
Before the merriment degrades into debauchery, we pack up our picnic and head down the dirt path to the dock to wait for our ferry—it is time to go home. For our young family, the day is done, but the sun will not set until much later—maybe 11:30 pm or so and even then, the night will never turn black—only a dusky pink.
The boat is jammed full again but this time, its passengers are more subdued after feeling fully satisfied with food, drink, and dancing. Another Swedish Midsommar is ending, and we welcome summer with open arms as we turn our faces to bask in the warmth of the midnight sun.
More cross-cultural holiday traditions can be found in Knocked Up Abroad.