The Nordic countries have a long and rich history of celebrations influenced by the nature, religion and geography. This section explains all the weird traditions.
Midsummer is the period of time centered on the summer solstice, when the days are longest and the nights shortest (in the northern hemisphere). The exact date varies, but it tends to take place between the 19th and 25th of June. The date has a notable cultural significance in many Nordic countries, due to the historical influence of the harvest calendar on the Scandinavian way of the life.
Midsummer is arguably the most important date in the Swedish calendar. For one day every year, Swedes flock to their country homes to eat crayfish, sing songs, and get blackout drunk on brännvin (hard liqour, literally “burning wine”). Midsummer celebrations are characterised by their pagan, agrarian origins. Dancing around the maypole, for instance, is a callback to fertility rituals originating from Germanic Europe.
Other staples of the Swedish midsummer include the wearing of flower crowns, and traditional food including sill (preserved fish), potatoes, and strawberries.
Midsummer also marks the start of the long Swedish summer holiday, when families traditionally retreat to the countryside, leaving the larger cities feeling relatively quiet and empty during June and July.
In Finland, midsummer is equally important, though celebrated slightly differently. The sauna takes precedence as the go-to activity, alongside the mandatory over-consumption of alcohol around large midsummer bonfires. A general disregard for health and safety, it seems, is also encouraged. Midsummer is traditionally a time of fertility and magic, themes reflected today in the amorous ambitions of young Finns seeking a summer fling (or something more serious).
TRADITIONAL FINNISH MIDSUMMER RITUALS
Young maidens bending over a well naked to see reflections of their future husband
Rolling over in a dewy field (again, naked) to bring good fortune in love
Running naked from the sauna over nine ditches to find a husband (okay, we get the idea)
The Swedish Valborg, known in English as Walpurgis Night, is a celebration of the arrival of spring. Taking place on the 30th April, valborg sees the night skies lit up with enormous bonfires. The tradition stems from the Middle Ages, when the administrative year ended on the 30th April and was thus a cause for great celebration. Dancing, singing, and valborg bonfires are commonplace.
Valborg is an especially popular event for students, and is a much-appreciated excuse for daylong parties. Typically, drinking on valborg starts at breakfast, and the rest of the day is spent outside. The biggest and most raucous festivities, unsurprisingly, are held in Uppsala and Lund, Sweden’s oldest university towns. In Uppsala, students raft on the river through the town center spraying champagne.
However, the night was not always a light-hearted party occasion. In Germanic folklore, walpurgisnacht was the night that witches would convene on Brocken, a peak in the Harz mountain range in Northern Germany. This has clear similarities with an aspect Swedish folklore, Blåkulla, which is the name of a legendary meadow where the devil would meet with witches. Sweden has a long and murky history of witch trials, the worst of which would later influence the infamous Salem witch trials in the United States.
In Finland Walpurgis Night, or vappu, is characterised by students drinking self-made mead and sparkling wine in their wild festivities taking place in any available public area. Originally an upper class festivity, the students took over the Walpurgis Night at the end of the 19th century. It is especially popular among the engineering students, who are known to do elaborate Walpurgis pranks that often fool local newspapers.
Typically students wear their high school graduation hats and those in universities wear overalls that have the color of their faculty. Oh, and the overalls are not supposed to be washed. So grab your mead, balloons and go for a fun day outdoors with your smelly student friends!
Yule refers to the old Germanic winter festival set around the winter equinox, with the celebrations lasting for the whole month of December. The origin of the festival is unknown, but the Norse and Germanic god Odin - who is also known as Jólnir (translating as Yule figure) and Wodin (origin of the name Wednesday), has been theorized to be one of the sources. After Christianity arrived to the north, the Yule celebrations were combined with Christian celebrations, and modern Christmas was conceived. However, the Nordic countries stayed true to their origins and did not change the name of the festival season. Yule, originating from the Old Norse word jól, is still called jól in Iceland, jul in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and joulu in Finland.
Some of the modern Christmas traditions are remnants of the Yule festivities. Christmas ham originates from the Yule boar, a tradition in which a boar was brought before a leader and vows were made before the boar was sacrificed. Christmas block, the tradition of lighting a log on fire during Christmas, has its origins in the Yule log. The North European symbol of Christmas, the Yule goat, unsurprisingly stems from Yule traditions. The ornament has its roots in the agrarian culture, where the last bundle of grain was turned into a hay goat. These decorations can still be seen in the Christmas trees in Nordic countries. Perhaps the best example of a Yule goat is the several meters tall hay goat built in Gävle, Sweden, every winter. Yule goat is also associated with the ritual of men dressing up as goats during Yule time. Some traditions included young men dressed up as goats visiting house to house, performing various pranks, and wassailing. This wassailing was called Yule singing. The goats became friendlier as time passed, and eventually they brought Christmas gifts during their house to house visits. Santa Claus is called joulupukki in Finnish, which directly translates to Yule goat.
Modern day Christmas traditions in the Nordics include the advent calendar, lighting of advent candles, decoration of a Christmas tree and frantic cleaning. The main celebration takes place on the 24th of December. The family sits around a table filled with traditional foods most commonly including a roasted pork or goose, a remnant of the Yule boar. Occasionally the collaboratively built gingerbread house falls victim to the feasting as well. Some time during the day Santa Claus pays a visit, bringing gifts either in person, leaving them under the tree, or in the case of Iceland, leaving them in shoes. The following days are spent together with family and friends, eating rice pudding and drinking glögg in an atmosphere that is best described by hygge, koselig or mys.