Midsummer madness in Sweden

The Swedes make the most of the longest day, the Summer Solstice, with plenty of snaps, singing and dancing around the Maypole
Dancing around the Maypole on Midsummer's Day is as Swedish as it gets
Dancing around the Maypole on Midsummer's Day is as Swedish as it gets

&ldquoIt must be so exciting, not knowing where you&rsquore going,&rdquo Ingegerd repeated delightedly from time to time, as we cruised in her car through a neat, undulating road that curved gently through fields and pine forests, leading us away from S&oumlderk&oumlping, a quaint medieval town in southern Sweden. Her son Mats and his wife Anna had invited us to their summerhouse in the country for a traditional Midsummer family evening.

Not only did I not know where I was going I didn&rsquot even know my hosts yet they were so far close friends of a close friend. Ingegerd was apparently thrilled at the idea of having an Indian at their table on Midsummer, the most important festival in Sweden after Christmas... a day when sunshine, pickled herring, beer, song and snaps unite all Swedes. City dwellers head for the country to celebrate the summer solstice and catch &lsquothe light&rsquo.

And there certainly is a lot of it to catch Summer Solstice, June 21, is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. In Scandinavia that means sunset at midnight, and no real night, only a brief spell of cold pre-dawn twilight.

Ingegerd was on overdrive. She wanted to show me everything possible en route to the summer house at Stegeborg &mdash the ruins of a 16th-century castle, a network of old canals connecting the east and west coast through the lakes of the interior, an archipelago &mdash all the while labouring to pronounce my name. &ldquoSun, like sol,&rdquo she would begin, failing to move much further. The culprit was apparently the &lsquoj&rsquo in Sanjiv, which is absent in the Swedish phonetic and would invariably come out as a &lsquoy&rsquo. Nonetheless, she would keep practising through the day, over lunch, after the first drinks, and through the night.

We were the first guests to arrive at the Petterssons&rsquo summerhouse. Dense clouds were ganging up in the blue sky. &ldquoLet&rsquos hope you bring better weather,&rdquo said Anna, shortly before scooping up a hyperactive ginger cat for an extended hug. Could it get much better than this, I wondered, as I took in the smell of pine and the view of the canal in the distance.

Anna was just about done garnishing the warm-smoked salmon with cherry tomatoes and lemon wedges, served with the head on, while a cold herring pie, made of sour cream, grass onion, herring and dill, was already in the freezer. Some cold-smoked salmon was also in the fridge. Cold-smoked salmon is the variety generally available in delis in thin slices. The warm-smoked variety has a meatier texture, and is generally sold whole, and skinned before serving.

More traditional than salmon on the Midsummer table is raw pickled herring, something of an acquired taste &mdash a Scandinavian sushi of sorts. It is preserved with sherry, mustard or cream sauce or with dill and pink onions. Sometimes, it is also salted, fried and then pickled. The sweeter varieties take much longer to get used to. Many Swedes who generally don&rsquot eat much herring make it a point to have it on this day as a matter of tradition.

Because the herring can sometimes taste a bit strong, it is washed down with snaps, a strong, flavoured Swedish aquavit, which is had in special snaps glasses. Snaps is generally accompanied by snapsvisor songs, basically zealous tributes to snaps and beer. Lyrics typically centre on getting sloshed. At the end of each song, it is mandatory to take a swig, which makes the herring easier to take and gets everyone more drunk, and prompts them to eat more herring, drink again, and sing even more.

Another must on any Midsummer menu is a serving of new potatoes, which are harvested during early summer. They may look similar to the regular variety, but taste very different. New potatoes are prized for their moisture content and creamier taste. They can be eaten baked or boiled whole with only salt as seasoning, and still taste good.

Outside, Mats was busy putting the games together. These were the sort of childish, fun things you expect to find at a carnival or children&rsquos party, like drawing a tail on a pig with a blindfold on or firing at smiley balloons with an airgun.

More guests appeared &mdash Mats&rsquo 75-year-old farmer father and Ingegerd&rsquos ex-husband Kalle, and his girlfriend, who was about the same age and whom Ingegerd seemed to get along with, brothers, sisters, in-laws and a few friends. The kitchen turned extra productive dish after dish made its way to a table by the lawn two varieties of pickled herring, a thin crusted mince pie, blue cheese, Swedish hard cheese, cherry tomatoes, k&oumlttbullar (meatballs), sausages, bread rolls, sour cream and, of course, the herring, salmon and new potatoes boiled with dill.

White and brown kn&aumlckebr&oumld &mdash Swedish hard bread &mdash completed the traditional buffet. Kn&aumlckebr&oumld is thin, crisp and cracker-like, and generally eaten with butter and Swedish caviar, which is not caviar as we know it, but salty processed cod roe, popular in Scandinavia as a sandwich filling.

&ldquoSun, like sol,&rdquo Ingegerd practised.

The sun had, incidentally, come out by now to reveal a classic Midsummer sky, punctuated with an archipelago of fluffy white clouds. We grazed around the buffet, heaped our plates and took our seats at a long, blue lunch table by the lawn. There was a lot of talk about the weather as the snaps went down, and then the first snapsvisor soon transpired.

After a dessert of strawberries and cream, we cycled three kilometres through the same beautiful country road to the local public park, where a traditional Maypole was being decorated and erected &mdash a social event involving families from nearby areas. Men, women and children formed a ring around the pole and danced to an animated singsong session. Some girls wore traditional wreaths of wildflowers and birch. I would see an even more elaborate display of traditional Swedish folk dance the following day at Skansen, Stockholm&rsquos unique open-air museum where old buildings from all over the country have been transplanted, piece by piece.

Dancing around the Maypole on Mid-summer is probably the most emblematic picture of Swedish tradition. The pole, like the celebration itself, originated as a pre-Christian male fertility symbol.

The Midsummer Festival may have begun as a fertility ritual, but in a modern industrialised Sweden, it&rsquos really an excuse for a whole country to get out to the countryside and party. So, while the actual day of the solstice is June 21, in keeping with Swedish functionalist style, it is celebrated on the weekend closest to it, so revellers can take time off from work.

After a bit of drizzle, we cycled back to the summer house, where a series of games awaited us. I found myself faring miserably at most of them, but surprisingly good with the gun. Here, too, I was outclassed by at least three perfect shooters, who didn&rsquot miss a single shivering smiley.

Dinner soon followed in the neighbouring summer house barbecued chops, new potato salad with pink onion, baby spinach and feta cheese, red wine and more beer and snaps. The snapsvisor songs now came every other minute, sometimes back to back, followed by a swig each time. The odes to beer, snaps drunkenness and the joys of stumbling about drunk seemed endless. Many songs took on the tunes of popular songs, with lyrics turned alcoholic for the occasion.

Was it already that late Only my wristwatch could confirm it. Shadows had grown longer, but the sun stayed pinned low in the sky, and didn&rsquot seem keen on setting on the channel.

&ldquoSan-yeee...,&rdquo Ingegerd moaned affectionately, followed by something in Swedish, and a long hug.

&ldquoYou must think the Swedes are really silly,&rdquo a spirited old man at the dinner table managed to ask me. Probably, I thought so, but that was probably a good thing.

The information

Getting there

KLM Royal Dutch, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and Aeroflot have flights to Stockholm from Delhi and Mumbai, fares starting at about Rs 44,000 from Delhi and Rs 39,000 from Mumbai. S&oumlderk&oumlping is 180km away from Stockholm, accessible by bus or train.


In Sweden, ancient Midsummer rituals such as dancing around fires and Maypoles still continue. Midsummer is also a day for feasting on traditional dishes, beer and snaps. The Swedes go to enormous lengths to plan Midsummer parties in the countryside. If you want to find a really great party, don&rsquot look in the big cities, because that&rsquos when they&rsquore completely deserted.

What to see & do

Apart from the charming medieval town of S&oumlderk&oumlping, southern Sweden is best known for the G&oumlta Canal. The canal cuts through the entire breadth of the country, allowing coast-to-coast cruises and scenic cycling trips along its banks. On the Baltic end is the St Anna Archipelago and the charming ruins of the Stegeborg Castle.

Where to stay

If you&rsquore on a budget, the STF Hostels along the G&oumlta Canal are nice and come with kitchens (www.svenskaturistforeningen.se/en/). For more accommodation options see www.soderkoping.se and www.gotacanal.se.

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