Midsummer is celebrated each year between the 20th and 26th of June, at the lightest point of the year. It is the biggest summer celebration in Finland, and signals the start of “the real summer”. It is a celebration of light, summer and a “night less” night. The name “Juhannus”, as the Midsummer is called in Finnish, originates from John the Baptist (“Johannes” in Finnish), who’s commemoration-, and birthday is celebrated in Midsummer. Midsummer is also a Finnish Flag Day. The Flags are raised at 18.00 on Midsummer Eve and lowered at 21.00 on Midsummer evening.
The history of Midsummer celebrations date back to pagan times. In East-Finland, it was called “the celebration of Ukko” (Ukko was the Finnish god of thunder, the most important of the Finnish gods, because he created rain, the essential ingredient for a good harvest). According to an old belief, the short night of Midsummer tempted witches, fairies and elves to tease people or to show them their future happiness. This is why Midsummer has been linked to magic and many believes. Even today it is popular among young girls to pick flowers on midsummer night and to place them under their pillows in the hope that their future husbands will be revealed to them in their dreams.
Many Midsummer traditions from the past are still followed today, one of them the building of the “kokko”, a huge bonfire by the water. All over Finland, close to midnight on Midsummer Eve, the bonfires are ceremoniously lit. In Finland bonfires were first made in the eastern parts of the country and from there the tradition quickly spread all over Finland. In the past whole villages would gather together around the bonfire, and strict rules were followed as to how and when the fire was lit. It was usually the oldest man in the village, who received the great honour of lighting the fire.
In Ahvenanmaa and in Swedish-Finnish coastal areas, the bonfires are replaced with Midsummer poles. The origin and the meaning of this tradition is not exactly known, but there are some theories. According to one of them, the pole could have been a representation of Scandinavian fertility rites dating back to pagan times. Another theory is, that it was introduced to Scandinavia by Hanseatics in medieval times.
An old tradition in Midsummer is to decorate houses and doorways with young birch trees and flowers. Midsummer decorations represent the beginning of summer. In the past, herdsmen in the countryside, decorated cattle with flowers to ensure a rich milk production. Traditional Midsummer foods were dairy products, because after a long winter indoors, cows once again started to produce more milk, after they were again able to graze the rich green summer fields. Nowadays dairy products are often replaced with grilled sausages and new potatoes.
During the Midsummer, many open-air dance festivals are arranged and most of the cities have big bonfires for people to gather around and see, however many Finns prefer to celebrate this special occasion in the countryside, at their summer houses together with friends and relatives. Saunas are warmed up, fresh birch whisks are prepared, traditional Finnish songs are heard playing on the radio, sausages are grilled and drinks aplenty are enjoyed. This is the time to relax and enjoy the magical “Night less Night” and welcome the summer.
Unfortunately the Midsummer in Finland also has a sad side. Every year statistics indicate that many people drown during this particular period, as many “Juhannus” celebrations are held close to water. Under the influence of alcohol common sense is forgotten resulting in unnecessary accidents.