Hold the sausages! A century of Finland’s changing Midsummer traditions

Many of the customs we celebrate at Midsummer have remained the same over the decades, but others have changed a lot.

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First Midsummer celebrations at Seurasaari, 1958 / Credit: Pekka Kytinen, National Board of Antiquities

As people in Finland enjoy the long Midsummer weekend holiday – with mostly hot weather this year – they’re taking part in annual rituals that signal the start of summer.

There’s trips to summer cottages, grilling sausages, going to sauna and swimming in lakes or the sea.

But many of those activities are relatively new additions to the schedule, and a hundred years ago in Finland, Midsummer would have seemed very familiar but also a bit different as well.

The Nordic tradition of celebrating Midsummer is a blend of Christianity, which came to Finland in the 1200s, and animism – with people finding meanings and rituals in the seasons, the weather, plants, rocks and animals around them.

“In the time of the Crusades which this formal religion of Christianity came, we were this uncivilised part of Eastern Sweden, but we had already the old god Ukko celebration, he was the god of thunder and weather and so these two combined together” explains Juha Nirkko, an expert from the Finnish Literature Society who has studied centuries-old texts about Finland’s Midsummer traditions.

“I think even today when we drink and go to nature, it’s about having this special date in the calendar to have a party. In the old times when we had no calendars this summer solstice became the time to celebrate how the year was going, and how the crops were doing” he says.

The summer cottage revolution 

So over the years how have Finland’s Midsummer traditions evolved? Even a hundred years ago there were some differences – and some similarities too.

While many people spend this weekend at summer cottages this is a relatively new phenomenon which really only started after World War II as Finland moved away from being an agrarian society to a more urban-based society.

“The big number of cottages came in the 1960s and 1970s. Before then the village was important and also your own family and house, with many generations of people living in the same home” Juha Nirkko tells News Now Finland.

“Even people who lived in the countryside, they had their own summer cottages as well, and were making shorter journeys” he adds.

People who moved away from their traditional home areas to bigger towns or cities started returning there for Midsummer, where there were local festivals taking place on the solstice.

“Before, celebrations were local. But this summer cottage culture appeared in the time of independent Finland and became bigger when people started to move to towns. You had to have a connection to countryside and where you came from” Nirkko adds.

Midsummer food on sale at Helsinki Market Square, 1957 / Credit: Kaarlo Lindberg, Helsinki City Museum

What’s on the menu?

These days it’s very typical to throw sausages on the grill at Midsummer, snacking on them between trips to sauna.

But a hundred years ago that wouldn’t be common at all because animals were still feeding on grass and getting fat for slaughter later in the year. Meat products were something to enjoy in autumn, not at Midsummer.

Instead, there would have been more milk and cheeses served up at Midsummer dinners – although pancakes are a tradition that have endured over the decades.

“You could get very good milk from cows, so the meals were milk-oriented, but there was no meat. It’s the biggest change because today we are eating plenty of meat and sausages at Midsummer. it’s a big cultural change that not many Finns think about” the Finnish Literature Society’s Juha Nirkko says.

Marie-Bad sauna, Mariankatu Helsinki 1913 / Credit: Helsinki City Museum

Saunas, bonfires and magic 

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the Finns’ love for sauna, especially at Midsummer.

“It is just natural have sauna bath and get physically and spiritually clean, and you go to the lake if you’ve got the opportunity to swim” says folklore expert Juha Nirkko.

“But it’s important not to drown, that’s also a tradition, a sad one, I must say.”

Lighting bonfires – which in other cultures are associated with the darkest months of the year – is another enduring tradition. But some of the magical rituals and mysticism of a more ancient Finnish Midsummer tradition are less prominent today than before.

“There are many magic customs associated with Midsummer, and many have something to do with water. For example you can look at your reflection in the water, and also see your fiance or the devil. If you are lucky, you see the one you’ll get married with right beside you” says Nirkko.

“In the past people were warned not to do that because we are a Christian people, but that tradition goes back to the animism, that there’s something magical in flowers and plants and everything. A stone where you climb and listen to things, observing nature, plants and sounds” he explains.

Water in the form of dew was also more prominent in centuries past, especially night dew which gets on leaves and was considered magical in forecasting or making things happen.

“One reason to get naked was to get the dew on your skin when you go to the grass or jump in a field of rye while naked, you can find your love because they eat the bread, baked from the rye, which has touched the skin with the morning dew. It sounds complicated, but it’s a logical process.”

Women, Juha Nirkko explains, can unlock their “lempi” or sexual power at this time of year through nudity and being surrounded by nature.

“It’s part of Midsummer traditions that people remember, about being naked and going into fields. We don’t quite understand how the sexual power works, but it’s all about the lempi.”