While the summer solstice is marked in some way in many countries, in Finland the Midsummer Eve or juhannus is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. It virtually turns cities into ghost towns as people rush off to their cottages across the country for that brief spell of midsummer magic.
Historically juhannus was celebrated in order to worship Ukko ylijumala (a Finnish god of thunder) to ensure good yields and fertility. For centuries, the Midsummer Eve has also marked an opportunity to perform magic spells. Mainly undertaken by women, the spells normally revolve around love.
Some spells call for collecting wild flowers under your pillow in the hopes of catching a glimpse of your future spouse in a dream. Others require the spell-caster to strip naked and roll in the hay at midnight (and the first person they encounter is their true love) or to walk nude around a well three times, then peer in to catch the reflection of their fated lover in the water. Of course, the irony is that you’re most likely just going to see yourself. Those ancient Finns and their sense of humour…
Love spells or not, there is an air of magic to the Midsummer Eve. Depending on where in Finland you are, proximity to the Arctic Circle means that the sun barely sets. Colloquially known as the nightless night, another juhannus tradition is the burning of a giant bonfire at midnight – historically done in order to ward off evil spirits.
These days it’s more of an opportunity for families and neighbours to get together, crack open a bottle of Koskenkorva (a wheat spirit) and drink the night away. The fact that people get really sloshed tends to lead to casualties, and in spite of public service reminders to stay on dry land, there are always the foolish bravehearts who decide to show off their muscle by attempting a drunken swim across the lake.
Another staple tradition is the midsummer sauna. While the sauna is a year-round obsession for the Finns, the midsummer sauna comes with the added twist of friendly flagellation.
Supple birch branches are collected and tied up to make a bunch. In the sauna they are dipped into a bucket of water and then used to whip each other’s skin. Before your imagination runs off with 50 Shades of Hay, I’d better add that there is no monkey business involved – the birching is only used to stimulate circulation. A spell in the sauna, wherever possible, is always followed by a cooling dip into the lake.
MIDSUMMER TRIP TO FINLAND
For tourists, juhannus can be quite an intriguing experience. There are numerous public bonfire events across the country as well as lavatanssit – a type of barn dance where both schlager music and Finnish tango are played. Traditionally shunned by the younger crowd in favour of music festivals such as Voice Juhannus, Nummirock and Kalajoen Juhannus, in recent years lavatanssit have gained popularity as a part-ironic, part-serious undertaking even for the hipster folk. But it’s safe to say that wherever you are in Finland at juhannus you’ll never be too far from a party — or a bottle of Koskenkorva.