By Abhinav Gupta
Near noon last Friday, I found myself part of a 100-person circle on the remote Swedish island of Gålö. Among the other children and adults, I crouched down on the grass, staring fixedly at the two ladies in the middle of the circle. Quickly, they sprang up and flapped their elbows as if doing the chicken-dance while shuffling onwards to their right. Laughing with the others, I emulated their movements and moved with the human flow around the circle.
This ritual-esque movement is only one example of the many actions that constitute the Swedish Midsummer Eve festivities. In Scandinavia, Midsummer (and its Eve) is the most important holiday of the year. A holiday (holy day?) with pagan roots, it centers on the solstice and celebrates both the oncoming of summer and the subsequent harvest. Rising from its ancient association with magic and rituals, Midsummer is meant to be spent in nature with family. Urban dwellers flee cities and venture to the countryside and islands to enjoy the holiday.
As it happened, I was fortunate enough to find myself in Sweden in time for Midsummer. As I’m working for two months at a medical university, the Karolinska Institutet, I currently reside in Stockholm. For the holiday, a friend and I decided to venture out to Gålö, a natural preserve area where many families celebrate Midsummer’s Eve.
There, we volunteered to help make the maypole.
The maypole is the center of the Midsummer celebrations. A mesh of branches and leaves, it is bound by wire, decorated with flowers, and erected on a wooden pole. I gleaned from conversations with other Swedes that the maypole is a phallic symbol and represents the “insemination” of the Earth for harvest. Perhaps it is fitting—a joke contends that the most Swedish babies are born in March (9 months after Midsummer!).
After we erected the pole, the festivities began. All the people on the field gathered round and circled the maypole. We followed the lead of the two women, who were dressed in typical Swedish attire. We moved clockwise around the ring, repeating Swedish songs and chants and impersonating elephants, laughing hysterically, and doing (endeavoring) 360-degree jumps in the air. Afterwards, the children gathered around the two women, who told fairytales. All in all, it was a completely bewildering affair, with no rhyme or reason. But it did seem particularly important for families: boys and girls all round were dressed in their best clothes.
That night, Swedes all around the country were turning in for the night—some to eat the Midsummer’s dinner, others to start partying with the famous Swedish schnaps (if you get a chance, try the elderberry flavor!). Yet the prevailing atmosphere was that of summer, a time for family, nature, and rest.
Rest, indeed, carries a special potency here. The profound relaxation I felt lounging on the island on Midsummer’s Eve was one I’ve rarely experienced in the United States. People here really take time off. Case in point: my lab professor here is on vacation for two months. Two whole months, during which she’s doing nothing more than staying in her summer cottage. Still yet, she is an internationally renowned professor.
I can’t say exactly where this culture of relaxation comes from. Perhaps it’s the socialism. Perhaps people can feel secure enough to take long vacations. Perhaps, as I first thought, it’s simply laziness. Whatever the case, over the last two weeks, I’ve begun to understand the value of relaxation. I think that many of us—especially at Yale—always feel like we’ve just got to keep doing something. Yet maybe there’s some true value in taking some time “off.” Maybe it’ll make the time “on” that much better. Maybe a Midsummer’s Eve spent relaxing on an island will have done a world of good for my work writing this article.
Abhinav Gupta is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org