by Rita Leydon ©1997
The summer solstice is a pivotal point in the calendar year for the sun worshiping Swedes. Midsommar. June 21 or 22 depending on the solar system’s whim any given year. In the homeland the celebration tends to spill over to include a spread of days engulfing the solstice day itself. Sweden and its culture understands and allows for the frivolities and lapses associated with Midsommar. Music. Dance. Overindulgence in strong drink. Maypole raisings. A day on the lake. Comely maidens, barefoot and crowned in floral garlands. Laughter and singing. Blue eyes and blond tresses sparkling with life, energy and possibilities. The maypole beckons us to hold hands and move as one either medsols or motsols (with the sun—clockwise or respectively, against the sun—counterclockwise). Swedes emerge from their mother’s womb knowing all the words, steps and gestures of our well loved and worn ringdances. On this, the longest day of the year, we permit release from our silly national seriousness to celebrate, dance and make merry. It makes us feel complete and whole. Cultural madness, imprinted as we are suckled in the embrace of the motherland. This is my culture. My people. My traditions.
My parents were not tuned into these observances of the Swedish masses—they preferred their own pursuits up it the clouds. I have had to find my own way in the cultural landscape of my roots. This rooting for heritage and deeper understanding of myself has become more and more vital as I have matured. Surely the yearning is related to my separation from the homeland at a tender age.
In the Swedish-American community we sometimes behave more Swedish than the Swedes on native soil. It can only be sentimentality. Weepy eyes are not uncommon as young and old alike listen and watch the antics of those who unabashedly enjoy themselves in the spirit of the occasion. Exuberance and partaking is not always easy or natural, and some are simply too removed. But even those who can’t let loose, can tap their feet and feel the beat. They can smile and be there. That counts.
Midsommar is a day of rampant national pride and flag waving—the toppled yellow cross on a blue bed. Yellow and blue everywhere. Nothing is more beautiful to Swedish summer eyes than that cloth slapping in the crisp breeze against a clear blue sky with just a sprinkling of puffy cotton balls in attendance. If the rag is atop a maypole dressed in floral greens, delirium sets in and its fluttering infects our hearts and our sensibilities. We want music—traditional music. Fiddlers. Accordions. Nyckelharpor. We want colors and costumes. Folks in bright stripes, knee socks, tassels, vests, black hats, billowing crisp white linen sleeves, full twirling skirts. Beautifully choreographed folkdances. We want to drink it in, feast our eyes, inhale the fragrances of our past. We fortify ourselves with strong coffee, cool saft and vetebullar adorned with a sprinkling of pärl socker. Just so. We are appeased and satiated. Lulled.
But wait! I am not satiated! It is not enough! I can’t just watch. This is life, not a movie! I feel the rhythm, the pulse of my heart beating. My whole body feels it—wants it. The music. The dancing. My response to this aspect of my culture is intense. I am not interested in coffee, saft or bullar. I want to dance! Luckily I have a ready and able partner in my husband Chris who senses when I have reached my limit of watching and deftly maneuvers me onto any danceable surface in order to vent. We have discovered one of the best kept secrets of Swedish Living History—the gold mine of traditional dances that are ours for the learning. Dances for a couple, a man and a woman. Two. Alone together. Flirtatious. Romantic. Drängen dancing with his piga on a Saturday night.
One word—polska. Key to a smörgåsbord of delicious music and dance forms and variants from a time before hambo was all the rage in every village and hamlet. Ask a gammaldans band here in America for a polska and watch their expressions. You mean polka? No. Polska! They don’t know. Our collective polska wealth is so brilliantly rich in priceless gems of inestimable value that all worldly goods pale by comparison. Request polska music. Demand polska music. Get the old guy playing polskas on his harmonica in the corner up to the mike! It is your right to know what you are missing. Listen to the surging syncopated rhythms and allow yourself to succumb to its charms. Your heart will respond to the polska pulse and recognize its home. Ask to see some polska dances. Ask me. Call me.
How did I get to such a state of polska rapture? I got there via the endless and winding roads of Longing and Yearning, Disappointment and Rejection. A mad mix of many midsummers, marriage, mid-life, memories, misery and mistakes, sprinkled with liberal doses of misunderstandings and mean minded misdeeds. I think I am just a Very Lucky Lady. Difficulties led me right to the end of the rainbow, treasure and all!
Midsommar and its associated activities has always been symbolic for me of the Swedishness I lacked or couldn’t get close to. Christmas didn’t do it. Midsommar is different. Demanding nothing and giving so much. A couple of years ago I joined Midsommar Klubben at the Swedish Museum in Philadelphia. Our purpose is to make sure Midsommar is fittingly observed in this, the bastion of New Sweden. We do a good job. My areas of expertise in relation to this occasion are four in number. One. I bake huge amounts of cardamom infused vetebullar the day before. These to be sold on behalf of the museum. Two. Early in the morning, Chris helps me fill my car trunk with greenery and flowers. I head south to spend the morning merrily dressing our maypole with the help of several other women. We sing old songs, laugh, gab and giggle together as we recall childhoods in a distant time and place. This is my favorite part of the day. No stress. Chris arrives midday as do hundreds of others. Three. Having changed into folk costume, I lead ring dances around the freshly raised maypole. Chris tends to the music. This is wonderful, if slightly chaotic. I collect folks in a long chain to the hambo strains of “Å Jänta å ja” blaring on the sound system. We make our way down to the day’s focal point and let loose. Dancing for the masses— . . . och du med, och jag med . . . (and you and I together). Unpretentious. Natural. Happy. Four. My stalwart Chris and I dance to fill all the spaces when there is no official program, entertaining ourselves and the charmed guests. If we notice longing eyes, we whisk that person out for a dance. Often we are told “It’s been so many years, I’m not sure I can remember . . .” But they always do.
Sometimes bitterness and sweetness comes from the same fruit. It depends on the day. Consider the persimmon fruit. One sunrise and one sunset can make all the difference. My persimmon fruit is dancing. Great personal sorrows and joys, tests and triumphs, have been manifested within that fruit. I persevere in spite of the obstacles.
Midsommar, you see, is a state of mind. It is not separate from life. It is firmly entwined and an integral part of the whole, coloring and spicing all the other days of the year. Being Swedish stays with you, but it doesn’t protect you from arrows that have your name on them. Best to just keep moving. Keep dancing. Keep smiling. Keep sharing.
Ah, the Passion of Midsommar!