Art work: Kristin Ay

IN CONTRAST to the thronged streets of vappu, Midsummer, aka juhannus, sees Finland’s towns and cities deserted. Signalling the start to many summer holidays and the opening of the season of fresh Finnish vegetables, fruits and berries, juhannus is probably Finland’s greatest festival of the year.

The celebration of the summer solstice dates back to pre-Christian times when Finns celebrated Ukon juhla, the feast of Ukko, the pagan Finnish god of weather, fertility and growth. After Christianity entered Finland, the festival became known as juhannus after Johannes Kastaja (St. John the Baptist) and was traditionally celebrated on his commemoration day, 24 June. After labour organisations’ efforts in 1955, juhannus now falls on the Saturday between 20 and 26 June with modern celebrations a mix of pagan and Christian traditions.

Midsummer is the turning point at which the days begin to shorten again; an event that historically raised fear and uncertainty about the future and thus giving cause to various religious and superstitious beliefs. Today the burning of Karelian bonfires, or kokko, provide warmth through the cool summer nights, though they were originally lit as protection from the evil spirits that were thought to roam freely as the sun turns southwards once again. It was also believed that plants and water had special powers during Midsummer night and superstitions included picking seven (or nine) flowers which were placed under girls’ pillows so they would dream of their future husband.

Nowadays, juhannus tends to focus less on the supernatural and more on simple nature with those who don’t manage to escape to the countryside gathering at Seurasaari. Here, the biggest Midsummer festivities in the greater Helsinki area are held with traditional music, costumes, dancing and a Midsummer wedding. Regardless of location, town or country, the traditional veritable feasting is guaranteed. Salmon and herring served with boiled potatoes in dill and parsley butter, grilled sausages with strong mustard, fresh strawberries and cream – yum!

Daisey Cheyney

Midsummer is celebrated on 26 June.