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Falling every year on June 24th, Midsummer Day marks the celebration of the summer season—which for the Northern Hemisphere begins with the summer solstice on June 21st. In many cultures, Midsummer Day was seen as a time of fertility, abundance, and the renewal of life. Over time, this day also became associated with St. John the Baptist, an important figure in Christian religion, and the solstice day was turned into St. John’s Day. While it is a day observed by many countries around the world, Midsummer Day has stronger ties to the Scandinavian nations (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark), where it is still viewed and celebrated in a big way. 

History of Midsummer

While it’s not clear when it started, it is known that Midsummer was rooted in pagan and pre-Christian traditions in Europe, where it was practiced as a ritual centered around the sun to honor nature and the magical and healing properties of plants. There were also other ceremonies held on this day to ensure good fortune and a good harvest, since this celebration took place between planting and harvesting seasons. Festivities included dancing, singing, drinking, cleaning the house, and collecting flowers. Bonfires, now a central component of this tradition, were meant to be danced around and helped keep the “evil spirits” away, which were believed to roam the earth more freely at this time of the year.

This date was also associated with the local gods of each country. In Northern Europe, the summer solstice was also known as Litha, a festival dedicated to the Norse god Balder, the god of love and light, commonly associated with this time of growth and rebirth. In Finland, for example, Midsummer was called Ukon juhla after Ukko, the god of thunder who controlled the rain and thus the fertility of the land. In Celtic mythology, the summer solstice was associated with the god of light and wisdom, Lugh, and the summer solstice ceremony was known as Lughnasadh, a time of feasts, bonfires and games.

When the Christian Church expanded to other countries, the authorities eventually assimilated this day to their religion, as was the case with many other pagan festivities. In the Christian calendar, Midsummer became known as the birthday of St. John the Baptist, who prophesied the birth of Christ and later baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. According to the Bible, St. John was born six months before Jesus Christ, whose birthday is celebrated on December 25th. To mark this occasion, aside from the traditional Midsummer celebrations that included lots of food, dances and watching the sunrise, the day took on a religious meaning, including visits to “holy wells” and springs.

How to Celebrate Midsummer

While the majority of the countries around the world mark the arrival of summer with their own version of St. John’s Day, some countries—particularly the Nordics—take Midsummer Day as a public holiday, and celebrate it with special events and lots of outdoor activities. In Sweden, Midsummer is one of the most important holidays of the year, and it is filled with traditional dances, bonfires, and feasts. In Finland, Midsummer is celebrated with sauna rituals, bonfires, and the gathering of wildflowers. Also, since the 1500s, many of these festivities include the traditional maypole, a tall wooden pole adorned with garlands made of flowers, around which the people would dance and sing. Whether it is celebrated as a religious or pagan festivity, Midsummer Day is still a day for spiritual reflection and a celebration of the cycles of life and new beginnings.

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