Libby’s postcard from Sweden

Libby, a very active SELHuG member (including stints as Secretary and Treasurer), moved to Stockholm earlier this year. She sent us this ‘postcard

It’s midsummers eve, the sun is shining and the birds are twittering squawking and singing. Stockholm seems very different to when we arrived at the end of February. For the first few weeks, the sky was often pale grey or pregnant with snow. It was cold much of the time and the snow flurries still came down well after Easter. Now, after experiencing the tail end of winter, it is understandable that there is reverence and joy with which midsummer is greeted here.

Yesterday was a national holiday, it was a Friday, the day before midsummers eve, little family parties were underway in nearby gardens and the elderly neighbours’ behind us gathered together. The apartments where we rent were built in the 1920’s era, there are three floors, the space is quite large inside, with wooden floors and white walls.  All the blocks are covered with painted render outside, each in the typical classical Swedish colours; deep calming yellow or red is common interspersed with pastel blues and greens.

The blocks we are in surround a courtyard of defined garden spaces so that each block has a small patch. Each garden is different: some are paved with barbecues and planters while others, like ours, have mown grass and picnic tables. Some are more natural with shrubs and flowers and a couple contain mature beech trees that the menagerie of birds love. The geography of Stockholm means that we hear geese using fresh water lakes nearby, sea water birds like gulls and turns, and then the myriad of garden residents – sparrows, blackbirds and bluetits. 

Our neighbourhood in Central Stockholm has been quiet over this long weekend (aside from the geese honking). It seems people may have gone to find more nature wherever they can. I’ve no doubt the majority are adhering to Covid 19 restrictions on travel: a 50-person limit to gatherings and the social distancing rules. 

Being outside, in the daylight and enjoying life seems to be a common theme of Swedish life. Yesterday, it seemed that everyone who had not travelled out of the city was celebrating the sun with those closest to them, taking advantage of over eighteen hours of daylight. People were spread out in gardens parks and smallest of green spaces. I don’t know for sure, but it seems like the pandemic may have changed who can celebrate together but not dampened the spirit of midsummer.

Sadly, we don’t have Swedish friends to guide us, but I’ve read that we are supposed to eat potato salad with dill and salmon or herring, followed by strawberry cake and all washed down by beer and snaps. The snaps here is aquavit, often flavoured with classic Scandinavian spices like caraway and anise. Hmm, maybe we’ll stick to a small beer… So as long as we don’t try the fermented tinned herring, the food and drink options seem good!

The other midsummer traditions are slightly stranger or difficult to do. We don’t have the kit to make a ten foot maypole! Then there is the frog song and dance, I’m not joking! It seems that after a good lunch the folk at each gathering erect their maypole to dance round. The maypole has two hoops at the top. Allegedly these signify the axis between the world, the heavens and the underworld but some believe it’s a fertility symbol, er you decide.

The frog song and dance, Små grodorna or ‘the small frogs’, illustrates the attributes that frogs lack. Dancers hop around the maypole and sing about the small frogs with no ears and tails, ribbit, ribbit ribbit?! There’s a second verse about pigs; they do have tails and ears, of course, oink oink oink.  The idea sounds crazy but I expect it makes sense at a family party and/or perhaps after a deal of aquavit.

Whatever the strangeness of some of the traditions, it’s clear that the midsummer traditions are worthwhile: respecting nature enjoying the sunshine and connecting with friends and family. 

I’m off to macerate some strawberries and find some flowers for my hair.

Enjoy the sunshine, love one another and stay safe.  Libby x