By Daniel Hubbard | June 24, 2012
How we mark time can be a very cultural thing. Today we think of June as the month for weddings. In the Irish parish registers that I have been reading of late, the weddings just pile up one on top of the other, but not in June, in February. Then nothing for weeks. Lent had come. That culture marked time that way.
This weekend my family and I celebrated the Swedish festival of “midsommar” or “midsummer” in English. It is one of those days that a culture uses to mark time. As the Swedish year rolls round, there are few days that can compare. Culturally speaking, it is probably the most important day of the year. It also comes with a few calendric twists.
The Recipe for the Date of Midsummer
Of course, midsummer sounds like it ought to occur in the middle of the summer but it doesn’t. It started as celebration of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. That midsummer is not what we now consider to be the middle of summer is just one of those things. In the English speaking world we sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” at Christmas time and rarely do we wonder what the middle of winter has to do with Christmas. “Midwinter” is just a reference to the winter solstice not what we would consider to be the middle of winter.
Ingredient One, Astronomy
Start with the summer solstice, the moment when the sun reaches as far north as it ever does. Of course the sun isn’t really moving north, it is just an effect of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and its movement around the sun.
Ingredient Two, Pagan Ritual
Midsommar was once a pagan celebration of the solstice but it no longer occurs on the date of the solstice.
Ingredient Three, Medieval Christianity
Midsummer was Christianized by moving it to the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, the most conveniently located significant feast day. John the Baptist was supposedly born six months before Christ, which means that once one assigns Christmas to be December 25, St. John’s Day should be June 25.
Ingredient Four, a Pinch of Roman Calendar
Yet midsommar is not on the 25th. St. John’s Day is the 24th. It seems that no one really knows why but the suspicion is that in Roman way of reckoning time, one counted backwards from various fixed points during the month. At the end of a month, one actually counted down to the first day of the next month. December is one day longer than June. Using the Roman way of thinking, Christmas is eight days before the first day of the month (you might say seven days but the Romans had a different way of thinking about such things). St. John’s Day is also the eighth day before the start of the next month from the Roman point of view.
Let the Mixture Sit While You Ponder
So far, we have an astronomical event (the solstice) which inspired a pagan festival, which was Christianized to a slightly different date. That date was determined from a Biblical reference and the date was probably computed using a calendar system that we no longer quite understand, in order to arrive on a date a day before we would expect. Got that?
Shift By a Day
The next twist is also very cultural, people say “midsommar” but what they actually mean is the day before. In Sweden there is a tendency to celebrate the day before a holiday. I’ve never found an explanation for this but I started to wonder when I lived there if it is that the holidays were once considered too sacred to actually be celebrated on the actual day, so one celebrated the day before. So people say “midsommer” but actually celebrate what we might call midsummer eve.
Stir in the Week
So people celebrate on the 23rd of June, right? Well, maybe in other countries but not in Sweden. Once upon a time it was the 23rd that was celebrated and the 24th was the holiday. My wife’s grandfather was born on the 24th of June and always enjoyed celebrating his “birthday eve” and then having his birthday off from work. He was very unhappy in the 1950s when the cycle of the week impinged itself upon his day and Midsommar was moved to the first Saturday after the 19th.
Once you move such a celebration to another country, where midsummer eve is not a day off from work, the celebrating naturally moves from Friday to Saturday and so one ends up celebrating the “eve” on the actual holiday.
So to recap. If we mix an astronomical event, pagan celebration, a Biblical reference, the Roman calendar, a cultural tendency to celebrate the day before the holiday and finally, the seven day week with a two day weekend and stir vigorously, you get the day of the Swedish midsommar celebration.
As genealogists it can be important to know how the cultures of our ancestors marked time. We shouldn’t expect their yearly rhythms to be the same as ours. We shouldn’t expect the milestones in our ancestors calendar to remain unchanged. And, Let’s face it, those festivals and celebrations are interesting and just plain fun!
Sweden shuts down for midsummer eve. Everything is closed. My wife and I married in Sweden on midsummer day and warned all the nonSwedish guests to take care of things on Thursday at the latest. Getting money changed and shopping would not be possible after that. We still needed to loan people taxi money to get home from the reception. They hadn’t comprehended just how closed everything would be.
Here is a funny and actually pretty accurate introduction to Swedish midsommar. Enjoy!