Midsummer Madness

Sleeper Train Finland to Rovaniemi.JPGWithout a doubt, one of the most exciting train journeys we have taken during our backpacking holidays was the sleeper train from Tampere in Finland) to Rovaniemi, high up in the Arctic Circle.  We didn’t expect much really – a sleeper train after all is just the replacement of a bed in a hostel and there is the assumption of course that you sleep while travelling.

We first realised we were in for a very special treat when we saw the sleeping compartments of the brand new sleeper train.  Generous bunk beds, plenty of room, and a super-clever toilet, which at the touch of a button rotated to become a full-blown shower.  And then there was that window: wonderfully big and literally providing us with a window on the world as we sped through the night.

Sleeper Train Finland cabin 1.JPG

Heading North

Finland is quite flat, particularly in the south, and mostly made up of lakes and forests.  In fact, there are more than 190,000 lakes which together contain nearly 180,000 islandsThe Gulf of Bothnia offer lots of golden, sandy beaches and as you travel further north you find yourself in Lapland, a mixture of wilderness, high mountains, thick forests and a forest bed covered in reindeer moss.  This is after all the land of the Sami and reindeer!  And as this is where we were going – is it any wonder that I couldn’t sleep. 🙂

The journey took about 9 hours, and it is true to say that I was awake for the best part of this.  It was late July and although we had missed the Midsummer celebrations by a month, the impact of the everlasting sun was still noticeable everywhere, and more so as we travelled further north.  We tend to think that it is only on Midsummer Eve that the sun never sets, but in fact, at Nordkapp, the most northerly point in Europe, there are 76 days of Midnight Sun.  Enough to keep anybody awake for weeks….

A sleepless night

Huirtigruten view 3.JPG

So as the kids were sound asleep, I found myself looking out over a wonderful world of trees and lakes, illuminated by a steady stream of sunlight followed by a couple of hours of moonlight, before the sun reappeared.  Even though it was the height of summer, I could easily visualise what this journey would be like if it were winter.  It wasn’t hard to imagine the lake glistening with ice, tree branches heavy with snow and reindeer and moose jumping through the forests out of the train’s way, just in time.

It was a glorious journey, one I would make again at the drop of a hat.  The whole experience was heightened by the prospect of passing the Arctic Circle for the first time in my life.  As it happened, I had just fallen asleep when we did, and it wasn’t until we reached Rovaniemi that I finally stepped out on Arctic soil.  But when it did, it really hit home:  I was here – tick that box, one dream fulfilled.

Stockholm Skansen Reindeer5.JPG

Dreams fulfilled

At this point I am dying to tell you about our trip to a Sami village, their very special culture, our visit to a reindeer farm, the hike with husky dogs, the canoe trip down river, a riverside barbecue under the midnight sun and our battle with mosquitoes.  But it will all have to wait, as the midnight sun is imminent once again and so it’s the stories about midnight sun that win me over.  After all, in this part of the world, where people battle with polar nights for so many months, the return of the sun is always worth celebrating.

Midsummer Festivals

In most northern countries the festival of Midsummer is based on pagan beliefs, but actual celebrations vary considerably from country to country.  Where in the UK only modern-day druids come together to dance around Stonehenge, further north the festival of Midsummer is a celebration for everybody.

In Finland Midsummer is celebrated on the same day as the Saints’ Day for St. John, so the festival is known locally as Juhannes.  If you ever find yourself arriving in any Finnish town or city on this day, you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived in a ghost town.  All Finns go to their summer cottages or holiday home for Juhannes – leaving towns and cities completely deserted by 12.00 noon.

WILD FLOWERS

In the Swedish-speaking part of Finland, girls and women go out into the fields on the eve of Juhannes to pick a selection of 7 different wild flowers.  The picking of the flowers has to be done in complete silence, and the flowers are then placed under their pillow at night.  According to legend, this will ensure that they dream of their future husband – although Finnish friends have confided in me that the vision of their future husband has not always become a reality – which in some cases may have been a blessing….

In Norway, Midsummer – or the Festival of St. Hans – is celebrated on the 23rd June.  In some parts of the country an old pagan tradition still survives, which involves the organising of a pretend wedding which can be between adults or between children, and symbolises the start of new life.

In Sweden the celebrations involve dancing around the Maypole, which in Sweden at last, has nothing to do with the month of May.  On the morning of Midsummer fresh wild flowers are picked which are used for decorating the Maypole.  It’s a village-wide task, and people will work throughout the day, until the musicians arrive.  It is time for everybody to dance around the Maypole.

DSC02116.JPGEstonians light huge bonfires on St. Johns Day, which are supposed to frighten off any bad spirits.  Of course, the bigger the fire, the more spirits will be scared off!  Once the bonfire is lit, the very bravest will take a run at it and jump right over, and all this just for good luck in the year to come.  The night is completed with much dancing and the singing of national songs.

In Latvia the celebration of Jani (Midsummer) is firmly rooted in nature and pagan traditions.  After all, this part of Europe was one of the last to convert to Christianity and only changed its allegiance after years of Northern Crusades in the 12th century.  DSC02069.JPGThe celebrations begin the day before the 23rd June, a day known locally as Herb Day.  Farmers collect herbs and roots from the fields before starting the mowing after the summer solstice.  Girls use the herbs by weaving them into plaited wreaths which they make for all the party-goers.  Every farm will have two hosts of the party, Saule (the mother, or sun) and Janis (the son of the skies), while any children go from farm to farm singing ‘Jani’-songs.  Typical foods include home-made cheeses and beer, and of course, it wouldn’t be midsummer without big bonfires.

There are of course many other celebrations around the world that commemorate the passing of the summer solstice, and as I am writing this in Romania in soaring temperatures that are much to high for early June, I am wondering if you will be celebrating  Midsummer, and if so how.  Please you do let me know and I will include your stories in my blog over the next few weeks.  Just drop me a line or leave a comment in the box below!  I’d love to hear from you.

Happy Midsummer to you all! 🙂
Annemieke

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2 Comments

  1. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted June 20, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting story, I don’t know about Romania, while there it was not celebrated, so that needs some further enquiries

  2. An
    Posted June 20, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    In Belgium we call Midsummer “de Langste Dag” (the longest day). It is celebrated on 21 June and the tradition of the ancient “Fest” got lost somehow. Nowadays people know the day because all shops are open late and offer sales to their customers. Some towns combine this shopping event with circus or other lively festivities that brighten up the day. HOWEVER! Since Midsummer is in the midst of semester examinations for most young people, they can only dream of better days to come. After all: when you’re young, any day can be your longest 🙂

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