Have you heard of Juhannus? No, that’s not a famous soccer player or race car driver. In Finland, Juhannus (video in Finnish with English subtitles) is one of the most celebrated holidays of the year, second only to Christmas.
Juhannus is the celebration associated with the Summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Just like Christmas in Finland, the big celebration happens on the night before the holiday, Midsummer’s Eve. Nowadays, Midsummer’s Eve is celebrated on the Friday between the 19th and 25th of June.
Did you know that Finland is located very close to the North Pole, with part of its territory actually inside the Arctic Circle? This means that if you were in northern Finland during Juhannus, you would experience daylight 24 hours a day. Even if you were further South, in Helsinki, for instance, you would still experience nights that don't go completely dark. The sky is never pitch black because the sun doesn’t seem to set completely and is only down for a few hours. For you to have an idea, it’s 2am as I write this blog post and the birds are already singing to the rising sun (I’m really glad Finns don’t keep pet roosters!).
Juhannus has pagan origins
Juhannus, the Finnish name of the holiday, is in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Despite the Christian name, the bonfire and other traditions surrounding Juhannus date back to before Christianity arrived in Finland. At those times, the celebration honored Ukko, the Finnish god of weather and thunder, and was meant to bring fertility and good harvests. The pagan influence is felt not only on the lighting of bonfires, but on the dancing and, especially, the spells. Juhannus was the time when Finnish ladies would try to find out who their husbands would be. In those old days, Finnish women would wear special charms and, naked, would bend over the water of lakes or wells. It was believed that by doing so the reflection of their future husbands would be revealed. Do you want to try another version of this spell? Pick 7 different types of wildflowers and place them under your pillow. The image of your future significant other should appear to you in dreams.
A celebration in nature
The fact that, to this day, Juhannus is still celebrated outdoors is another reminder of its pagan origins. Finns celebrate the holiday in nature, on beaches, in the forest or on the margins of one of the many lakes in Finland, usually by travelling to their “mökki”, their beloved cottages in the wilderness. Apart from the bonfires and the spells, common activities include grilling food such as sausages (known as “makkara”) and white fish, dancing, music, alcohol and, of course, sauna. Birch branches are used in the sauna and hung over thresholds. A beautiful tradition involves making and using flower crowns.
Juhannus during Covid-19
You might be thinking that Juhannus celebrations have been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Guess what? Living in a country with universal healthcare and where the government acted proactively in curtaining the pandemic has its perks. Despite the fact that events with more than 500 people are still not allowed, life has pretty much gotten back to normal around here. (On the day I write this blog post, there have been 4 new cases since the day before and 326 deaths to date).
Since Juhannus is mainly celebrated outdoors, in relatively small groups of friends and family, Covid-19 will mean minor disruption to the celebration for most people. People from risk groups will need to be more cautious, though.
Similar celebrations happen in many countries
You are sorely mistaken if you think Juhannus is a Finnish-only holiday. Several countries host a similar version of the celebration, among those all the countries in the Nordics, Baltic countries, Germany, Poland, Russia and many others.
Interestingly enough, a version of the holiday has reached as far as the American continent. Northeastern Brazil is famous for what are called June Parties (“festas juninas”), celebrations to several catholic saints that happen during the month of June, among which the one to Saint John is probably the most famous. During these celebrations, a bonfire is also the traditional centerpiece around which dancing and partying happen. I grew up with these celebrations and they are a beloved childhood memory of mine. As a child, they were strongly associated with my local culture as a Northeastern Brazilian. Little did I know at that time what a distant and foreign origin these festivities had.
Fresh ingredients a staple of Finnish cuisine
Finnish cuisine is rather straightforward, I don’t think it would be described as having any outrageous flavor choices. One thing that makes it stand out for me, though, is the focus on fresh and local ingredients. Finns’ love for nature shows up also on their plates and I love it.
One thing you can’t miss if you’re ever in Finland during Juhannus (or over the Summer, for that matter) is tasting Finnish berries. There are some I had never tried before, like cloudberries. As common as strawberries are, don’t leave without trying the Finnish ones. They are delicious! Juhannus is also a time for strawberries, either decorating sponge cakes or as a side for the traditional Finnish oven pancakes, “pannukakku”, that can be made on the grill as well.
Do you want a piece of Juhannus? How about trying out “pannukakku”? Head over to Her Finland blog and check out Varpu’s recipe for the traditional Finnish pancakes, as well as her excellent tips on Finnish language and culture.
Do you want to learn more about Finland?
The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen.
Movies and TV shows:
Hyvää juhannusta! Happy Midsummer’s Eve!
So, what do you think? Would you feel like celebrating a day with no night? Have you experienced the midnight sun? Let us know in the comments section.