Gatherings & Celebrations: Finland's Midsummer Festivals - #115

Ancient astronomers believed that the sun traveled around the earth on a gigantic track. Each day the sun would move a distance equivalent to its own width.    It took six months to travel from its furthest point in the north to its furthest point in the south.  When it got to one end of the track, it would turn around and head back.  The most northerly point was called the Tropic of Cancer; the most southerly point, the Tropic of Capricorn. The word tropic is Greek and it means “the turning point.” The sun appeared to stop for a few days at each turning point before it made the return trip.  That stop was called a solstice, which is a Latin word, and it means “the sun stands still.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The old astronomers believed that the sun made one stop during the summer and one stop during the winter.  They were both very significant.  The summer stop takes place on June 21.  That’s the day of the year with the most amount of light. In many cultures it is an extremely important feast day.  And that’s particularly true here in Finland.

During the Midsummer weekend, the people of Finland celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist.  The Christian church placed that birthday on June 24th.  John’s birthday celebration is used to remind people of John’s special relationship to Christ.  John was born in the summer -- exactly six months before Christ.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Christ said that John was “a shining light.” And Midsummer Day is the brightest day of the year.  John said of Christ that Christ  would grow brighter as he, John, grew dimmer.  And that’s exactly what happens with the sun.  In the six months after Christ’s birth, the sun gets brighter and brighter.  In the six months after John’s birth, the sun gets dimmer and dimmer.  In some countries Midsummer Day is called after St. John -- Saint Jacques in France, San Juan in Spain, Juhannus here in Finland.

John baptized Christ, and that’s one reason for water being an important part of this celebration.  For many centuries people also believed that on Midsummer’s Day all waters had special healing powers.  People would go into the rivers and lakes on Midsummer Day and bathe themselves.  They believed that the water would wash away evil spirits, while at the same time setting up a protective coating.  In Finland, a common Midsummer Day ritual allowed women to bathe naked in streams that ran through the property of men they fancied.  The women believed that this technique would help them attract their desired mate.  Hmmm.  Well... yes... I could see how that might work.

Finland celebrates St. Juhannus’ Day over a weekend.  At some point there is a symbolic “marriage” between water and fire.  People go out to the shore of a lake to hold their festivities and build their fires.  The water is the element for cleansing and baptism.  The fire is clearly a symbol of the sun.  They might stay at a family’s cottage by a lake or visit friends.  They renew contact with each other and with nature.  The swimming is very important.  And so is the sauna.  In Finland, the sauna is a distinct and very significant form of gathering, with a considerable amount of ritual.

The sauna is a national institution in Finland.  No one knows when the Finns first got into the sauna, but local anthropologists believe that saunas have been part of Finnish life for at least two thousand years.  It’s possible for a Finnish family to have a sauna but no house, but it’s virtually impossible to have a house without a sauna.  An old Finnish saying goes, “First you build the sauna and then you build the house.” 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Whenever a new home is built, a sauna is included.  There are central saunas in apartment buildings, corporations have corporate saunas, and they are absolutely essential in hotels.  In rural Finland, it was traditional to give birth in a sauna.  It was a quiet, intimate and safe place.  And because of the high temperature, it was relatively free of harmful bacteria.

The sauna structure itself is actually very simple.  It’s a room made of white spruce or western red cedar wood, with a few benches.  There’s a heating unit that brings the temperature of the room into a range of 160 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.  Everybody settles in and gets accustomed to the heat.  Then you sprinkle water on the hot rocks that are part of the heating system.  The water produces steam.  One of the unique aspects of the sauna is that it is the only bath that gives you control of both the heat and the humidity.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The sauna is also a ritual of purification as well as cleansing.  It often involves beating yourself with birch twigs.  The idea is to increase circulation and perspiration, and introduce you to the proposed benefits of mild self- flagellation.  Ohhh, this feels so good!

Because birch does not toughen until late in the year, young birch twigs have always been a favorite wood for making whips.  The birch whip was also thought to be the ideal method for driving off evil spirits, especially those that are believed to fly around on Midsummer Eve.  When you feel you have reached your ideal temperature, it’s time to go out for a cool-down.  You can take a shower or a bath.  In the summertime you can go for a swim.  If it’s winter and you are an old- fashioned Finn, you might even roll around in the snow or jump into a lake through a hole in the ice. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  If you think you might have any medical problems, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor before you take a sauna.  In terms of rolling in the snow or jumping through a hole in the ice into the lake, you might also consider talking to a psychiatrist. 

After the cool-down you can return to the sauna.  The heating and cooling is repeated two or three times.  Each period in the sauna is called an “inning.” In general, men sauna with men and women with women.  The sauna is a very proper and moral place.  It is not unusual for corporations to hold their directors’ meetings in a sauna, and from time to time even the nation’s cabinet meetings are held in a sauna.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The Finns have exported their sauna tradition around the world.  Originally the attraction to the sauna was based on the fact that it was relaxing.  It reduced the stress of life.  But a recent series of scientific studies have increased the list of advantages.

It appears that a sauna can relax muscles, reduce pain after a workout, burn calories through the process of sweating, condition your heart, improve circulation, cleanse your skin, and induce a deeper, more relaxing sleep.  Add to that the driving off of evil spirits and you’re talking some serious benefits.

Later in the day, everybody sits down to eat.  There are a number of traditional summer foods in Finland.  Preserved meats and liver pate with pickled apples.  A simple salad.  Mixed forest mushrooms.  Cold grilled salmon.  Glassmakers’ herring.  Marinated Baltic herring.  Gravlax and boiled new potatoes.  Finn Crisp with pate, caviar and fresh Brie cheese.  Finnish bleu cheese and Emmenthal.  Different kinds of breads.  A block of butter cut to look like a Swiss cheese.  Grilled herring, cold smoked salmon and prawns.  Warm sweet pancakes, cloudberries, raspberries.  Marinated melons.  Grilled Lapland cheese.  Pies, cakes, tarts, and Midsummer strawberries.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  As soon as the summer berries arrive, they are baked into everything -- pies, tarts, cakes, muffins.  If they can get a berry into it, they do.

This is a traditional bakery carrying the breads that have been part of the Finnish diet for hundreds of years.  Most of them are made of rye flour.  The Finns believe that rye flour will make you fit.  They say that a man “has rye in his wrist” when they mean he is strong.  The meat shop carries something called “sauna-smoked ham.”  In the old days, they would actually hang a ham in the sauna and use the sauna smoke to preserve the meat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And everywhere there are new potatoes -- the smaller, the better.  They’re cooked in water that has a little salt and dill for added flavor, and served with just a touch of butter.  The Finns believe that potatoes that are cooked before Christmas should go into boiling water.  Potatoes that are cooked after Christmas should go into cold water which is then brought to the boil.  The newer the potato, the less water it needs.  Old potatoes need the moisture.

There’s a specialty shop that deals in reindeer meat, which is very low in fat, and free of antibiotics.  Pürakha is a traditional pastry, originally from the northeast part of Finland, which is called Karilia.  The dough is filled with mashed potatoes or rice.  It’s a real Finnish classic.  

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Licorice is a big deal in Finland; there’s a salted variety, and doctors recommend you keep that to a limit because of the possible negative effects on your blood pressure.  My personal preference, however, is for the sweet variety, which is really good for me because it’s part of my exercise program.

Finland is also the land of Vodka.  It’s a drink, but one with a lot of tradition, and a sizable amount of ritual.  The word vodka means “little water”... a valid description.  Water is a very important ingredient in the production of vodka. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It appears that vodka was first produced just across the border from here in Russia.  And it may have been as early as the 900’s.  There are documents that indicate that an early form of vodka was being produced back then, and tax agents were bouncing around collecting fees for its manufacture.  Eventually vodka became the national drink of all of the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, including Finland.  And these days, all Finnish vodka is produced by a government agency, in a single plant just outside the capital city of Helsinki.  And right next to that plant is a museum totally devoted to the history of vodka. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   This is an old photograph of a Finnish farmer’s wife using a homemade still to produce vodka, the way Finnish farmers have for hundreds of years.  It’s a pretty straightforward process.  You take a food that’s high in complex carbohydrates, like potatoes or beets, crush it into a mash, add some yeast and water.  The yeast causes fermentation.  That means that the sugar in the potato is turned to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.  The gas just floats away;  the potato and the alcohol go into a still.  It’s heated.  The alcohol turns into a gas and comes up.  The impurities in the potato mash are left behind.  The gas is forced down through these tubes, through a bucket filled with snow.  The low temperature causes the gas to re-condense into a liquid, which drips out into this bucket.  That pure alcohol has water added to it, and the farmer ends up with vodka.  Eventually the kings of Finland decided that this was much too valuable a process to be left to amateurs, even if they were gifted, and the Crown became the exclusive producer of vodka. Today Finland is a democracy, but the government is still in charge of all vodka production. 

This is a small laboratory still used as part of the company’s quality control system, but the large stills that actually produce their vodka do the exact same thing. The Finlandia plant uses a very sophisticated system of distillation that produces the purest vodka in the world. Instead of potatoes or beets, the basic mash is made from barley grain, which results in a much smoother drink.  The mash is heated.  The alcohol turns to steam and is separated from the impurities of the mash.  The steam goes up, turns and heads down.  As it does, it passes through a tube that is cooled by a jacket of cold water.  The pure alcohol condenses from a steam back into a liquid.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The technology for distilling alcohol arrived in Spain during the early 700s, when the Moors came over from Africa.  That same distillation technology, however, probably arrived in northern Europe from China.  The Chinese invented gunpowder.  Distilled alcohol is an essential ingredient in gunpowder.  And Russia’s eastern frontier was always in contact with the Chinese.

The association of alcohol and gunpowder is of particular importance here.   In 1939 the Russian army invaded Finland.  The Finnish army defended its nation in one of the most difficult environments in the world.  They fought back with everything they had.  Which wasn’t very much.  Finland’s ski troops learned to cover their uniforms in white overalls, which made it almost impossible for the Russians to see them during the winter war.  They built dams and flooded the areas through which the Russians were advancing.  They conducted their troop movements in the forests so they would be hard to see.  On the other side, the Russians had hundreds of tanks, and they used their tank commands as the primary units for their advance.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Finns had a few anti-tank guns, and a few anti-aircraft guns like this one, but basically they took on the Russian tanks with a cocktail -- a cocktail made by women working for the government in this plant.  At the time, this facility was used for making vodka.  As a matter of fact, it still is.  But the vodka for the Russian Anti-Tank Cocktail was quite special.  They took the alcohol that they were using to make vodka and put it in this bottle.  Then they added a little tar, a little turpentine and a little gasoline.  They taped two giant matches to the outside.  A Finnish soldier would light the matches, run up to the Russian tank and drop the bottle down the tank’s exhaust pipe.  The glass would break, the flame would come in contact with the liquid, the liquid exploded and immobilized the tank.  They named this little cocktail after the Russian foreign minister at the time... Mr. Molotov.  This is the home of the original Molotov Cocktail.

The spot where the government produces all of its Finlandia vodka was originally chosen in 1888 because it had a well with extraordinarily pure water.  The well and its water are as pure as ever.  Remember, Finland is glacier country.  Vodka has been the national drink of Finland for generations.  In 1970 the government decided to export its brand, and it has become one of the most popular brands in the world.

Of course, it’s the length and intensity of the winter that makes Midsummer Day so important.  You don’t see a Midsummer celebration in Hawaii.  Some of my hosts are celebrating the midnight sun with a drink called a Midnight Sun.  It’s two parts cranberry vodka, and five parts orange juice.  Eventually everybody toasts the midnight sun in a three-chambered glass that reminds them of the horns of a reindeer.  It’s all very Finnish.


When Finns make their toasts on Midsummer’s Day, they are usually making a wish for their future, which is very appropriate for a day that celebrates the birth of St. John. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Bible tells us that John was a great prophet.  The Finns took that bit of  information and added it to a group of pre-Christian beliefs.  The result is an enormous collection of superstitions indicating that Midsummer Day is the day to look into the future.

In one old Finnish practice, an egg white is poured into a glass that is half-full of water.  Then it’s left for twenty-four hours. It’s important to place the water on a window-ledge or someplace where it will be “in the eye of the sun” during the entire Midsummer Day.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Next morning you can read the future in the swirly shapes.  It’s a joining together of two of the most important symbols of Midsummer Day... sun and water. The sun shines down on the water.  The egg white records the activity between the two and gives you the message. It’s kind of like reading tea leaves.

A lot of the superstitions deal with women finding out which man they will marry.  Sun and water are often part of fertility themes.  Because Midsummer is a time of flowers and vegetation, there are lots of superstitions about plants.  Perhaps the most common is the practice of going out and picking seven or nine different kinds of flowers, and making them into a wreath.  On Midsummer night, women sleep with that wreath under their pillow, and dream about the man they will marry.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Another favorite way to take a look at the future is a “silent cake”.  A group of women bake a cake like this without talking to each other while they’re doing the baking.  Then they take a small piece of the crust and sleep with it under their pillow.  The crust is supposed to induce a dream that will tell them about the future.  Often it will tell them about the man in their life.  But sometimes it’ll tell them about the life in their man.

Midsummer night is also the time to cut off the top of a rose and keep it until Christmas Day.  Then you wear it on your dress and the man who takes it off will marry you.  Good thing to know if you’re in Finland during Christmas.  The birch tree also plays a role in the Midsummer celebration.  In Finland the birch is to Midsummer what the pine is to Christmas.  In northern European folklore, the birch represents “beginnings.” In most areas of Finland, it is the first tree to send out new leaves.  In England, the traditional financial year began on the first of April because that was the day the birch was said to start sprouting.  In Scandinavia, the leafing of the birch marks the beginning of the agricultural year.  It sends a signal to farmers that it is time to plant their grain. 

In Finland, more people get married during the Midsummer celebrations than any other weekend of the year.  It’s a time when the bathing rituals have washed away evil spirits and new beginnings can be made.  It is a time when you are supposed to be able to see into the future, and therefore be in a better position to make an important decision.  The traditional “Wedding March,” which is played all over the Western world, was written by Felix Mendelssohn.  He wrote it  for his suite “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  The theme of marriage resonates throughout Finland on Midsummer weekend -- the joining together of a man and a woman is echoed later in the day by a marriage of fire and water.  Fire has long been a masculine symbol, and water, a feminine one.

Midsummer Day is always marked by the lighting of fires.  They are fires that are believed to encourage the sun to keep up its good work.  It is one of the oldest surviving rituals in Europe.   Each year, a couple that has just been married is rowed off to a small island off the coast of Helsinki.   Thousands of people gather on the shores to watch this solemn ceremony.  A giant tower is constructed of fir trees and the hulls of boats.  Together the bride and groom set the tower ablaze.  It is an ancient ritual appealing to the sun... a request for its eternal warmth and light.  The couple represents all of the men and women married that day in Finland, and their collective hope for a bright future.   The word bonfire comes from “bone fire” and reminds us that there was a time when these fires were made from the bones of animals.  The bones in the bonfires were filled with mystical powers that would ward off evil spirits.  The most important evil spirit that needed to be warded off was, of course, the one that could make the sun grow weaker.  No sun, no life.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Midsummer Day celebration brings us face to face with the realization that we are all living in a world that keeps on changing, no matter what we do.  Everything has a beginning and an end, whether we like it or not. Midsummer Day, like all festivals, tries to draw a balance.  It tells us to begin new things just as the old ones are coming to an end... to rejoice in the brightness even though we know the darkness is on its way.  Midsummer Day stands in relation to Christmas Day.  It reminds us that the darkest days of December are actually days of rebirth -- a rebirth that will eventually bring us to the brightest days of summer.   Please join us next time as we travel around the world, looking at gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.