While ‘Juhannus’ is no longer a religious holiday, it is celebrated almost religiously in Finland. For a couple of days in June, the streets of Helsinki become almost ghostly as Finns escape their daily routines to spend a few sleepless nights far away from the city centre. Last weekend families and friends met yet again for a celebration of light around the thousands of lakes and on the many islands that the Finnish landscape has to offer.
Finns are known by many to be prudent and punctual, but Juhannus is a holiday when relaxation is key. Life as we know it comes to a halt – outside of the emergency services and the occasional bar and restaurant it is rare to find anyone working. Instead of in offices, you will find Finns in saunas all around the country. Some even dare to take a dip in the water despite the chilling temperatures after an exceptionally cold spring.
Juhannus, also known as Midsummer, was originally a celebration of not only light, but also fertility. While such traditions date back to so-called pagan times, Catholic celebrations of the birth of John the Baptist have subsequently taken place on the same date as Midsummer’s day. It is indeed from the Finnish name of John the Baptist, that is Johannes Kastaja, that the word Juhannus is derived.
Today, few Finns commemorate John the Baptist during their Midsummer celebrations. There are, however, other age-old traditions that remain incorporated into the festivities. These include the aforementioned sauna, as well as, and perhaps more surprisingly, dancing.
Midsummer celebrations do not solely incorporate typically Finnish traditions, however. Originally begun as an attempt to kill evil spirits, the now famous midsummer bonfire is a tradition that has made its way to Finland from the east in the early twentieth century. Simultaneously, the Swedish-speaking community in Finland, particularly on the Åland islands, continue to celebrate midsummer in a traditionally Swedish way, by erecting a flower-decorated maypole on Midsummer’s Eve.
Midsummer’s Eve is sometimes, mistakenly, thought to be celebrated during summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year and one during which the sun barely sets in Finland. This year, however, summer solstice fell on Wednesday 21 June, a few days before Midsummer’s Eve. Yet, while Juhannus is a celebration of light, the exact date of the summer solstice matters little. Rather, for most Finns, Juhannus marks a sneak preview into the upcoming holiday period.