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Go Toward the Light

Light is important in Swedish culture, from the candles lit at midwinter to the midnight sun of Midsummer.


In Uppsala, the Fyris River’s bridges and trees were outlined with lights, and all the apartment windows lit with stars. Later that month the park would glimmer with ice sculptures. Sweden was sparkling.

My husband Brian and I had chosen to travel in our third extended visit to Sweden during my second Fulbright. The first stay, for Brian’s Fulbright in Uppsala in 1988, we landed in a heavy snow storm which was followed by dark days. The second stay, for my Fulbright in Gothenburg in 1998, we experienced west coast weather with freezing rain ... and dark days. This time, early in 2011, we caught the end of the Christmas season. The city was still lit up and festive, and we were able to attend a splendid Russian Christmas concert (on the Orthodox calendar) at Uppsala Cathedral.

In Gothenburg, we had learned from our friends the expression "nu går vi mot ljuset." A fairly literal translation is "now we move toward the light." After the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, each day gets a little lighter until we reach Midsummer at the opposite side of the calendar — that joyously light, longest day of the year.

I knew these facts but had never deeply reflected on them. In Uppsala my friend Dag Blanck, historian and director of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies, made the significance of these calendrical markers even more apparent to me when he pointed out the way daylight increases more as we approach the equinox toward the end of March, when the increase in each day's minutes of daylight is greater than at other intervals in the year. Approaching the equinox, we don’t just move toward the light, we accelerate toward it. At Uppsala’s northern latitude this difference is perceptible and important enough to be a topic of conversation.

A sensitivity to the light as the days wax and wane is deeply embedded in Swedish culture, making the solstices high points in the celebratory calendar. While I've never fully experienced the midwinter side of the calendar, I have witnessed Midsummer in Sweden in two localities. Those experiences piqued my interest and inspired me to spend several years’ research and writing to produce my latest book, Pole Raising and Speech Making: Modalities of Swedish American Summer Celebration (Utah State University Press, 2015).

The light of summer
My first Midsummer experience in Sweden has probably been shared by many American tourists. In 1988, very nearly at the end of our first several-month sojourn in Uppsala, we took in Midsummer at Skansen, the famed folklife museum on Djurgården in Stockholm. Everything was historically detailed there — costumes didn’t just look like peasant clothing, they looked hand-stitched. The Midsummer pole was bounteously decorated with greenery and flowers, and it was hoisted up using large poles crisscrossed and secured together with ropes. This impressed me at the time as a potentially very dangerous process. The men on one set of poles had to alternate their lifts with those on the other sets. But truly this group was experienced enough to make this traditional process look quite easy. As the men hoisted the pole upright, the crowd of observers shouted with each heave: Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! It brought me to tears with joy.

Our second Midsummer experience in Sweden was at a smaller locale, a village close to Gothenburg where we’d been invited by friends at the end of our 1998 stay. There the attendees clearly knew each other and the crowd was much smaller. But the Midsummer pole raising was almost industrial in its efficiency. Much like a re-useable artificial Christmas tree, this was a re-usable pole hinged at the bottom so there was no chance of slippage as it rose into place. The task was accomplished in seconds, and a troupe of well-rehearsed folk dancers in traditional costumes performed dances around the pole.

Back in the United States, I’ve been able to attend a few Midsummer pole raisings close to my home in Idaho. In the New Sweden, Idaho farm community about an hour’s drive north of Pocatello, a third-generation Swedish American, Dave Sealander, has established an annual Midsummer celebration on his family’s historic farm. Based on what Sealander has observed in Poulsbo, Washington, the New Sweden celebration includes a pole raising with the old-fashioned and perhaps rather dangerous crisscrossed lifts that I first saw at Skansen. It is also performed by a small group of acquaintances interested in folk tradition, involved in all the steps required to decorate and raise a very tall pole from the ground to an upright position. At New Sweden the pole raising is an impressive accomplishment, and because everyone is involved, it is satisfying work, like a rural work party that works hard together then feasts and dances together.

Researching immigrant traditions
These encounters with Midsummer and my realization of the importance of solstices to Swedish culture prompted me to wonder whether what we see today in Sweden and in Swedish America reflects the practices of the Swedish immigrants of a century ago and earlier. To answer that question I traveled to study archives around the Rocky Mountain west, in the midwest and in Sweden. Focusing particularly on Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, I sought sources from the decades when Swedish Americans flocked to those states to work in extractive industries and railroading, the period that was the height of Swedish immigration, 1880 up to the beginning of United States involvement in World War I.

Traces of evidence about Midsummer practices crop up in a variety of sources: Swedish American newspapers, letters, diaries, photographs, speech scripts, reminiscences and oral histories. These traces help us recreate a sense of Midsummer events of the 1890s in places like Salt Lake City and Denver. Did they raise Midsummer poles, for example? Only some and not even most Midsummer celebrations actually included a pole-raising. Instead, speeches were just as important to these events. And the one main activity of central importance was an excursion in the countryside for an outdoor meal. Those picnics depicted in photographs reveal Swedish Americans dressed in their Sunday best and seated around tables with tablecloths and cutlery.

The speech-making was eloquent, and I turned up beautiful examples from Dr. Charles Bundsen, the Denver physician who established the tuberculosis sanitarium there and whose papers are at the Denver Public Library. Bundsen was proud of his Swedish-Americanness, wearing a Swedish flag on his lapel in response to hazing for his ethnic background when he was a medical student. He was a frequent orator at Denver gatherings, using these occasions to express Swedish American virtues. In one memorable speech he described his feelings on returning to Sweden with the Orpheus Singers, to be greeted at the shore by a Swedish chorus singing "Vårt Land" (Our Country). This was an occasion for Bundsen to be beset with tears of joy and nostalgia.

My investigations of Midsummer in America revealed many such moments of joyful and deeply meaningful celebration. Midsummer is little known in most corners of America, but for those with Swedish roots it has remained on the mental celebratory calendar as a time to reconnect with their roots and reflect on the importance of light in Swedish culture, from the candles lit at Midwinter to the enjoyment of late-night sunshine at a Midsummer picnic.

By Jennifer Eastman Attebery


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