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Midsummer madness: Why 'Juhannus' is Finland's best and worst celebration

Guest contributor Joel Willans takes a look at the fun and frolics around Finnish Midsummer.

Joel Willans
Guest contributor Joel Willans. Image: Sampsa Pärnänen

In the UK, the only people who celebrate midsummer, or summer solstice as it’s more commonly known, are New-Age hippies, pagans and wannabe Druids. The celebration is so obscure that every year TV news cameras congregate at Stonehenge, the famed ancient rock circle, to film people frolicking with midsummer madness. It’s a novelty news item, in the same vein as "Cat rescues boy from tree". Simply put, we Brits don’t take midsummer very seriously.

We’re not alone. I’ve heard of unaware foreigners waking up on Midsummer’s Eve in Finland and panicking when they discover their city utterly devoid of people. Has a mass alien abduction taken place while they were peacefully slumbering, they wonder? But no, it’s just Juhannus, the Finnish word for Midsummer. Despite living a third of my life in Finland, I still find it difficult to understand this universal exodus to the forest.

Don’t get me wrong. Juhannus is a fantastically fun concept. There’s nothing like hanging out in the forest with your best buddies or family when the midnight sun’s shimmering on the lake and the bonfire’s blazing. It makes you feel a special type of wonder at the world. Then there’s the fascinating and feral partying, going wild in the wilderness. The booze, of course, helps give everyone a buzz, but it’s more than that. It’s the pure delight of enjoying the glorious warmth and never-ending sunlight, free of the worries of the modern world. For one day in a year, you can really let loose and immerse yourself in the joys of the sunshine season, just as our ancestors have for millennia.

However, for a summer celebration to work, there is one crucial ingredient necessary. The sun. The Finnish summer usually arrives late and leaves early, yet for those fleeting days (or moments) it woos you as passionately as a new lover. And let’s face it, living in a country that for months on end makes Tolkien’s Mordor of Lord of the Rings fame seem like a tempting holiday destination, you deserve to be wooed. In this light, is there anything more depressing than celebrating Midsummer, the literal middle of the season you’ve waited nine months for, when the first half of the summer has totally sucked?

If the summer has yet to deliver by Midsummer, you’re in for a very painful realisation: you’re halfway through and you’ve still not been warm enough to even have a terrace beer in shorts. Of course, living this far in the Northern hemisphere, we’re not going to be sipping piña coladas in flip-flops and thongs for three months straight, but if there’s any country on earth that deserves a few sun-kissed and blissful weeks, it’s Finland.

When it comes to weather, Juhannus is a more extreme version of Vappu, as May Day is known in Finland . At Vappu you expect to be let down by the conditions. At Juhannus, your optimism is stronger and your disappointment therefore greater. No matter how impressive your imagination or how strong your passion for nature, it takes a high degree of stoicism to enjoy a summer celebration when it’s 11 degrees and drizzling. Sadly, this happens all too often. I’d say that at 70 percent of my Juhannus's, the weather’s been more costa del despair than costa del sol.

Thankfully, like everything in life, even midsummer clouds have a silver lining. For us foreigners, a crappy Juhannus allows us to see the legendary Finnish sisu -- the Finnish term for perseverance in the face of adversity -- in action. Sisu was doubtlessly born from living in a country with some of the most extreme temperatures on earth, where famine and hardship were regular acquaintances. Today, thanks to the comforts of modern Finnish everyday life, it’s rarely necessary. Going mad over Midsummer, whatever the weather, provides a precious opportunity to demonstrate it. There could be a blizzard and the sun might not have been seen for months, but you’ll still find the entire Finnish nation encamped in the forest with bonfires and beers.

That, if anything, takes sisu. The fact that a miserable midsummer helps Suomi sisu survive is something to celebrate, come rain or shine.

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