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Solstice in a Finnish Village

Bonfires, birch branches, and saunas. And a chance to discover who will be your true love.
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Birch Trees, photo by Lari Huttunen

Photo by Lari Huttunen.

During my research for our fall issue on resilient communities, I found I was getting more and more curious about how people lived before the industrial age—before oil changed nearly everything about how we get around and how work gets done. My step-mother, Kerttu Kay Barnett, grew up in a small village in Finland, and remembers from her childhood a very different way of life. I asked her to tell me stories about it, beginning with a story for tonight, about the meaning of the Summer Solstice. Here's her answer:

This is the reason why the shortest night, the night when the sun hardly sets, the night of no night is the most celebrated summer festival in Finland.

The bonfires have been lit for thousands of years to celebrate to the highest God Ukko, a thunder God who gives the rain so needed for farming. That meaning may not be valid anymore, but bonfires are lit on the shores of the lakes all over Finland. And big cities have bonfires for those who don’t have a summer cottage on the lake.

Unfortunately my Lutheran father saw this as an old pagan custom, and our family did not have a bonfire. We children were not allowed to visit the other fires around the lake. But our father didn’t realize that that he was under the spell of old gods who were still quite alive in people’s minds.

It was the custom to decorate the sides of the steps to the entryway with freshly cut half grown birch trees. And sometimes birch trees were planted in a circle that made a nice place to have a table and chairs for dinner.

I once saw a train that had two birch trees fastened to the engine. It was a great sight. The smell the birch trees emit is wonderful.

The mid-summer celebration was not only an evening thing. The village was totally focused on it. I did not know the scientific explanation for the solstice, but I knew that this night was full of magic and the best night to hunt glowworms.

The most important event was the long sauna and then putting on clean clothing. That was the night when children were not put to bed and were allowed to roam around all night.

When the girls grew older, we went to sauna together and threw birch tree branches on the roof. The direction of the steam indicated where our future sweetheart lived. This gave room for endless and wild speculations by the group.

Another spell needed perfect silence. All that is needed is a bouquet of nine different flowers. You hold them in your left hand and peer into the well. The face of your future sweetheart will be reflected back at you. Most girls were afraid to look.

The celebration was entirely an outside affair—outside after a long winter inside. There were many wedding celebrations on the next day, and many babies were born nine months later. 

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