When I married a fellow Yale grad student whose parents came to this country from Norway, I was struck by how intensely my newly adopted culture focused on light. There was the magic of Norwegian Christmas, when it seemed that every window in Oslo shone with candles lit against the darkness. At the opposite end of the year, there was the solstice at Midsummer, which has also been an occasion for partying it up since pagan days. Summer visits to a family farm north of the Arctic Circle brought grilling, beer, and card games in the brilliant light of the midnight sun.
While Connecticut residents, being well south of the Arctic, can count on dark summer nights, you do not have to visit Scandinavia, or even claim family connections, to celebrate Midsummer. You just need to be able to appreciate that there’s something about this peak of sunlight hours that invites us all to lighten up and Let It Go. It’s a rare person who could not use the reminder.
The solstice technically falls on June 20th, but Midsummer parties typically take place from June 19th through the 25th. Locally organized festivities include the Scandinavian Club of Fairfield’s annual celebration complete with a Maypole, a Swedish tradition. This year it’s on Saturday, June 25th, at noon, at 1351 South Pine Creek Road, Fairfield, CT 06825.
A Midsummer gathering of one’s own is very doable, too. The idea is to go casual (it’s the Scandinavian way), open a bottle or two of something relaxing (also the Scandinavian way, but without the stupefyingly high taxes), and enjoy the light---both the sunlight and something manmade. Bonfires are the time-honored way of scaring away the evil spirits that this significant occasion is said to attract; friends of mine make a point of burning the previous year’s Christmas tree. There is also an old tradition, still very much observed, of leaping over the bonfire, which contributes to the ongoing need to impress potential mates. At Midsummer, girls are supposed to place flowers under their pillow to induce dreams of the right one.
If all of this sounds a little wild for Connecticut, you can, as my family does, stick to the Weber grill and hope that no one will try, even after a few beers, to leap over it. Grillmat (“grilled food”) is a must. We like to have steak, which is outrageously expensive in Scandinavia, but any grilled food will be authentic enough. You can do as the Norwegians do and wrap a couple slices of bacon around hot dogs before grilling those. Norwegian hot dogs are available at Scandinavian Butik, Norwalk (see below). Potato salad with fresh dill is the preferred accompaniment.
For the playlist, don’t even think about accordion music, Grieg, or Garrison Keillor. Go with your favorite jazz. This very American art form is hugely popular in the Nordic countries (there is an annual international jazz festival in Molda, Norway).
Of course, it would not be a party in Scandinavia without a luscious dessert or five. Traditionally, a hostess has to offer one homemade cake for every two people present. (Yes, you read correctly.) Today, the rules have relaxed, even the Norwegians are watching their carbs, and no one need fear being the subject of village gossip for providing insufficient cake at a casual dinner. To observe Midsummer in carb-conscious Connecticut, you could offer local berries (see my previous article about pick-your-own) and a bowl of whipped cream; nothing could be more seasonal, simple, or Scandinavian. What is non-negotiable is the quality of the coffee, always freshly brewed for this moment. The Swedish brand Gevalia is widely available, and it’s also worth noting that my Norwegian husband swears by Trader Joe’s whole-bean, medium roast Colombian Supremo ($13.99 for 28 ounces).
Finally, there is one activity traditionally associated with Midsummer that I’ll leave to readers to figure out for themselves. Let’s just say that the sun, the flowers, and the drinks have their effect. Around late March and April of every year, not only does sunlight begin to appear in northern lands, but so do those equally cherished symbols of everything that’s good in Scandinavia: babies.
Bestemors, Mystic (27 Coogan Blvd. #12A, Olde Mistick Village, CT, 06355, (860) 536-7669. Has Scandinavian cheeses, breads, jams, candy, and cookies.
IKEA, New Haven (450 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT, 06511; (888) 888-4532. Large Scandinavian food section on the first floor includes crispbreads, jams, frozen seafood and desserts, drinks, candies, and the famous meatballs.
Scandinavian Butik, Norwalk (349 Main Ave., Norwalk, CT, 06851; (203) 529-3244. Great selection of Scandinavian foods, such as candies, jams, condiments, herring, and meats, including Norwegian hot dogs ($10 per pack).
Trader Joe’s: Has the coffee (whole-bean medium-roast Colombia Supremo, $6.99 for 14 ounces or $13.99 for 28 ounces), and smoked salmon (wild Nova-smoked sockeye, $17.99/lb.) that this Norwegian-American household could not do without.
[ Photo Courtesy of Coast Weekend ]