I Called the Swedish Hotline to Find Out How Real Swedes Celebrate Midsummer

published Jun 20, 2016
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(Image credit: Brittany Keats Cerullo)

The Swedish Number is a hotline from the Swedish Tourism Association that allows people from all over the world to chat with run-of-the-mill Swedish citizens. Call, and a chipper woman’s voice promises, “You will soon be connected to a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden.”

The initiative, which kicked off in early April, is not only the world’s quirkiest tourism stunt, but also a celebration of the country’s 250 years of freedom from censorship. “Talk about anything you want,” urges the Swedish Number, and they’re not kidding—”feminism,” “gay rights,” and “suicide rates” are among the issues suggested in a promo video on the website.

But I want to talk Midsummer.

The Swedish celebration that kicks off the summer season is arguably the country’s biggest holiday of the year. And I want to know: Is it a family-friendly occasion, or a feast of debauchery? What should I serve at an authentic Midsummer celebration of my own?

To get to the bottom of things, I called five random people at the Swedish Number and asked them how they celebrated. (If Gallup uses a survey of 1,000 Americans to represent upwards of 200 million eligible voters, I reason, and Sweden’s population is a mere 9.6 million, a sample of five Swedes — or .00000052 percent of the population — is actually pretty comparable.)

I learn quickly that conversing with a stranger is something of an art. “Is this … a random Swede?” I ask lamely each time someone picks up. Once we get the ball rolling, my five Swedes are pretty forthcoming, although language is somewhat of an issue. I’m able to glean, however, that there are a few key steps to celebrating an authentic Swedish Midsummer.

5 Real Swedes Share Their Tips for Celebrating Midsummer

1. Get out of town.

An urban holiday this is not. “You would be out,” a man named Tommy tells me, “you would go to countryside, some of the islands off Stockholm, or if you can’t do that, you would go out in a park or stuff like that. You would not go to a pub or restaurant.”

2. Prepare a feast.

A long day of celebrating calls for sustenance, and according to my sources, a feast of Swedish favorites are trotted out for Midsummmer. Marjan, a 46-year-old man who lives on the southwest coast, gets onto Google Translate to walk me through the menu. “We eat, ehm … let’s see … ” — I hear him type, type, type — “herring. You know what herring?” I assure him, I do know what. Barbecued meats, new potatoes with sour cream and chives, and celebratory cake also make an appearance, according to Marjan and the others.

3. Hoist up a Maypole.

“Do you know what it’s supposed to be, the story behind it?” Emanuel asks me, egging me on to say something naughty. I can’t make out every word Emanuel, a 23-year-old in Dalarna, Sweden, is saying, but I know I can’t publish his explanation in a nice place like The Kitchn.

Suffice it to say that pole is the phallic centerpiece around which Swedes, of various degrees of intoxication, revel in. “We dance around it and do really weird songs and stuff,” Emanuel says, his infectious enthusiasm careening around in mouthfuls of vowels, bubbling up somewhere between his language and mine. Sounds good to me.

4. Drink up.

Serious libations are also a must, most notably of the hard, clear variety. In fact, with so much talk about alcohol, it strikes me as a miracle that anyone even remembers Midsummers past. “Snaps” is the word of the day, the general term for hard alcohol taken in shots at big celebrations like this one.

“Every time we take a snaps, we sing,” Emanuel says of his own Midsummer festivities. Vodka comes up on several occasions, and when I ask about Scandanavian akvavit (or aquavit), a couple of guys confirm that it’s also on the docket. (To be fair, though, they seem pretty indiscriminate about their drink.)

Only one person I speak with tells me she doesn’t celebrate Midsummer, and that’s teenage Sara in the northern city of Kiruna. “We’re not that kind of family,” she tells me at the start of our conversation. “We’re so boring,” she adds later, with a giggle. I giggle, too. This is Sara’s first call, and we’re both trying to figure out the ropes of this process. “It feels like it’s gonna be a lot of weirdos calling as well,” she says, adding hastily, “but you seem normal.” I appreciate this. She, like all the other random Swedes, has won me over.