Human Flower Project
Raise the Majstang
At the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, up goes the Swedish “maypole,” a high sign to both Christians and pagans.
Sweden’s “Maypole” of June
After many months of darkness Midsummer is a pile-on holiday in Scandinavia. In light-deprived lands like Sweden, Finland, and Norway, it’s a season of exhilaration. Who can sleep when night never descends? Here comes the sun, and with it picnic blankets, pickled herring, bonfires, and flowers.
For anyone with eyes to see and crops to grow, summer solstice is a major holiday. But as Christians have been wont to do, the festivities around this natural event were claimed by the church, as the feast day of St. John. Said to have been born June 24, just as the northern days start diminishing, John was the precursor, cousin, and “Baptist” of Jesus, who would come into a dark world six months later—at winter solstice, when the sun (for those in the northern hemisphere) begins climbing again.
Laden with natural and supernatural significances, Midsommar (in Sweden) or Juhannus (in Finland) weaves pagan and Christian rituals together. For our purposes, it occasions one of the tallest of all Human Flower Projects: the Majstang, or maypole—which these serious northerners have the good sense to erect in June.
“In Sweden, Midsommar is celebrated on Friday around the Majstang, a tall phallic maypole covered with flowers and greenery,” usually birch boughs. “People gather in the afternoon to raise and to sing and dance around the Majstang.”
According to this resource on pagan customs, “folk went to the midsummer-tree to pray that the field might be given growing-strength and laid a cross of leaves on the field so that it would grow with god’s help without being harmed by lightning, thunder, or hail. In Heathen days, such a rite might have been done while calling on the help of orr to ward the fields and hallow them with his Hammer so that they could grow.”
Maypole in Finland; Finno, Kokar 1999
Photo: MarieHamn’s Library
In Finland too, especially the Aland Islands where ethnic Swedes predominate, the maypole custom is strong. This site about Finnish culture provides intriguing details:
“To make a Midsummer pole a high and straight spar is felled, preferably in winter and not during sap time. Crossbars are attached, usually three to five if single or two or three if crossed. In the beginning the Midsummer poles were green, covered completely with flowers and leaves.” Contemporary Midsummer poles are often painted white, wrapped with leaf and flower garlands.
“The decorations vary from village to village and from year to year. They have been interpreted in many ways, and the author Valdemar Nyman complained about the interpretations too often being about industry or the weather…. The pole has also been associated with shipping, as it was common to decorate the masts with leaves. A Midsummer pole can be seen as a ship’s mast r(a)ised on land.”
Among the flowers that adorn these totems are lily of the valley, and “the Swedish whitebeam.” Garlands, made on Midsummers Eve, are “hung to form a pattern of an hourglass or of squares.”
Atop Finnish maypoles stands the ‘faktargubbe,’ a little man carved out of wood who wears a cap and uniform. “He spins and waves his arms in the wind symbolizing diligence and work resulting in a good crop. In some districts a truck replaces the ‘faktargubbe.’ ”
There’s clearly a lot to celebrate: fertility and John the Baptist’s birthday, no hail, industry, and the coming of Christ, farming and shipping, oh yes, and trucks.
An unmarried lady may find clues as to her future mate now. “The most common method is to pick nine (sometimes seven) different kinds of flowers and sleep with them under her pillow. The husband to be will be revealed to her in her dream. If she shakes the bunch of flowers in the morning she might find a hair from his head.” (Going about town matching hairs sounds like a good way to meet men.)
A wreath for Midsommar, Gotland 2003
Photo: Sam and Kacy
We learn that “In Jutland and Skane, it was also common for girls and boys to give each other wreaths to wear this night as a sign of their affection.” Other sources suggest it’s mainly girls who weave flower wreaths for themselves to wear (We thought so. Scandinavian men aren’t THAT different from Texans). Floral wreaths also may be hung from the ceiling and a pair of birch branches set at the front door to attract domestic blessings.
The Majstang is for anyone who’s high on summer.
Dancing around the Majstang
Photo: Fredrik Sweger