…because some thoughts are worth remembering
There are different “markers” of culture that differentiates one nation from another (e.g., language spoken, cuisines, ethnicity/ethnic diversity, literature, the arts, the way people are dressed, and other customs). One can tell quite a bit by learning how seasons are celebrated. Tied to our survival and daily practices in the olden days, there’s something very primal about the changes in season, and it is interesting how similar occasions are celebrated in different countries and how much of the tradition still remains today.
Being new to Europe, I started to appreciate the subtle differences among the Scandinavian countries, when I had so little information on Scandinavia that it was natural to lump the all together as Nordic countries (and then I realized Nordic was not the same thing as Scandinavian, but I digress). I remember people in Hawaii would mock the U.S. Mainlanders of their inability to distinguish a Samoan from a Filipino, or lump all of Eastern Asia together. “So, you are from Japan? So what dialect of Chinese do you speak?” Yup, I’ve been asked that before. Though I should give them some points for knowing that there are dialects in Chinese. Again, I digress.
Summer is much celebrated in Scandinavian countries because its winter is so long and dark. Even when their summers can be fickle (where one day, you reach for your scarf and leggings to match your jacket because the wind is so biting, in the middle of July), the Danes appreciate the long days and continuously update each other on when the warm weather may be returning.
The Danes celebrate their “midsummer” by burning a doll dressed like a witch. It’s called Sankthansaften in Denmark, or St. John’s Eve (though the Danes in general are not religious, there seems to be many holidays and celebrations connected with Christian figures and Christian holidays). It is celebrated in multiple countries in a different way. For the Danes, it’s a family affair: after a dinner, or barbeque on the beach, they will head to one of many sites organized for a bonfire where a mound of twigs are prepared with a symbolic witch doll on top. There are speeches (I haven’t figured out the Danes’ love of speeches for these occasions, for such a casual culture) and the bonfire is lit in the late evening though the skies are still light. Then the singing starts. There seems to be a song for every occasion, and Sankthansaften is no different. They all know the lyrics. Some families bring some bread dough and wrap it around a stick to bake it in the bonfire. More drinking.
In Sweden, it is referred to as midsummers eve, where the celebrations begin with the rising of the midsummers eve pole covered with flowers, apropos for a fertility festival to have a phallic symbol. The Swedes also sing, but dance at the same time, going around the pole. Partying goes on all night, and it seems to be a bigger deal in Sweden than in Denmark (perhaps because Sweden is more northern?).
Sometimes celebrating the seasons does not involve nature. Because beer drinking is a big deal in Denmark, the start of the Christmas season is often marked by the revealing of the special Christmas brew by the major beer makers here. They get their waiters to dress up, and hand out tchotchkes from beer manufacturers. Bars have them on tap, and are not allowed to serve them until a specific time that evening. The brew is usually stronger and sweeter in taste than their regular lines, and are only served during the Christmas season.
It reminded me a little of how Japanese are sensitive to the change in seasons (from the very traditional, like specific dishes are served to commemorate the occasion, like moon viewing in August, to the more modern, like their McDonald’s limited seasonal menu items that reflected the bounty of that season)
I learned about how Bulgarians welcome spring, through Baba Marta Day, which seemed more gentle. They make a bead bracelet which they carry around until they spot the first blossom on a tree. Then they tie the bracelet onto the branch for good luck.
I’ve heard people say that the key to happiness, or at least contentment, displayed by the Danish people (whose country has repeatedly been ranked high on the happiest nations list), have more to do with their lowered expectations rooted deep inside them by their not so pleasant weather, then anything else. With modernization and globalization (where we can get summer fruits in the dead of winter from the Southern Hemisphere), we seemed have been able to trick mother nature into separating the seasons from its byproducts. But these traditions reveal that there is something more fundamental in us that continues to be affected by the changes in seasons and the weather, and that’s not a bad thing.
Photo: (top) trying to mimic the effect of Julebryg (Christmas brew) on vision