Välkommen to Midsommar | Celebrating Swedish Culture in Maine’s North Country

Swedish culture comes alive in Maine’s North Country at the annual Midsommar festival, a colorful three-day event marking the summer solstice.

By Yankee Magazine

Apr 23 2019


Välkommen to Midsommar | Celebrating Swedish Culture in Maine’s North Country

By Katy Kelleher

In a field encircled by tall pines, a group of volunteers are spread out and hunched down, backs bent in labor, sun beating down on necks. The air thrums with pollinators. We’re not collecting ingredients for food or objects for sale—we’re here to pick flowers. As I work, I hear an engine spark to life, and an old blue truck begins making its way across the grass toward the bumpy country road. The bed is filled with buckets of lupines. If you were to bury your head in one of them, you’d be submerged in a cloud of honey scent, intoxicating and light as a summer breeze. 

Suvi Peterson outside the Lindsten Stuga, a log house typical of the early Maine Swedish colonists.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

It’s late June and the sun won’t set for hours, but I’m already tired. I arrived in Aroostook County late last night after spending six hours cruising up I-95 and down country roads. Situated at the height of Maine, Aroostook is a far-flung destination, more than 300 miles distant from Portland. I’m here for the Midsommar Festival, a three-day event that takes place annually in the tiny villages of Stockholm and New Sweden. 

Adaptations of folkdräkt—Swedish folk costumes that represent where one’s family hails from—lend color to the Midsommar festivities. Here, Suvi, left, and Ziva Peterson wear outfits made by their mother, Kristi.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

Midsommar is a holiday with deep roots in Europe. People have been gathering flowers and lighting bonfires to mark the summer solstice since the sixth century, but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that Midsommar became a particularly Swedish event. While modern Midsommar festivals in Sweden have evolved with the times (many of them now include alcohol and contemporary music), the festival at the Maine Swedish Colony, an area that includes New Sweden and Stockholm, has remained staunchly—and rather charmingly—traditional. “The settlers came from Sweden in 1870, and we’ve never really changed how we celebrated,” explains festival cochair Brenda Näsberg Jepson. “To modern-day Swedes, our Midsommar seems quaint and old-fashioned.” 

Alan Jepson and Brenda Näsberg Jepson at their cabin on Madawaska Lake, which is a hub of Maine Swedish Colony activity in the summer.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

This steadfast adherence to form is exactly why visitors come from all over the world to take part in this solstice celebration. There is something transformative about the event (Jepson says it’s like “walking into a time warp,” and I’m inclined to agree). Although there are only some 800 attendees, this is a large turnout for a town with only 610 residents. Here’s how it unfolds: On Friday, children and local adults come together to gather flowers and prepare the food. That evening, everyone descends on the American Legion hall in Stockholm to enjoy a feast of Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, lingonberry jam, and sweet pickles. There is live music and cheerful, anticipatory gossip. On Saturday, they gather in traditional dress outside the New Sweden Historical Society Museum to deck the maypole in lupines, watch the Little Folk Dancers twirl and clap around the towering cross covered in blossoms, and participate in such activities as flower crown making and Dala horse painting. 

A traditional Midsommar flower wreath, or midsommarkrans.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus
The bright colors of Ilsah Peterson’s outfit signify a folk costume from the Swedish province of Dalarna.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

Throughout the weekend, there are demonstrations at the forge, games of kubb on the church lawn, and vendors selling food, crafts, and souvenirs to tourists and townsfolk alike. On Sunday, the revelers attend church services at Thomas Park. There is more eating, more dancing, more music. And throughout it all, there is endless talk about heritage, that elusive concept that ties one generation to the next, one group of displaced people back to their homeland. Heritage, I’m reminded at Midsommar, is something to celebrate and treasure—not something to protect or hoard. 

A group of Swedish descendants including Lukas Lagasse, left, who is helping pass folk dancing customs on to the next generation.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

“Everyone is Swedish here.” It’s a phrase I hear time and again as I wander the grounds. I’m not Swedish—I’m Irish and Czech and German, a typical American mutt from Massachusetts—but as I sit in the kitchen of Jepson’s log cabin, the air rich with the yeasty scent of baking kanelbullar and the fresh aroma of pine, I begin to pretend.

A dinner plate starring the most celebrated of Swedish foods, the köttbullar (meatball).
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus
Sweet rolls like these, made by Brenda Näsberg Jepson and Susie Anderson, are a signature treat not only at Midsommar but also at New Sweden community gatherings year-round.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

For the past 24 hours, I’ve been hearing stories of the people who came over from Sweden to form the New Sweden colony in Maine, tales told by their modern descendants. The first settlers were invited by the state of Maine to come, till the rocky soil, plant potatoes and grow them, help fight famine. After Jepson relays her family’s well-worn story to me, she says, “It kind of kills me to see what’s happening now.” Under her crown of braided hair, her face is slightly pained. She’s expressed her worries about whether Midsommar will continue, since there are so few young people involved in the festivities, but this pain is deeper than that. “We’re here because the state of Maine needed immigrants,” she says after a pause. “It needed people to replace those farmers. Now, we still need people. We want kids to go to the school here, and to celebrate with us.”

Wearing a traditional red Laplander hat, Sven Bondeson works on the festival’s Majstång (maypole).
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

Midsommar is a festival of lightness, flowers, warmth, and food. It’s also a celebration of the natural movement of people. People take a lot of pride in the stories of how their great-grandfathers and great-great-grandmothers wound up living in northern Maine, but there’s also a sense of latent worry. Aroostook County is a place that’s dwindling in population, and it has been for years. For these Mainers, immigration isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s a necessity.

Children dancing around the maypole.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

At the New Sweden Historical Society, Lynn Johnson helps people trace their lineage. A New Sweden native, Johnson now lives in California, but she makes the pilgrimage back to Maine every year to “collect and share information about the community,” she explains. The amateur genealogist has in-depth information on more than 6,000 people and has helped track down the Swedish relatives of more than 1,000 Americans. “It’s my obsession,” she says. “I will plan to do it for a half hour, and 13 hours later I haven’t showered or gotten dressed, and I’m still trying to piece together this giant jigsaw puzzle.” 

The 51 immigrants who first made the arduous journey from Sweden to Maine in the summer of 1870 reproduced, their influence ballooning outward, spreading across the country as Olssons and Nelsons and Larssons and Anderssons married and moved. Johnson seeks to make sense of this human diaspora, figure out what connects this world traveler, that Maine farmer.

For Johnson and Jepson, information about your heritage—be it genealogical history or family tales of immigration and struggle—works to help “fill in your gaps,” as Jepson puts it. “It makes you feel whole,” she adds. I hear a similar sentiment from Lukas Lagasse, a University of Maine college student who has single-handedly revived Swedish folk dancing among Aroostook County’s kids. (“I noticed the number of people who knew the steps was dwindling each year,” he says. “I wanted to make sure we remember them.”) For Lagasse, the purpose of Midsommar is less about lupines and cinnamon rolls and more about “feeling connected.”

Violinist Stephen Boody, who has been accompanying the New Sweden Little Folk Dancers since the 1990s.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

“We have a saying up here,” he tells me. “If you are not Swedish by genealogy, you can be Swedish by association. Swedishness is a feeling. It’s a feeling of community and comfort and understanding and appreciation.” Really, he says, “it’s just about being welcoming.” It’s a big-hearted sentiment, as sweet as lingonberry jam, but coming from Lagasse, a bona fide member of Generation Z, I’m inclined to believe it. Midsommar is a relic from the past, but perhaps it’s also a symbol of our shared future. 

Additional Scenes from Midsommar