Is 'Midsommar' Movie Holiday Real? The True Pagan Roots of Sweden's Nature Celebration

Midsommar, or Midsummer, is the opening of the traditional summer holiday season, during which Swedes abandon the cities for five weeks in nature, enabled by 25 days of legally mandated paid leave. Sweden's official guide to Midsommar describes it as "a holiday devoted to eating, drinking, dancing and assorted pagan rituals." The holiday is first marked by Midsommar Eve, held on a Friday between June 19 and June 25.

In the new Ari Aster (Hereditary) movie, Midsommar, the holiday takes on more sinister overtones, as several American friends visit a remote Swedish commune for a celebration that takes the pagan aspects of the holiday substantially more seriously than the tourist-facing Swedish Institute.

In the tradition of The Wicker Man, Midsommar portrays outsiders encountering the inscrutable, and potentially deadly, rituals of a remote community with dark secrets. While Americans Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are first charmed by the feasting and flower decorations marking Midsommar, the commune's rituals⁠—symbolic of birth, growth, decay and death⁠—soon widen the cracks in their already struggling relationship.

Dani and Christian approach a maypole in this image from the "Midsommar" poster. A24

But while there's a fair amount of traditional Swedish midsummer celebrating in Midsommar, the real holiday is far less tied to the lived realities of paganism. Midsummer celebrations are common anywhere with an agrarian tradition, often held around the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. The particulars of the Swedish Midsommar can be traced back to the 1500s, when farmers would celebrate by decorating their homes and plows with green foliage.

Some of the pagan rituals have their ominous counterparts in Aster's Midsommar, particularly maypole dancing. The maypole, or midsommarstång, has a rich, apocryphal history, symbolically enfolding fertility, Norse sacred trees and Freudian phallicism. While traditionally ascribed to Iron Age Germanic paganism, records of maypole dancing can only be traced back to medieval—and Christian—sources. While Neopaganism has embraced many midsummer traditions as echoes of pre-Christian nature worship, historians can find little evidence for the actual ritual practices, since little of the pre-Christian recorded history exists for cultures attacked as pagan.

Young women have a Midsommar ritual of their own. By collecting seven different flower species as they return home and placing them under their pillows, women will dream of their future husbands. Flower garlands are also a popular tradition.

Other magic is also possible during Midsommar, like following moonbeams to treasure or scrying the future. Bonfires have also been associated with midsummer celebrations for hundreds of years. But Midsommar is also affiliated with paganism's opposition, including Saint John the Baptist, making it a popular time for christenings and weddings.

Food is a big part of the tradition in Sweden, with popular dishes including pickled herring, salmon, boiled potatoes with sour cream and dill, and strawberries with cream. Midsommar celebrations are also a popular time for barbeque. It's all washed down with beer, schnapps and racy drinking songs. Late-night dancing follows.

Some older, more explicitly pagan rituals, have been lost from the Swedish Midsummer tradition, such as the rolling of burning wheels down hills, which has been traced back to the 4th century. Also common across medieval Europe were dances and plays that ritualized killing and resurrection—themes more Midsommar than Swedish Midsummer.

Midsommar sounds like a good time, but should you find yourself consuming psychedelics as your friends keep disappearing around you, perhaps consider Finland next year.