Our neighbours across the sea in the Nordic countries will be heading en masse to their summer cottages over the next couple of weeks. If you visit Helsinki round about midsummer you’ll find a city as quiet as Christmas. Shops are shut, cafes and restaurants are closed or empty, and in the streets almost no one is about. The vast majority of Helsinkilaiset are off to the country to celebrate the long summer days.
Like us, Nordic people endure long dark winters. Months of mirk, days which don’t stretch much further than 3.30, and enforced detention in the house. Their response to that is to make the most of the long days of summer. Norwegians head to the mountains and their hytter, Danes go to the coast and Finns spend weeks pottering around at the lakeside, enjoying swimming, saunas and sausages.
The Christians appropriated midsummer centuries ago. It became a festival dedicated to St John. In Scotland we used to call it Johnsmas. In the Nordic countries St John’s Day is now the second biggest celebration of the year after Christmas. It’s a completely secular festival and involves building bonfires, staying up late, drinking beer and wine, and spending time outdoors. Friluftsliv(fresh air life) forms the underpinning principle of the Nordic approach to summer. Get outside, be active and have fun. Swim, sail, row, cook outdoors and make the most of the sunny days because winter will be back before long.
Scots start their summer holidays at the same time as the Nordics. Waiting til August like our English neighbours just doesn’t make sense. By then we start to feel the first chill winds of autumn. In June and July many of us will head off to caravan parks, dust down tents, take to the roads in camper vans or – like the Broons – head off to a but n ben in the Highlands and isles.
Unlike the Nordics we don’t have an official holiday at Midsummer. Gala days, fairs and ridings form part of our civic landscape during the summer but there is no national holiday where everyone stops and enjoys the long days. When the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 many people felt that efforts should be made to establish St Andrew’s Day as a national holiday. As a result staff at the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament have a holiday on St Andrew’s Day but elsewhere it’s never really taken off in spite of actions to support it by the first SNP administration in 2007.
The energy and excitement associated with St Patrick’s Day in Ireland hasn’t transferred here. It’s not absolutely clear why. Maybe the time of year doesn’t help, though Finnish Independence Day on 6th December is widely celebrated showing that a winter national day isn’t an impossible proposition.
Do we need to think again about establishing a new holiday? One where we celebrate our northerly place in the world? Why not make the most of the days when we’re likely to have the best weather, when getting out in the fresh air is easiest? For the Calvinists amongst us the health benefits could be emphasised and access to the countryside could be prioritised. For the rest relaxing at the coast or getting off to the caravan might be enough. Scots are often ignorant of their own country, a national summer holiday could be the right time to explore.
Stopping and enjoying the place we live would provide so many benefits for all of us. There couldn’t be a better time to bring back Johnsmas!