Juhannus The Finnish Summer Solstice

Niina Pekantytär
6 min readJun 14, 2021

Photo was taken by wonderful Sara Jones.

​Juhannus the summer solstice is one of the most joyous holidays in Finland. Cities become empty when families and friends travel to the countryside and to their summer cabins. From all the holidays Juhannus the summer solstice is the most pagan and the ancient customs of the holiday haven´t changed that much. For many summer solstice is magical time simply because the sun does not go down. This is the time when the sun is closest to the earth in the northern hemisphere.

​Old pagan name for Juhannus was Ukon Vakat. It was a celebration to honour Ukko the thunder god. For thousands of years, Finland was an agricultural society. God who brought the rain with him was naturally the most worshipped of all the gods. Name ukko literally means an old man but in the old days, ukko was an honorary title given to a man who had reached old age. The Finnish word for thunder ukkonen is derived from the name Ukko. He was the god of fertility, agriculture, community, luck, abundance, people, communication, thunder, lightning, rain and the sky. In many cultures, thunder gods are connected to warfare but Ukko was a very peaceful god. He was also a god of love and relationships, the fertility of the land and the fertility of the people.

Vakka means sacrifice. During ukon vakat food sacrifices were left for Ukko. These were usually bread, beer and grain. Ukon Vakat was a communal celebration where several groups of people gathered together to celebrate. Festivities usually took a place in a hill near water. Summer was the time when all four elements emerged together and the landscape where Ukon Vakat was celebrated reflected that. The celebration included good food, drinking, bonfires, music and dancing. Ukon Vakat was most often celebrated either during the Summer Solstice (20–22nd of June). In some villages, Ukon Vakat was celebrated at the end of May, or at the beginning of June if the weather was good.

Another Finnish name for Summer Solstice festival was Mittumaari which is derived from the Swedish Midsommar Fest -festival.

​In the early Middle Ages, the Catholic church wanted to get rid of Summer Solstice and other pagan celebrations. Name of the holiday was changed into Juhannus after Johannes Kastaja (John the Baptist). Johannes Kastaja already had his own celebration date in the old Finnish almanack. This date was the 4th of June. The church ordered these two festivities to emerge. The new date was set to 24th of June which became the new official date for Juhannus. This date remained the same all the way to 1950s when the date was updated for the new Finnish almanack. It was decided that Juhannus would always take place on Saturday between 20–22 nd of June. The celebration was returned back to its original place. In modern-day Finland, Juhannus is a national holiday. It is also officially a non-religious holiday (despite it´s name). For most Finns, Juhannus is a long weekend which starts on Friday and ends on Sunday. Modern-day celebrations include good food, drinking and lighting bonfires.

​Ukko can create lightning and he is the god of fire, therefore fire is the element of the summer solstice. In the pagan times, bonfires were symbols of abundance and they were lit to keep evil and bad spirits away. When the smoke of the bonfire vanished into to the skies people believed that gods and goddesses living in the Ylinen (the spirit realm) would hear their hopes and wishes. Bonfires are the most common Juhannus tradition still today in Finland. The custom goes back to 10 000 years to the shamanic times. Before people worshipped human-shaped deities, they worshipped animal-shaped gods. One of the most respected ones was ukkoslintu, eagle, the Thunderbird. Eagles are massive birds and seeing them is always impressive. Eagles tend to pray just before the storm. For the ancient Finns seeing an eagle flying was an omen of approaching thunder. Eagles are connected to the myth of the Phoenix. They can literally re-create themselves. When an eagle gets old and it´s feathers start to fall off. It can choose to die or it can pluck away all its old feathers and grow new ones. This in fact can extend the lifespan of the eagle. Myths about thunderbirds are common all over the world. In many cultures, eagles are symbols of the thunder god.

​One of the old Juhannus decorations was to cut trunks from birch trees and put them to both sides of doors and gates. These trunks were decorated with fresh flowers and leaves. This tradition probably originates from Sweden where midsummer poles are more common. This is custom is not practised in Finland anymore. If there was a birch tree outside the house, the tree was also decorated with leaves and ribbons. Houses, saunas and stables were all cleaned and decorated with wreaths. Children made wreaths from flowers and placed them to the foreheads of cows and horses.

​​Ukko was the god of love and fertility and he was a very popular god among women who wanted to get married or become pregnant. Many spells were performed in the saunas and meadows that were filled with wildflowers. Here are some Juhannus spells and superstitions:

Pick 7,9 or 12 wildflowers (they all need to be different species). Put them under your pillow and in the night of the summer solstice, your future spouse appears into your dreams.

Go to the forest on the night of the summer solstice and find a spring or a well. Look into the well at midnight and you will see your future husband/wife.

Juhannus is a great time to see elves and fairies. If you see willow wisps in the forest, follow the flames and you will find a buried treasure.

If you go into a well in the night between 24th and 25th of June, water has turned into vodka.

If you have head pains spread some summer solstice morning dew onto your forehead and the pain will disappear.

If you have tinnitus in your ear, pour some morning dew into it and the ringing will stop.

If you drink morning dew on Sunday morning after the summer solstice you will get a beautiful singing voice.

Roll naked in the morning dew in the night of the summer solstice and you remain beautiful for the rest of the year.

Check out my course on Finnish mythology and folklore )O(

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Originally published at https://www.fairychamber.com.

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Niina Pekantytär

Niina is an Illustrator, writer and folklorist. Likes cats, tea, 19th century books and period dramas. Host of the Little Women Podcast.