How Midsummer taught me about becoming a woman

I’ve spent my life saying I’m 1/4 Swedish – but the Scandinavian Community Centre taught me why that’s important.

Growing up, I was very Swedish. I spent every Christmas singing Swedish folk songs in a choir called Lucia, I had an insatiable desire for herring and gravlax, and I would find any excuse to take a road trip to IKEA. During this time, the Scandinavian Community Centre in Burnaby became a second home, teaching me the value of culture, family and language – and what it means to be a Scandinavian woman.

After immigrating to Vancouver from Stockholm, Sweden, in the late 1960s, my mormor and morfar, Swedish for grandmother and grandfather, stumbled across the Scandinavian Community Centre – “though, in those days, it was under a Norweigan name,” explains my mormor.

Katrianna DeSante and her husband at the 2023 Scandianavian Community Centre’s Midsummer celebration. | Photo courtesy of Katrianna DeSante.

“It was the Norwegians that owned it but couldn’t afford to keep it going,” she says. “So, we thought, well, let’s make this into a Scandinavian centre and open it up to more cultures.”

The Scandinavian Community Centre was founded on October 19, 1996, just a year before yours truly graced the face of this earth. For Scandinavians residing in Metro Vancouver, the centre was a meeting place for families to forge a sense of community and connect about food, music, dance and the history of their Nordic homelands. For my mormor, preserving her relationship with Sweden and attending the centre’s annual Midsummer meant everything.

Midsummer – not to be confused with Ari Aster’s dark film Midsommar – is a joyous annual celebration of summer, taking place on the longest day of the year, typically over the weekend of June 23. Growing up, this day meant doing summersaults across the centre’s sprawling lawn and indulging in stacks of waffles covered in delicious gobs of whipped cream. This was the best day of the year for a little sweet-tooth like me.

But, with one Midsummer after another, I noticed how this was more than just a fun weekend frolicking about hunting for Scandinavian troll dolls. I later learned that for Swedes, Midsummer is all about fertility. Dating back to the Middle Ages, Swedes would raise and dance around a pole decorated with flowers and greenery called maja, Swedish for maypole.

“Doing this was like asking the Nordic Gods, Frey and Freya, for a good year of birth,” explains my mormor.

Later on Midsummer Saturday, young couples compete in the wife-carrying contest, a fun-loving competition in which men run as fast as possible to the finish while carrying their wives. The male winner is then awarded his weight in beer, so as one can imagine, it has remained one of the weekend’s most popular highlights.

Scandinavian women primarily make up the volunteers in the centre’s Nordic tents spread across the lawn. These women are responsible for the sale of jewelry, crafts, books or Marpiosa decor. My mother and I know this well, having spent a couple of years volunteering at the Swedish tent, braiding flower crowns, also known as midsommarkrans (Swedish for “Midsummer Wreath”).

Despite it feeling like a chore as a young girl, volunteering in the Swedish tent was an excellent place for learning. Women’s active participation in the centre’s activities showed me the strength and resilience of Scandinavian women. Still, I remember feeling irritated when it dawned on me what this day represented.

As a young girl, I didn’t care for babies or being someone’s wife. I was more interested in exploring the world and pursuing my own dreams and ambitions. But with each Midsummer that came and went, my mind eventually opened to the possibility that someday, I may become a wife and a mother.

When I was thirteen, my mormor moved to Ontario. Suddenly, Christmas and birthdays – traditions I once felt were perhaps “too Swedish” – became hollow. When my mother followed suit, moving across the country, my sense of cultural connection vanished. Being Swedish was no longer a norm but a part of my identity that I could work hard to embrace or leave behind altogether.

In 2023, I returned to Midsummer for the first time in five years. As I watched young girls dance along the lawn, their hair full of wildflowers, I thought back to my childhood when the notion of family wasn’t a gaping hole in my heart. But then I turned to my husband, who was swallowing a massive heaping of waffles. And something shifted. Later that August, I stood across a similar grass plain as we recited our vows, my hair adorned in wildflowers.

Today, the Scandinavian Community Centre serves as an extension of my family. It is not just a physical space but a beautiful place for emotional connection and growth. For my mormor and my mother, it was a place to cherish their Swedish roots. For me, it will always be the place where I learned what it means to become a woman and to be proud of my identity.

This June 22, my husband and his Italian family will walk to each tent and learn about the history, food and art that each Scandinavian nation is proud to share. Midsummer is no longer just a celebration of my cultural heritage but a testament to the growth and understanding that comes from embracing and sharing different cultures.

Katrianna DeSante,
member of the Scandinavian Community Centre

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