This year the summer solstice on Friday, June 21 is the opening of the always-anticipated Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival. Now in its 46th year and held at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds, the festival guarantees three days filled with the music, dance, food and Scandinavian traditions. Midsummer has long been celebrated – in Europe and now throughout the world – to welcome the summer season of fertility. It has been celebrated with bonfires since the 6th century but has continued into modern times most fervently in Scandinavia, where midsummer poles are raised, folk costumes worn, and parades take place.
Tradition runs strong
In a world where a vast majority of ethnic festivals have become little more than an excuse to drink beer, the Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival has held true to its traditions. It is a powerful and moving event for attendees, as it summons an honor and grace often lost in modern culture.
The festival begins with the crowning of Miss Scandinavia. Every bit of the coronation is steeped in Scandinavian pride with flags, national anthems and traditional ethnic dress. Miss Scandinavia is selected from a court of four princesses representing local lodges - the Danish Society, the Finnish Brotherhood, the Sons Of Norway, and the Swedish Vasa, fraternal orders that date back more than a century (Iceland no longer has an active lodge in the area).
Each girl wears a traditional folk dress in the colors of her nation. The princesses trace their family roots right down to the names and towns of their ancestors. This might seem an impossible accomplishment given our melting pot society, but even today many princesses are only second or third generation Americans – in fact, two years ago one of the princesses was a Norwegian citizen living stateside as a foreign exchange student.
The young women are brought to the stage in an elaborate ritual escorted by a male relative and a flag bearer, they’re introduced, their family lineage is recounted, and each gives a speech explaining their heritage. Then, the judges briefly deliberate and one princess is crowned Queen.
Almost immediately after Miss Scandinavia is crowned, it is time for the hex burning, a tradition that symbolizes ridding oneself of bad luck for the coming year. The newly crowned queen carries a life-size straw effigy that represents bad luck. The costumed Scandia Dancers carry torches toward a large steel urn where the effigy is lit on fire in dramatic style and ceremony. All of the attendees are handed small straw effigies wearing black cloth and tied with yarn, these are the “hexes”, and as each burns, bad luck is lifted. It is strangely refreshing, and is followed by the Queen’s Ball.
At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday morning is the Op Tog “walking” Parade, which marches around the fairgrounds. The parade was previously held in downtown Astoria, but this year it will march around the fairgrounds and lead to the flag raising and the raising of the midsummer pole.
“The flag raising is a tradition where we are representing all of the five countries, and having each national anthem sung,” Loran Mathews, co-chairman of the festival, says. “The maypole is wrapped in wild flowers and natural greens a few days before. Not all summer poles will have a chicken on top, but we are hoping for fertility and a lot of new animals.”
More Than Ceremony: Music, Dance and Entertainment
The Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival is long lived and well known; the travel guides of Norway and Sweden have even written about it. The festival has brought world class performers from Scandinavia to our shore, including this year’s return of Harald Haugaard and Helene Blum.
“They were here two years ago,” explains Janet Bowler, entrainment director for the festival, who grew up in a Norwegian community in Montana before moving to Astoria in 1976. “Everybody loved them; they are just dynamic. I offered them to come back anytime. They agreed to return this year, and then Harald won the equivalent of two Danish grammys. Now his career is zooming.”
In addition to Haugaard and Blum’s quintet, don’t miss Seattle’s premiere Scandinavian band Hale Bill and The Bopps in its first appearance at the festival. The band plays originals and traditional Nordic music, and it includes a hardanger fiddle, the folk fiddle of Norway. On Sunday catch the only performance of the Halcyon Trio Oregon, including Emmy-Award-winning trumpeter Joan Haaland Paddock playing the lur, a Nordic brass instrument. The trio will perform music during Sunday’s nondenominational church service, and again at noon. Other great musicans will fill the air with music throughout the festival.
Beyond the live music, Scandinavian dance troupes from around the Northwest will perform a variety of traditional circle and line dances. If you have tapping toes and are itching to dance, you’ll be pleased to know that all are welcome to participate in the Dancer’s Ball 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday. A public dance lesson will also be given by local dance legend Allan Goff.
The entertainment doesn’t stop there. The Astor Street Opry Company will thrill you with live performances and skits all weekend – and white wedding cake.
Early Saturday morning, athletes and novices alike can take part in “The Running of The Trolls,” a 5.75-mile run or a 1.5-mile walk to benefit the festival’s scholarship fund for local high school students. Register online or the morning of the race. A $25 registration fee includes a T-shirt and free weekend admission to the entire festival. Why trolls? They are a big part of Scandinavian mythology. “Whenever anything went wrong it was always blamed on the troll,” Loran Mathews says with a chuckle. “They cause a lot of mischief. If you misplaced your shoes, the troll was to blame.”
All weekend, visitors can enjoy a full Viking encampment courtesy of “The Empire of Chivalry and Steel,” with sword fighting demonstrations, blacksmithing, loom weaving and more on the lawns of the fairgrounds. Vendors inside will include everything from imported clothing to incredibly accurate psychic rune readings, and a vast assortment of Scandinavian foods.
Speaking of the Food
The food of the festival is a wild array of (seemingly unpronounceable to plain old American eyes) words such as “aebleskivers” and “pannukakku,” which, thanks to trade routes dating back to the Vikings are full of wonderful spices. Vendors and lodges offer a multitude of specialty foods and desserts such as lefse, and each day includes amazing buffets – after all the Smorgasbord is a Scandinavian invention.
With all of this rich tradition it might seem only Scandinavians are welcome, but Janet Bowler is emphatic, “You don’t need to be Scandinavian. You don’t need to eat lutefisk, and you don’t need a costume. It is only $8 for all three days. Come as much as you like.”