Swedish traditions return to Aroostook with annual celebration of summer

2 years ago

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — Three years after scaling back activities due to COVID-19, people in Maine’s only Swedish colony once again came together to celebrate the arrival of summer in similar fashion as their ancestors.

Hundreds gathered in New Sweden last weekend for the newly returned Midsommar festival, which dates back to the earliest days of the Swedish colony in Aroostook and honors the return of sun and warmth after the long winter months. While the rainy and cloudy weather did not always cooperate with the summer-themed festivities, that did not stop community members and visitors from taking part in Midsommar traditions.

“We call ourselves ‘stubborn Swedes,’ which is another way of saying we’re determined to forge ahead in spite of the weather,” said Brenda Jepson of New Sweden, one of the Midsommar organizers. “Given how the weather has been, the turnout here is wonderful.”

On Saturday, most people gathered behind the New Sweden Historical Society for what many consider the festival’s highlight: local children, known as the New Sweden Little Folk Dancers, performing Swedish songs while dancing around the Midsommar maypole.

In less than an hour, people of all ages, many dressed in traditional Swedish clothes, helped decorate the 30-foot-tall maypole with green leaves and numerous flowers, including lupines and daisies. Many women and girls also made hair wreaths using those flowers, another tradition that goes back to early Midsommars.

While accompanied by local violinists, 32 children, ranging from elementary students to teenagers performed four songs in Swedish while dancing around the maypole. During the final song, members of the crowd joined hands and formed their own rings around the children, laughing as they danced in circles.

The Peterson children — Oliver, 18, IIsah, 16, Zivah, 12, and Zuvi, 8 — have been learning to sing and dance in Swedish since each of their elementary school days. For the children and their parents, Glen and Kristi Peterson, Midsommar is about more than celebrating summer. The festival is their way of honoring their family’s roots.

“It’s really fun and it’s important to keep the traditions alive,” IIsah Peterson said.

Glen Peterson traces his ancestry back to John Peterson, one of the original Swedish settlers who arrived in northern Maine in 1870. The Petersons still live in the New Sweden home that once belonged to his grandparents.

To this day, the family considers Midsommar one of the most important events to take part in together. Kristi sews everyone’s Swedish outfits and has passed them down to her children, along with an appreciation for community. She said that this year’s post-COVID return of Midsommar has been even more special for everyone.

“Last year we helped decorate the maypole in a small group just to keep the tradition going. But it’s great to see so many more people here,” Kristi Peterson said. “If we don’t keep these traditions going, they’re going to fall by the wayside.”

The three-day festival continued throughout the weekend with Swedish-themed meals, concerts, games and museum exhibitions in honor of New Sweden’s 150th anniversary, also known as “hundrafemtio.”

For visitors like Birgitta Whited of West Warwick, Rhode Island, keeping those traditions alive is an important part of honoring where she comes from.

Whited immigrated from New Sweden to America in 1967 and later met her late husband Henry Whited, a Houlton native. With Henry’s Aroostook connections, Birgitta discovered New Sweden and attended Midsommar twice prior to the pandemic.

Though she has not visited Sweden since leaving the country, Whited said that New Sweden’s Midsommar resembles the more traditional celebrations that she remembers from her childhood.

“It’s like stepping back in time. Everything, from the flowers, the maypole, the dancing, is just beautiful,” Whited said, after watching the Little Folk Dancers. “I was here four years ago and it’s so wonderful to be back.”

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — June 18, 2022 — Members of the New Sweden Little Folk Dancers perform the Swedish song “We Are the Musicians” during the annual Midsommar festival in New Sweden Saturday. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — June 18, 2022 — The New Sweden Little Folk Dancers perform traditional Swedish dances and songs during the Midsommar festival. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — June 18, 2022 — Samson Theiss (front, left) and Laura Blanchard lead the New Sweden Little Folk Dancers towards the maypole during the Midsommar festival. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — June 18, 2022 — Cousins Finn Bondeson (left) and Gunnar Bondeson of New Sweden decorate the Midsommar maypole with the help of local children. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — June 18, 2022 — Sven Bondeson (right) and Gunnar Bondeson decorate the Midsommar maypole with help from local children during the Midsommar festival. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — June 18, 2022 — Glen and Kristi Peterson (first and second from left) attend New Sweden’s Midsommar with their children Ilsah, 16, Oliver, 18, (front, right), Zivah, 12, and Zuvi, 8 (front). (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — June 18, 2022 — Annamarie Blanchard (left) and Caleb Ciszewski pass flowers to maypole decorator Sven Bondeson during the Midsommar festival Saturday. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)