It was a busy Monday morning. With only few hours left till my flight to Helsinki, I was trying to juggle emails, checking-in and packing some last minute shirts that dried overnight when I received a text that changed everything.
Few short lines that appeared on the screen of my phone cast a shadow over what had been a sunny day. Bad news. Family emergency. Suddenly things I had been looking forward to became blank, tiny worries occupying my mind gave way to much bigger realisations and a heavy sense of an utter lack of control settled in. Few tearful calls later I managed to get a hold of myself – I still had client calls and a business trip to focus on, so falling apart was not an option.
Three hour flight I was dreading unexpectedly provided a much desired buffer, allowing me to gain some perspective and evaluate the news of the morning in the new light. I couldn’t change what was happening, but I did have a say in how I handle this situation. I could give in to the darkness, or focus on all the light that was around me. To protect myself from the sorrow, I put on the happiest music I could find blasting through the headphones as I took a taxi from the Helsinki airport. I planned my new daily routine around exercise, healthy diet and good work-life balance. I also made effort to list things I was grateful for that day: the safe landing, beautiful forest I could see through the window and that despite it being nearly 11 pm as I was heading to the hotel, it was still bright outside.
Having visited Finland only in winter in the past, I had never experienced the white nights before and wasn’t prepared for admiring a sunset at midnight or waking up at 2 am thinking it’s already morning as the gentle light seeped through the cracks in hotel’s heavy curtains. Despite slightly disturbed sleep, I was soon quite taken with this new experience! It meant I could stay up till late, reading, writing, even walking through the city and park at hours I wouldn’t normally dare to. There was something magical about these never ending days, a certain kind of summer happiness, as if nature got in to the holiday spirit and demanded the world to join in. The agreeable Finns responded to this call for action in a very Finnish way – celebrating the Summer Solstice with a day off and scheduling a cross-country shut-down, leaving July free for everyone to enjoy their countryside cottages, lakeside saunas and spending family time surrounded by nature.
I was informed by my Finnish client that Friday 21st June is a national holiday, and the office will be empty as our colleagues will be celebrating the Midsummer Eve with dances and bonfires. All non-native staff received an email explaining how to celebrate like a local, which included heading to island of Seurasaari or Pihlajasaari before 5 pm to enjoy Finnish folk dances around a flower-decorated pole, walking down the enchanted paths and eating dinner by the bonfire. For the first time I was wishing I could spend a weekend on site.
The tradition of celebrating summer solstice dates back to pagan times, when the ancient Finns worshipped Ukko, a god of fertility, weather and growth. In a country where the majority of the year is spent in cold and darkness, and the newscasters excitedly report any days with temperatures exceeding 25 degrees Celsius, the national craze over the longest day of the year is not surprising.
Talking to my colleagues and reading about Finland’s history, I learnt that the bonfires signified the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and together with the garland adorned pole were meant to protect anyone watching it from misfortune, as well as support the well-being and encourage fertility.
Aside from the rich symbolism, nowadays the Midsummer Eve was mostly a way of bringing people together to celebrate nature, life and summer. To me, however, the celebrations were also a reminder of the Finnish values – the importance of tradition, equality, work-life balance, community, health and sustainability. As the country was preparing for the impending festival and a month-long holiday that was approaching soon after, I couldn’t help but feel summer settling in my heart as well. Despite the heaviness I was carrying with me when I landed at the Helsinki airport just few days earlier, I felt the darkness of my thoughts giving in to the ever-present light as well. Perhaps we all need a little spark of hope in our lives, a little reminder that regardless of the white night, we can always light the fire that can dispel the night.
Happy Summer Solstice! May your thoughts be as bright as the Finnish summer nights.