HUDIKSVALL, Sweden -- Summer in Sweden should be a kaleidoscope of colors in a bewitching northern light. Last summer, however, was a succession of damp, gray days, save for the green grass in the fields and meadows.
So on June 25, with intermittent fog obscuring the countryside, a group composed mostly of Swedes drove up the Baltic coast, the car full of home-baked breads and potato dishes with names like Jansson's Temptation. They waited on a lonely dock outside this town, about 160 miles north of Stockholm. It was almost 10 p.m., though the overcast sky remained light, when two small boats glided out of the sea mist.
Lars-Ake Asell, 58, a financial controller from Gävle, a city about halfway between Stockholm and Hudiksvall, greeted the group from one of the boats and helped load their backpacks for the journey to the island of Olmen.
After easing through almost 2 miles of calm seas, the boats entered a cove ringed by a cluster of small red cottages with white trim. The Swedes marveled at the authenticity of the cottages, a return to the 1950s, with musty wool blankets, sturdy wooden furniture, no electricty, and a portrait of the king in the outhouse.
This is a perfect place for Midsummer's Eve, they said.
Now if only the sun would shine. The next morning, for the first time seemingly in weeks, it did.
From beyond the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of their long country, Swedes flee their cities on Midsummer's Eve to celebrate the longest days of the year, the return of the sun after its winter death. They gather around maypoles to dance and sing, to feast with family and friends, and to pick wildflowers and dream of love.
''The best option is always to be close to the sea," says Annika Magnusson-Walander, 30, a medical device sales rep from Stockholm who made her first trip to Olmen last June. ''I've been close to the sea before but [Olmen] was such a small island, with water everywhere -- and transported there by a small boat."
The Midsummer celebration probably has its origins in pagan tributes to the sun as it reaches its apex on the summer solstice. Midsummer Day later became a Christian holiday set on June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist, though the significance of this has faded in secular Sweden.
The official Midsummer's Eve has been moved to the third Friday in June, usually close to but not exactly on the traditional Midsummer's Eve of June 23. Yet the spirit remains unchanged from days past. This is the biggest party of the year, a holiday that rivals Christmas and Easter in Swedish hearts.
''Swedes live for summer holidays," says Jenny Noreng, 30, Asell's stepdaughter and an environmental consultant in Stockholm. ''When we have a bad summer, people are really depressed, not prepared for the winter. People need the light."
On Olmen last year, a group of about 20 sat on the dock beside Asell's cottage for a massive lunch of herring, new potatoes, and crispy bread. The Swedish, British, and American revelers threw down shots of aquavit and sang traditional Swedish drinking songs. Asell played his harmonica in the sun as boats streamed into the cove. True to stereotype, half the people at the table were blonds.
Asell first came to Olmen in 1956 to visit an aunt and uncle and has been coming back ever since. In the 1960s, 10 boats headed into the Baltic Sea every night to fish for stromming, a small herring. The children had to be silent in the mornings, lest they wake the sleeping fishermen.
''We always longed to go, the whole winter," Asell says of Olmen. ''It was the family diamond."
Over the years, the fishing industry died. By the early 1970s, only two fishing boats worked the waters, and today a lone fisherman remains. Still, the children and grandchildren of the old fishermen come every summer. Over the years, other families have bought cottages around the cove as well -- Germans, Norwegians, other Swedes. Midsummer, though, has never changed.
''It is a very specific day, with a lot of feelings and hopes," Asell says, adding that Midsummer doesn't seem to hold the same magic for younger generations, that ''events were stronger in the old days when life was tougher."
Don't tell that to his stepdaughter. Noreng spent most childhood Midsummers at her father's cottage on an island near Gävle, where she grew up. She recalls idyllic days of walking through fields to pick wildflowers and watching the men act macho as they raised the maypole.
Midsummer remains her favorite holiday, a celebration with family and friends, a time to ''just party, just enjoy being mad."
After lunch, a group of men spent three hours erecting the Midsummer pole, which was covered with branches, leaves, and flowers. The maypole is a borrowed tradition from ancient Rome, by way of France and Germany, according to the Swedish Institute. It is traditionally raised in May, with the coming of the spring, but Sweden is too chilly in May. There are not enough green plants and blooming flowers to decorate a tall pole. So the Swedes moved the tradition to midsummer.
On Olmen, women and girls wore garlands of flowers in their hair as people of all ages, from toddlers to the elderly, arrived in the maypole meadow from nearby cottages. Some, mostly the young, danced around the pole singing farming songs about daily chores or the behavior of animals.
Then came the games: a boot toss, an egg toss, and a relay race to hammer a nail into a piece of wood. The climax came when two teams had to lay their clothes end to end with the longest line winning. The whole crowd ended up in their underwear, and some women hid in the forest, having sacrified their bras in pursuit of victory.
Afterward, they served hot dogs and juice on a rocky bluff, the pole in the meadow below. The sun came and went behind the clouds, and people dispersed to relax or walk through the forest toward small beaches covered in wildflowers.
Midsummer's Eve is associated with magic and romance. Certain plants are said to gain mystical or healing powers on this night. According to custom, girls and unmarried women should pick either seven or nine types of wildflowers, in complete silence, and put them under their pillow on Midsummer's Eve. Then they will dream of the man they are to marry.
Noreng says she has never looked for love on this night.
''That's not on my radar screen," she says. ''It's back to basics. You sing. You mix family and friends. You don't do that any other time of the year."
Yet, she acknowledges that on a holiday when young people stay up all night for the first time, on a night when they often get drunk for the first time, people tend to express romantic feelings a tad more easily.
''It all comes out," she says with a laugh. ''People get a little bit crazy."
For Magnusson-Walander, the search for a Midsummer Night's romance remains a higher priority, an echo of the ancient legends. She sees things like the maypole and the herring lunch as more for families and established couples.
''When you reach my age, you should be with a boyfriend," she says of Midsummer's Eve. ''And if you're not seeing anyone, you go to a party with other single people."
Unfortunately for her pursuit of romance, she has had rather quiet, impromptu Midsummer celebrations the past few years. There were no prime candidates on Olmen either. Yet the atmosphere was so traditional, and the company so good, that Magnusson-Walander could revel in the sea, schnapps, and sunshine.
''Last year, we all felt a little nationalistic, with the English girls and the American," Magnusson-Walander says. ''We wanted to show everyone how it was done. And I don't think we left anything out."
At 7 p.m., Asell's group sat on the dock, the sun like midafternoon in the United States. They ate another huge meal, a barbecue, with more songs and drinking games, then took a 24-question quiz from Asell filled with cultural and political questions.
At midnight, some people played a tipsy soccer game, kicking the ball on the meadow around the maypole. Others sang late into the night. By 1:30 a.m. the sky was getting brighter, but the melodies kept coming, from lyrical Swedish folk songs to ABBA tunes. Noreng and Magnusson-Walander were the last holdouts, serenading a group of indifferent fellows with half a Dido album. They crooned until 4 or 5, when the sun had been rising for hours.
Later that morning, on Midsummer Day, most people crawled out of their sleeping bags at about 10. The party was over, and the weather showed it, greeting them with renewed rain and fog.
Although the Midsummer Night's dream had ended and it was time to drive back through the forest to daily life, the revelers all knew that the sun had returned, that no matter how gray the summer might turn out, winter remained far, far away.
Nathan Hegedus is a freelance writer in Sweden.