There is nothing that speaks of Finnish culture more than Juhannus (Midsummer). As we celebrate it this weekend, I thought we would take the opportunity to reflect on it and place it in a biblical perspective on culture generally.
How We Reflect on Culture
When we speak of culture, we are speaking of things like songs, traditions, fashions, stories, worldviews, beliefs, values patterns, or rules of behaviour and thinking. These categories exist in all cultures, but they will also be different in every culture.
Each aspect of culture is interconnected with the culture as a whole. In his book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, Ken Myers says that “we cannot isolate for observation three pounds or fourteen centimetres of culture.” Because they are connected like the systems of roots in a tree, we cannot reflect on just one aspect culture abstractly—it is connected to the larger story of the culture. This point is particularly true in my own experience with Finnish Juhannus culture.
My Personal Reflection
I have celebrated eighteen Juhannuses in Finland, but I celebrated the holiday many times before ever coming to Finland—even before I could find Finland on a map! In the small town in the U.S. where I grew up, there were many Finnish and Swedish people living there some for already two generations. My parents were good friends with many who invited us to every Midsummer.
A man named Hannu played the accordion and sang Finnish folk songs. We built bonfires, burned a boat while listening to older Finns tell stories about the homeland and about “the war.” Some years danced around a pole and decorated it (more of a Swedish tradition I think). We ate fish and dark breads and the Finnish vegetable: makkara (sausage). Naturally, all of this took place on a lake in a beautiful piece of nature. One indelible memory is of the Finnish and Swedish people getting into a fight about which flag should be on top of the flagpole. Some things never change.
Connecting Juhannus to the Finnish Cultural Story
Though I participated nearly every summer in a Juhannus celebration with all the traditions, they were disconnected or isolated traditions. After living in Finland for over 17 years, it is much easier to see how they connect to Finnish culture as a whole.
It makes sense, for example, that after spending long dark winters in Finland, Finns would celebrate the summer solstice (i.e., the longest day of the year). That it all takes place in nature shows how Finnish people are very close to the land and that so much of their history and cultural stories take place with nature. Even the Finns and the Swedes playful arguing has roots—not just in ice hockey competition—but in the 700 years of Swedish rule and the close connection of Finnish elites to Swedish culture.
Reflecting on and Connecting to the Biblical Story
The Bible teaches us that the source of culture is God himself. Therefore aspects of culture are not only part of a larger cultural narrative, like Finnish or American culture, but a meta-narrative of God’s story found in the Word.
In the opening verses of Genesis 1, we see God created the heavens and the earth by his Word. From a nothing, God filled out his creation. On the sixth day, he created man and woman in his own image and placed them in his already ordered world to bear his image. But what does it mean to bear His image? We are told in the following verses: to fill and subdue the world—in other words, those things which God himself has been doing already.
The word “fill” means completing and replenishing the creation. God’s finished creation was prepared for us to complete, develop, and cultivate. This is what Adam did with the animals, naming the animals that God had already put there to further develop God’s creation. Through a naming system, Adam translated the animal kingdom into something understandable. He created culture.
At the same time, we know the story takes a turn in Genesis 3 with the corruption of sin and creates a tension between “good, but fallen.” This means that as we reflect on culture, we must deal with this tension, being sensitive to and affirming local cultures while also being be committed to their transformation.
When Finns and Swedes argue over the flag, this witnesses to the fact that the cultures are indeed different, which is part of God’s good plan. But the strife between the cultures is not. Likewise, the Finnish affinity with nature should lead them closer to God as Creator, but Finnish culture can worship nature as a kind of God. And we can affirm the goodness of food and drink in the feasting of Juhannus, but all too often it crosses the line into drunkenness and gluttony.
Christians can rightly enjoy the Finnish cultural good of Juhannus. Let us go to the cabin, enjoy the outdoors, grill the makkara, crank up the sauna—and of course, be back for church on Sunday!
And let’s also take the time to reflect on these traditions, learning from those most acquainted with the culture to better understand it. For non-Finns and Finns alike, we should be able to discuss the connections Juhannus has to wider values and worldviews in Finland, looking through the biblical lens to discern what we can affirm and what we should seek to redeem. Arguably, those discussions are best undertaken in the sauna!