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An essay by Hans Christian Andersen

The Midsummer Festival in Lacksand

Title:     The Midsummer Festival in Lacksand
Author: Hans Christian Andersen [More Titles by Andersen]

Lacksand lay on the other side of the dal-elv which the road now led us over for the third or fourth time. The picturesque bell-tower of red painted beams, erected at a distance from the church, rose above the tall trees on the clayey declivity: old willows hung gracefully over the rapid stream. The floating bridge rocked under us--nay, it even sank a little, so that the water splashed under the horse's hoofs; but these bridges have such qualities! The iron chains that held it rattled, the planks creaked, the boards splashed, the water rose, and murmured and roared, and so we got over where the road slants upwards towards the town. Close opposite here the last year's May-pole still stood with withered flowers. How many hands that bound these flowers are now withered in the grave?

It is far prettier to go up on the sloping bank along the elv, than to follow the straight high-road into the town. The path conducts us, between pasture fields and leaf trees, up to the parsonage, where we passed the evening with the friendly family. The clergyman himself was but lately dead, and his relatives were all in mourning. There was something about the young daughter--I knew not myself what it was--but I was led to think of the delicate flax flower, too delicate for the short northern summer.

They spoke about the Midsummer festival the next day, and of the winter season here, when the swans, often more than thirty at a time, sit (motionless themselves) on the elv, and utter strange, mournful tones. They always come in pairs, they said, two and two, and thus they also fly away again. If one of them dies, its partner always remains a long time after all the others are gone; lingers, laments, and then flies away alone and solitary.

When I left the parsonage in the evening, the moon, in its first quarter, was up. The May-pole was raised; the little steamer, 'Prince Augustus,' with several small vessels in tow, came over the Siljan lake and into the elv; a musician sprang on shore, and began to play dances under the tall wreathed May-pole. And there was soon a merry circle around it--all so happy, as if the whole of life were but a delightful summer night.

Next morning was the Midsummer Festival. It was Sunday, the 24th of June, and a beautiful sunshiny day it was. The most picturesque sight at the festival is to see the people from the different parishes coming in crowds, in large boats over Siljan's lake, and landing on its shores. We drove out to the landing-place, Barkedale, and before we got out of the town, we met whole troops coming from there, as well as from the mountains.

Close by the town of Lacksand, there is a row of low wooden shops on both sides of the way, which only get their interior light through the doorway. They form a whole street, and serve as stables for the parishioners, but also--and it was particularly the case that morning--to go into and arrange their finery. Almost all the shops or sheds were filled with peasant women, who were anxiously busy about their dresses, careful to get them into the right folds, and in the mean time peeped continually out of the door to see who came past. The number of arriving church-goers increased; men, women, and children, old and young, even infants; for at the Midsummer festival no one stays at home to take care of them, and so of course they must come too--all must go to church.

What a dazzling army of colours! Fiery red and grass green aprons meet our gaze. The dress of the women is a black skirt, red bodice, and white sleeves: all of them had a psalm-book wrapped in the folded silk pocket-handkerchief. The little girls were entirely in yellow, and with red aprons; the very least were in Turkish-yellow clothes. The men were dressed in black coats, like our paletots, embroidered with red woollen cord; a red band with a tassel hung down from the large black hat; with dark knee breeches, and blue stockings, with red leather gaiters--in short, there was a dazzling richness of colour, and that, too, on a bright sunny morning in the forest road.

This road led down a steep to the lake, which was smooth and blue. Twelve or fourteen long boats, in form like gondolas, were already drawn up on the flat strand, which here is covered with large stones. These stones served the persons who landed, as bridges; the boats were laid alongside them, and the people clambered up, and went and bore each other on land. There certainly were at least a thousand persons on the strand; and far out on the lake, one could see ten or twelve boats more coming, some with sixteen oars, others with twenty, nay, even with four-and-twenty, rowed by men and women, and every boat decked out with green branches. These, and the varied clothes, gave to the whole an appearance of something so festal, so fantastically rich, as one would hardly think the north possessed. The boats came nearer, all crammed full of living freight; but they came silently, without noise or talking, and rowed up to the declivity of the forest.

The boats were drawn up on the sand: it was a fine subject for a painter, particularly one point--the way up the slope, where the whole mass moved on between the trees and bushes. The most prominent figures there, were two ragged urchins, clothed entirely in bright yellow, each with a skin bundle on his shoulders. They were from Gagne, the poorest parish in Dalecarlia. There was also a lame man with his blind wife: I thought of the fable of my childhood, of the lame and the blind man: the lame man lent his eyes, and the blind his legs, and so they reached the town.

And we also reached the town and the church, and thither they all thronged: they said there were above five thousand persons assembled there. The church-service began at five o'clock. The pulpit and organ were ornamented with flowering lilacs; children sat with lilac-flowers and branches of birch; the little ones had each a piece of oat-cake, which they enjoyed. There was the sacrament for the young persons who had been confirmed; there was organ-playing and psalm-singing; but there was a terrible screaming of children, and the sound of heavy footsteps; the clumsy, iron-shod Dal shoes tramped loudly upon the stone floor. All the church pews, the gallery pews, and the centre aisle were quite filled with people. In the side aisle one saw various groups--playing children, and pious old folks: by the sacristy there sat a young mother giving suck to her child--she was a living image of the Madonna herself.

The first impression of the whole was striking, but only the first--there was too much that disturbed. The screaming of children, and the noise of persons walking were heard above the singing, and besides that, there was an insupportable smell of garlic: almost all the congregation had small bunches of garlic with them, of which they ate as they sat. I could not bear it, and went out into the churchyard: here--as it always is in nature--it was affecting, it was holy. The church door stood open; the tones of the organ, and the voices of the psalm-singers were wafted out here in the bright sunlight, by the open lake: the many who could not find a place in the church, stood outside, and sang with the congregation from the psalm-book: round about on the monuments, which are almost all of cast-iron, there sat mothers suckling their infants--the fountain of life flowed over death and the grave. A young peasant stood and read the inscription on a grave:

"Ach hur soedt al hafve lefvet,
Ach hur skjoeut al kunne doee!"[S]

[Footnote S: "How sweet to live--how beautiful to die!"]

Beautiful Christian, scriptural language, verses certainly taken from the psalm-book, were read on the graves; they were all read, for the service lasted several hours. This, however, can never be good for devotion.

The crowd at length streamed from the church; the fiery-red and grass-green aprons glittered; but the mass of human beings became thicker, and closer, and pressed forward. The white head-dresses, the white band over the forehead, and the white sleeves, were the prevailing colours--it looked like a long procession in Catholic countries. There was again life and motion on the road; the over-filled boats again rowed away; one waggon drove off after the other; but yet there were people left behind. Married and unmarried men stood in groups in the broad street of Lacksand, from the church up to the inn. I was staying there, and I must acknowledge that my Danish tongue sounded quite foreign to them all. I then tried the Swedish, and the girl at the inn assured me that she understood me better than she had understood the Frenchman, who the year before had spoken French to her.

As I sit in my room, my hostess's grand-daughter, a nice little child, comes in, and is pleased to see my parti-coloured carpet-bag, my Scotch plaid, and the red leather lining of the portmanteau. I directly cut out for her, from a sheet of white paper, a Turkish mosque, with minarets and open windows, and away she runs with it--so happy, so happy!

Shortly after, I heard much loud talking in the yard, and I had a presentiment that it was concerning what I had cut out; I therefore stepped softly out into the balcony, and saw the grandmother standing below, and with beaming face, holding my clipped-out paper at arm's length. A whole crowd of Dalecarlians, men and women, stood around, all in artistic ecstacy over my work; but the little girl--the sweet little child--screamed, and stretched out her hands after her lawful property, which she was not permitted to keep, as it was too fine.

I sneaked in again, yet, of course, highly flattered and cheered; but a moment after there was a knocking at my door: it was the grandmother, my hostess, who came with a whole plate full of spice-nuts.

"I bake the best in all Dalecarlia," said she; "but they are of the old fashion, from my grandmother's time. You cut out so well, Sir, should you not be able to cut me out some new fashions?"

And I sat the whole of Midsummer night, and clipped fashions for spice-nuts. Nutcrackers with knights' boots, windmills which were both mill and miller--but in slippers, and with the door in the stomach--and ballet-dancers that pointed with one leg towards the seven stars. Grandmother got them, but she turned the ballet-dancers up and down; the legs went too high for her; she thought that they had one leg and three arms.

"They will be new fashions," said she; "but they are difficult."

[The end]
Hans Christian Andersen's Essay: The Midsummer Festival in Lacksand