Mary Russell joins a fertility dance around a flower-bedecked maypole to celebrate the summer solstice in Sweden
It was the nearest I'd got to a phallic symbol of such proportions for some time - all 30ft of it, crowned by a cockerel rampant. But what's this? It was flat out, lying there, no sign of life. Couldn't be flagging already - it was only 3pm on a Friday. Brewer's droop seemed unlikely too: there was little alcohol in evidence. Was it modesty, perhaps? True, there were a lot of people around. Or was it simply that its time had not yet come?

It proved to be this last for, in the tiny village of Bjursas, in the Dalarna district of central Sweden, they do things correctly. First, you have the concert in the church, then the procession up the hill, then - and only then - the erecting of the midsummer maypole.

Summer is not the only thing that's hot in Sweden: celebrating the solstice is big, too. Midsummer happens over a period of four days: 21 June to 24 June - the time when the sun seems not to move (solstice means unmoving sun), and the North Pole leans directly towards the source of all life, drawing down the heat and light we crave so much. No wonder our ancestors, at this auspicious time, used to light bonfires from the bones of their enemies - and then dance over them for good luck.

Of the four days, 21 June is generally regarded as the longest day. More traditionally, however, St John's Eve (23 June) is marked as midsummer, especially in seafaring countries such as Sweden, which is why, each year, everyone there has a half day off on the Friday before the midsummer feast. This allows them to slope away from work at midday, drive to the maypole of their choice, celebrate all night - and then have a lie-in the next morning.

Dalarna is one of the best places in Sweden to see the traditions, so if you've always wanted to take part in what was once a major sun-worshipping ceremony, take the train northwards from Stockholm and get out two and a half hours later in Borlange, which, incidentally, is where Jussi Bjorling, the Swedish tenor, was born: there's a rotund statue to him in the town square.

From Borlange, it's a short and utterly dreamy, lakeside drive to any number of villages where the midsummer fest is celebrated.

Driving towards the village of Bjursas, I overtook a couple of cyclists whose handlebars were decorated with greenery and envied them as they pedalled slowly past banks of buttercups and cow parsley, past ditches overflowing with wild lupins - purple, pink and mauve. Each red, timbered house - the red-ochre paint reflects local copper deposits - flew the cheerful yellow-and-blue national flag. Red geraniums tumbled from window boxes and gates were arched with greenery. All the villages had a large maypole on the green while most gardens had their own smaller versions.

By the time I reached Bjursas, (population 4,000 ) tension was rising: almost time to erect the maypole. A crowd had gathered outside the neat, Lutheran church. The women, in red caps, flouncy skirts and white aprons, looked matronly, their daughters pretty. The men, in black frock coats and yellow moleskin knee-breeches, black stockings held in place with scarlet garters decorated with fluffy red bobbles, appeared interestingly austere - sexy elders out on a drinking spree. At the church door, a fiddle band from nearby Falun was playing Swedish polkas - very fast.

We took our places behind the band to follow it up the hill. Initially, the playing was vigorous but, as the incline sharpened, the bandsmen ran out of puff and soon there were only the drums and cymbals to urge us to the top. The woman walking with me apologised because her costume was not totally correct: her apron was striped when it should have been plain. " Does it matter? " I asked. She nodded: " Oh, yes. I am from Leksand. People from there will frown if they see me."

In the village meadow - where the cut grass smelled as sweet as toffee - the maypole ceremony began, overseen by the Lutheran pastor in his long gown. With stately movements, men and women garlanded the maypole as it lay supported lengthways on trestles, passing the long ropes of plaited greenery to and fro, over and under, until the whole of the pole was entwined. Then the erection began and the women moved back: this was men's work.

Lining up in twos, each pair held long poles which formed a fork where they met. These forks they used to raise the cockerel end of the maypole. As it rose into the air, they shifted the supports further down the pole, edging it upwards with each movement. It was a tricky business for the pole was heavy and while some of them manoeuvred their supports, the others had to take the strain. Solemnly, the men went about their work, each heave encouraged by a hey! from the crowd, followed by a long hoooo!as the pole rose higher. And all the time, the band played on. And on. And on.

It seemed to take forever to get it up but in fact, within about 20 minutes, the cockerel - bedecked with wreaths and fronds of green - took his rightful place high above the rest of us. At last he had something to crow about. The pastor read a prayer, the band changed its tune and everyone did a courtly dance round the maypole. Decorously suppressing the disgustingly bawdy thoughts that came to my mind on the subject of maypoles and related matters, I joined in.

Later, couples took to the outdoor dance floor to jive like the Seventies had never been left behind. Tea and coffee was drunk. (The drink drive limit is 0.02, though, surprisingly, you can buy light beers at motorway stops.)

It was in the car park, I discovered, that the alternative celebrations were taking place. Loud, uncouth youths were behaving badly, drinking beer from cans, taking a slash behind a tree, revving up their motorbikes while their female, gum-chewing audience huddled together in bored admiration. Someone even gave the roof of my car a thump.

Outside the village, I stopped by the lake shore to look at the sky, its luminous-blue giving a metallic brush to the smooth surface of the water. Tiny white moths drifted in and out of lupins and dandelion clocks. The slender birches gleamed on one side as if floodlit by some mysterious silvery light, their leaves rustling suddenly in a rush of warm night wind. Strange to think it was half past midnight and that it was the sun shining on the trees.

Cars went past without headlights on, though, for about ten minutes, a long shadow seemed to lie across the forested verge casting the trees into dusk. Then it was gone and the lupins sprang back into colour. Night had happened and I had almost missed it.

Next day, in the tiny village of Tallberg, there was another maypole party. And in Leksand and in Torsand too. Everyone was partying. Swedes, apparently, can keep it up all summer.

DALARNA

GETTING THERE

SAS (tel: 0845 60727727) flies daily to Stockholm, from pounds 104.20 return, including tax. Return flights to Borlange,via Copenhagen, cost from pounds 244. Ryanair (tel: 0541 569 569) flies daily to Stockholm, from pounds 89.99.

By train, a Sweden Rail Pass costs pounds 110 and gives unlimited travel for three days within a given week (tel: 0171-317 0919), or send an e-mail to: swedenbooking@gtsab.sc.

Scandinavian Travel Service (tel: 0171-559 6666) organises packages to Dalarna. Call the Swedish Information line (tel: 0171-870 5600), or visit the website at www.visit-sweden.com

FURTHER INFORMATION

Swedes celebrate St John's Eve on the Friday immediately after 24 June, which means this year the celebrations will be on Friday 25 June. Banks are shut all day on 25 June and pretty well everything else shuts down from noon on.

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