Before the advent of Christianity in Denmark, all the Scandinavian countries celebrated the longest day of the year, the Midsummer. Although many cultures celebrate Midsummer, with a bonfire, in Denmark the celebration is infused with customs that dated back to darker and more superstitious times in the country’s history.
Sankt Hans Aften (St. John’s Eve) takes its name from John the Baptist, who according to Christian tradition was born six months before Jesus. With Christmas celebrated on December 24th in Denmark, that puts John’s birthday on June 24th. Although the holiday is nominally Christian, it is built upon pagan traditions. Although the summer solstice is on 21 June, St John’s Eve is regarded as the actual Midsummer Eve and therefore the shortest night of the entire year.
The summer solstice is a night imbued with evil, a night in which witches make their way to the Brocken, the highest summit in the Herz Mountains in northern Germany. In order to ward off those broomstick-riding witches and their evil troll accomplices, Danes light a bonfire to keep the spooky forces at bay. And if that weren’t enough, the bonfires themselves are topped with a witch figure which is set ablaze on this special night. It is a night when Danes gather together to eat, drink and make merry in recognition of summer’s peak.
The bonfire tradition continues to this day. Speeches are often followed by singing. Though church hymns were previously sung, in 1885 “Vi Elsker Vort Land” (We Love Our Country) by Holger Drachmann became the patriotic anthem of the holiday and is still sung today.
Peace and Love!
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