Friday, June 24, 2005



In Denmark the solstitial celebration is called Sankt Hans aften ("St. John's Eve"). It was an official holiday until 1770 and in accordance with the Danish tradition of celebrating a holiday on the evening before the actual day, it takes place on the evening of June 23. It is the day where the medieval wise men and women (the doctors of that time) would gather special herbs that they needed for the rest of the year to cure people.

It has been celebrated since the times of the Vikings and of Odin and Thor, by visiting healing water sources and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits. Today the water source tradition is gone. Bonfires on the beach, speeches, picnics and songs are traditional, although bonfires are built in many other places where beaches may not be close by (i.e. on the shores of lakes and other waterways, parks, etc.). In the 1920s a tradition of putting a witch made of straw and cloth on the bonfire emerged as a remembrance of the church's witchburnings from 1540 to 1693 (but unofficially a witch was lynched as late as 1897). This burning sends the witch to Bloksbjerg, the mountain 'Brocken' in the Harz region of Germany where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day.

Holger Drachmann and P.E. Lange-Müller wrote a beautiful midsommervise1885 called "Vi elsker vort land..." ("We Love Our Land") that is sung at every bonfire on this evening.


Like in Denmark, Sankthansaften is celebrated on 23 June. The day is also called Jonsok, which means "Johannes wake," important in Catholic times with pilgrimages to churches and holy springs. Right up to 1840 there was, for instance, a pilgrimage to the stave church in Røldal (southwest Norway) whose crucifix was said to have healing powers.

In parts of Norway a custom of arranging mock marriages, both between adults and between children, is still kept alive. The wedding was meant to symbolise the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place in the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.

In the last century Midsummer's Eve was largely celebrated in the local communities, but during the 1990s it has developed into a more private party with family and friends gathering round a bonfire to dance.


Midsummer Dance by , 1897
Midsummer DanceAnders Zorn, 1897 by

In Sweden, Midsummer's Eve and Midsummer's Day is moved to the third Friday and Saturday of June, in order to make a dependable long weekend. The main celebrations takes place on the Friday, the traditional events include raising and dancing around a huge (phallic) maypole. Before the maypole is raised, greens and flowers are collected and used to cover, to "may", the entire pole.

Raising and dancing around a maypole is primarily an activity which attracts families, even though it traditionally was a fertility ritual. Dancing around the pole is often accompanied by traditional music and the wearing of traditional folk costumes. The year's first potatoes, pickled herring, sour cream, and possibly the first strawberries of the season are on the menu.

By many swedes this holiday is seen as a holiday of partying, and as the start of the summer. Also, quite interestingly, many Swedes would rather have Midsummers Eve as their National Day.


Before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla, after an old Finnish god Ukko. In Karelia, people had many bonfires side by side, the biggest of which was called Ukko-kokko (the "bonfire of Ukko") Now in Finland the midsummer holiday (Juhannus — or midsommar for the Swedish-speaking minority), is a notable occasion for drunkenness and revels. As in Sweden, maypoles have been transferred to the midsummer festivities, and pickled herring is the hallmark of the coastal areas, where also the Finland-Swedish language and culture have their stronghold. In the rest of Finland, a bonfire (kokko) take the place of the maypole, and smoked fish from the nearby lake is eaten instead of pickled herring.

Midsummer in Finland is celebrated at least as intensely as in Sweden. Many people get indecently drunk and happy. The statistics of the number of people drowned and killed in accidents is morbidly counted every year. Also statistics of assaults demonstrates a peak for this weekend.

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