Last night the Danes celebrated Sankt Hans Evening (St. John’s Eve) with bonfires and witches! This was originally a pagan celebration of summer solstice and the magical shortest night of the year but after the introduction of Christianity it also became the celebration of John the Baptist’s birthday which is supposedly today June 24th.
There used to be a lot of superstition related to this night. Mean witches were scared away and sick people went to holy springs hoping their illnesses would be cured on this night where light was stronger than darkness. As a symbol of chasing evil forces away Danes burned a hay witch on top of the bonfire – a practice that is still very common in Denmark! Danes jokingly say that on the evening of Sankt Hans: “the witches are being sent off to Brocken” (the highest point of the Herz mountains in Germany).
Interestingly, this pagan/Christian tradition is still highly popular in Denmark. Every year on June 23rd you can see bonfires with witches lightening up the bright midsummer sky all over the country. I choose to think that the reason why this tradition has survived for so long is that midsummer is such a beautiful time to get together with friends and family for bonfire and barbecue. Especially in Denmark, where the sun is up until 10 pm – and even later in countries further North.
A beautiful and dramatic Sankt Hans Eve bonfire has been depicted in a famous painting by the painter P.S. Kroeyer from the Skagen artist colony. It is on display at Skagen’s Museum on the most northern tip of Denmark where light is especially beautiful.
Another great place to attend a public Sankt Hans bonfire is the beach in Tisvildeleje, Denmark. Every year there is a large bonfire by the beach and the whole ceremony is opened by a speech by a famous Dane followed by the Midsummer Song by Holger Drachman. But you can find public Sankt Hans bonfires all over the country every year on June 23rd.
If you, like me, are not in Denmark for midsummer why not have a bonfire in the backyard? Whether you believe in witchcraft or not, midsummer nights are a beautiful and fun time for a bonfire…