Sankt Hans Aften, when people sing in chorus before lighting a giant bonfire and eating and drinking late into the light summer night, is one of the highlights of the Danish calendar.
The celebration always takes place on the evening of June 23rd, with Sankt Hans day being the following day, June 24th. It is therefore slightly after the actual midsummer, the solstice on June 21st.
The tradition is a long-standing one in Denmark and throughout the Nordic countries, with written accounts of it going as far back as the 16th century.
In its early years, the church was critical, given then unruly dancing, drinking and shrieking. Originally a public holiday, Sankt Hans Dag had this privilege removed in 1770 but customary celebrations the night before have continued to this day.
Sankt Hans is the Danish name for John the Baptist, said to be born six months before Jesus, so June 24th, six months before (and after) Christmas, is therefore his saint’s day. This also gives a connection to the solstice and days becoming shorter again after midsummer.
The first Lutheran bishop on Zealand, Peder Palladius, is said to have instructed Danish bishops in 1543 to preach about John the Baptist on Sankt Hans Aften.
The tradition of celebrating the feast day for John the Baptist in Denmark has both religious and pagan roots, though.
A particular example of the latter involves the custom of burning a witch at the top of the bonfire – which is a relatively recent adaptation of the celebration.
Because Sankt Hans is at midsummer, the power of nature is at its highest according to folklore, giving the connection between Sankt Hans and magic.
In earlier times, people with sicknesses were known to go to springs to drink the water or bathe their diseased limbs.
According to the National Museum of Denmark, witch-like figures on the top of Sankt Hans bonfires began to appear in East Jutland in the late 1800s at a different religious festival, Walpurgis Night (Valborgsaften in Danish), which is celebrated on the last night of April. The practice eventually made its way across to Sankt Hans Aften.
Although the witches being burned on Sankt Hans Aften are of the paper and hay variety, roughly 1,000 real men and women convicted of witchcraft were burned alive in Denmark in the 16th and 17th centuries. The last ‘witch’ to be killed in this way was Anne Palles, a Danish woman accused of sorcery and executed in 1693 on the island of Falster.
Midsommervisen (“Midsummer’s Song”), also called Vi elsker vort land (“We Love our Country”) is the song you will hear crowds at Sankt Hans Aften celebrations in Denmark sing in chorus. It seems an incongruous combination with burning witches – the two traditions were not used together to celebrate Sankt Hans Aften until around 1900.