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DANISH TRADITIONS

Why does Denmark celebrate Sankt Hans Aften?

Celebrating Sankt Hans Aften (Saint John’s Eve in English) is an important midsummer custom in Denmark. Why is the occasion so important in the Nordic country?

A Sankt Hans bonfire in Odense
A Sankt Hans bonfire in Odense. File photo: Sophia Juliane Lydolph/Ritzau Scanpix

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.

READ ALSO: Store Bededag: Why does Denmark have annual ‘Prayer Day’ holiday?

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.

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LIVING IN DENMARK

Store Bededag: Why does Denmark have annual ‘Prayer Day’ holiday?

Many people who work in Denmark have the day off today for the public holiday Great Prayer Day (Store Bededag). We look at why the Danish calendar includes this extra holiday on a day when most other countries are going about their normal business.

Store Bededag: Why does Denmark have annual 'Prayer Day' holiday?
Warm wheat buns, a Great Prayer Day tradition.Archive photo: Eva Seider/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark originally introduced Great Prayer Day – officially an “extraordinary normal prayer day” in the late 17th century during the time of King Christian V, who decreed it.

The holiday is in fact one of three religious holidays introduced at the time at the behest of the Bishop of Roskilde, Hans Bagger (1675-1693).

Bishop Hans Bagger introduced three prayer days to Denmark in the late 1600s. Image: Kunstbibliothek der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Although the three prayer days were implemented by the bishop in his first two years in the job, only the middle of the three days on the calendar was coded into the law by the king. It falls on the fourth Friday after Easter Sunday.

The idea of decreeing a single day as a public praying day was to reduce the number of these religious days, limiting everyone’s time off. It’s unclear whether the King himself continued to take the other two days off work.

Nevertheless, the decree condensed religious holidays that had existed since before the Reformation – for example during the spring and at harvest, as well as several extra ones around Christmas time. There were 22 holy days in the calendar at one point, so it’s probably fair enough they were cut back a bit.

The day was a more serious affair in its early years. Inns and cellars were required to stop serving their beverages when church bells rang the preceding evening at 6pm. Everyone had to attend church – sober – the following day. Fasting until the end of religious services was also demanded.

Those pious duties have given sway over the years. Now, Great Prayer Day is probably best known for eating hvede – cardamom-infused wheat buns with a generous spreading of butter and perhaps jam. There’s a tradition behind this too – bakers were not allowed to work on Store Bededag, so they made the wheat buns on Thursday to be reheated the following day. Think of it like a microwave meal for the Age of Enlightenment.

Work, games, gambling and other “worldly vanity” were also not allowed during the religious penitence. Only the first of these is limited today, with shops and most supermarkets closed, as well as non-essential public sector services.

One aspect of the Great Prayer Day of Hans Bagger’s time that might feel familiar in 2021 is a ban on travelling. Limitations in the late 17th century were conceivably a limit on going from village to village, rather than restrictions on leaving the country.

Sources: National Museum of Denmark, Folkekirken

READ ALSO: Witches and rain: Denmark’s Sankt Hans Aften explained

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