“We love our country but at Midsummer the most.”
Those words were sung by Danes all over the world last month. June 23rd is Midsummer. The celebrations take place in the evening and are centered around a large fire. Danes call it Sankt Hans Aften, but it is known in English-speaking countries as St. John’s Eve.
While it is most popular in Scandinavian counties, it is also celebrated in other European countries. In North America, Midsummer celebrations are usually held by immigrants who have carried the tradition from their mother counties.
Because I grew up in a Danish immigrant family, most of our customs, traditions and celebrations are based on ones that my parents took with them when they moved with my siblings to Canada. Clearly, we can’t keep the traditions exactly as they had been. It might be frowned upon by Parks Canada if a group of singing and drunken Danes start a massive bonfire in a park — complete with a burning witch figure.
Yeah, there’s that.
There are conflicting reports of how that particular aspect of the tradition got started. Reportedly it started in the 1920’s as a way to remember the medieval witch burnings, especially because it would have been on this day that healers collected their herbs. As it is a relatively new part of the celebration, it is controversial, and some people question the appropriateness of the symbol in today’s society. I remember that in High School I told a friend about how I had spent my weekend and she got offended because she is Wiccan. However, I think it is important to say that this tradition evolved from a desire to remember what had happened to these women, not as an excuse to re-live the days when burning healers at the stake was encouraged.
Today, Danes embrace this tradition because it’s fun. When it first started, the witch was constructed by the women of the family and it was a sign of respect. It is said that burning the witch allows her to fly to her mountain called Bloksbjerg. This is Brocken Mountain, the highest peak in northern Germany. It has long been tied to myths about witches. Large gatherings of creatures are said to take place in the mountain.
In modern Denmark large public fires take place. People gather with friends and family, taking in a night of food, drink, and music – a typical Danish party. On Saturday, my family decided to celebrate Danish Sankt Hans the best way we could: With excessive eating and drinking, and bringing together as many Danes as we could so that we could celebrate our culture. One friend even rearranged his work schedule so that he could make the almost 6 hour drive from Fort McMurray to be here. We listened to a Danish pop rendition of the Midsummer song, while all being very glad that my parents didn’t decide to serenade us with the hymn-like version that they learnt as school kids – sometimes it’s ok to modernize things. Sometimes it can come from necessity too. Have you ever tried to find a witch costume in late June? It’s hard. This year, the witch was modern, wearing a pair of coveralls. Hey, who said we have old-fashioned views? ‘Witches’ don’t have to be wearing skirts to be set free in today’s society!