You have probably heard about it, the famous Swedish Midsummer celebration taking place every year on the first Friday after the summer solstice. Smörgåsbord, Swedes dressed up in white dresses and dancing around the Maistang (May pole) while singing their traditional songs and drinking loads of aquavit. The Norwegians does none of this (except for the aquavit), but instead together with the Danes we celebrate Sankthans.
The History of Norwegian Midsummer
In Norway, this celebration goes under different names. Sankthans, Jonsok, Jonsmesse or Jons vake. Sankt means Saint, and Hans is short for Johannes (John in English). So basically, it’s a celebration honoring the birth of Saint John. Or is it?
After the Viking age, 1100s and onward, as people became Christians, they would mix up their old pagan traditions with new Christian ones. So even though this celebration is named after a Saint, it is a tradition that goes back to pagan times.
So, despite the Christian name, this is a non-religious celebration. The official day of Sankthans is the 24th of June. But we celebrate it the evening before on the 23rd, also known as Sankthansaften (The evening of Saint John).
So how is this tradition celebrated? A couple of older traditions that took place on Sankthans that are not common today were Åkervekking (waking up the fields) & Lekebryllup (Play wedding).
As the night of Sankthans is said to have magical abilities, up until the early 1900s it was not rare to see an old farmer out in his fields putting down branches in his field on the evening of Sankthans while saying:
Wake up, wake up field and meadow. Virgin Mary is making a bed. Hurry up and get away from snow and rain and take shelter from the cold night.
Supposedly this would be good for the crops.
Foto: Norsk Folkemuseum – https://norskfolkemuseum.no/
Or you would come across a group of kids pretending to celebrate a marriage. Trying to copy how the adults would do it, with a priest, a bride and a groom and guests. Usually, this would take place on a barn in the countryside.
Sankthans was also the evening when the witches gathered. Riding on their broom to get together at Blokksberg. Blokksberg is the name of the mountain where according to North European tradition, the witches would meet with the devil… In some parts of Northern Norway, women who were believed to have been witches were burned at the time around Sankthans. A sad chapter of the Norwegian history.
How is Midsummer celebrated in Norway today?
Today the celebration is rather simple, but still very enjoyable. It’s a time of year when Norwegians love to be outside and cherish the (hopefully) warm weather and long summer nights. If you spend time in Norway before the 23rd of June you will notice that in every village or city you will find one or several piles of firewood stacked up down by the water. Be it by a lake or a fjord. This is the Sankthansbål (Bonfire of Saint John), which we lit up on the evening of the 23rd. So basically, you get together with friends or family a bit earlier in the evening. You share a meal, typically a BBQ and then later in the evening you watch the big bonfire together. It’s said that the tradition of lighting up a fire goes all the way back to the 5th century, when it was believed that a big fire would scare away the evil spirits.
Unlike the Swedish Midsummer, Norway’s Sankthans is not a national holiday, and most people need to go to work the next day, so there for the celebration tends to not go on all through the night, but we still stay up pretty late.
I hope this article gave you some insight on how Norwegians celebrate midsummer and the summer solstice. It’s a great time of the year to visit, so mark the 23rd of June in your calendar, and try to time it with your next travel adventure in Norway.
Ps. Did you know that Norway holds a second place for building the worlds highest bonfire? This was a Sankthansbål built in Ålesund in 2016 and it was 47,4 meter (155,5 foot) tall!