Bonfires, Burning Witches and Maypoles

Midsummer celebrations take place in both Denmark and Sweden in June, and while the Danes gather around bonfires with a witch on top, the Swedes prefer to eat, drink and dance around a decorated maypole.


It is no secret that Scandinavians love to talk about and complain about the weather. Winters are always way too long, heavy rain threatens to ruin the strawberry harvest and there is always some new invasive species trying to cross the borders due to climate change. Bad weather is a hot topic indeed. But once the long awaited summer finally arrives and the sunlight makes everybody go outdoors wearing as little as possible it is hard to imagine a happier and more lighthearted bunch of people. Summer definitely calls for outdoor celebrations and that is what they do in June – the Swedes and the Danes – in each their own little paganistic ways.

The Danish Way – June 23
In Denmark the Midsummer celebration is called “St. John’s Eve” and it goes down every year on 23rd of June. Some meet up with friends and family for dinner (or outdoor barbecuing if the weather is good) and once it gets dark at around 10 pm people gather around big bonfires. Some bonfires will be lit right after a bonfire speech and it is common to sing the famous “Midsummer Song” (Midsommervise) written by Danish poet and painter Holger Drachmann back in 1885.

St John’s Eve was traditionally regarded as the actual Midsummer Eve and therefore the shortest night of the entire year. The Danes believed that the witches flew past on their broomsticks on this particular night on their way to the Brocken, so in order to keep those evil forces away, an effigy of a witch (usually made of old clothes and hay) was placed on top of the bonfire. Even though we know today that summer solstice is in fact on 21 June and it can be hard to find a Dane who still believes in flying witches, the tradition still lives on and St. John’s Eve is usually a very cosy and family-friendly celebration.

If you are in Copenhagen for St. John’s Eve (“Sankt Hans” in Danish) head to Amager Strandpark where the LGBT community will most likely be gathering that night. Other popular bonfire venues in Copenhagen include Islands Brygge and “Docken” in Nordhavn.

The Swedish Way – June 24
Opposite to Denmark, the Swedes have a more practical approach to their Midsummer celebration. The date changes every year simply to make sure that Midsummer is always celebrated on a Friday to better fit in with the working week. In 2016 the date to save is June 24.

Midsummer is conveniently called “midsommar” in Swedish and it is generally a celebration where families and friends get together in large groups outside the cities to party and have fun in the countryside. A traditional Midsummer celebration will include flower picking, a lunch table full of pickled herring, potatoes and lots of beer and schnapps, some very loud singing and then ring-dancing around the decorated maypole. After a long afternoon of eating, drinking, singing and dancing the Midsummer celebrations continue throughout the evening and night turning into regular parties.

If you are in Malmö for Midsummer on June 24 and do not know any Swedes you can join for the day then head to “Folkets Park” where public Midsummer celebrations take place.

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