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Sankthans: What you should know about Norway's midsummer celebration

Agnes Erickson
Agnes Erickson - [email protected]
Sankthans: What you should know about Norway's midsummer celebration
A traditional Midsummers Eve bonfire. Photo by Carlo on Unsplash

Although Sankthans is technically on June 24th, Norwegians celebrate with bonfires marking the occasion the night before. This year, the traditional bonfires may be banned in certain parts of the country.


What is Sankthans?

Sankthans or Jonsok, translated as "John's wake", is a Midsummer celebration with both religious and secular roots.

Before Christianity was established in Norway, it was seen as a day of magic where witches, trolls and forest spirits roamed the earth while it was lit by the midnight sun.

Many pagans believed the day marked the marriage of the God and Goddess, a union so powerful it creates the harvest's fruits. The occasion was also believed to be a demonstration of light triumphing over darkness. 

After Christianity became the official religion in Norway, Sankthans became a holy celebration. Traditionally, Midsummer was celebrated on June 24th, the birthday of St. John the Baptist. 

Today, the occasion is considered a non-religious celebration. It is mainly centered around the shared gratitude of long days and warm nights on the evening of the 23rd.


How do Norwegians celebrate? 

Along with the rest of Scandinavia, it is popular to celebrate with bonfires. When compared to Christmas and Easter, Sankthans is a relatively casual occasion in Norway. Residents do not dress up, nor are there special dishes that help mark the occasion.

In major cities and small towns, the bonfires are typically made along the coastline or in a body of water and the locals watch from boats or from along the shoreline and bring drinks and snacks. The atmosphere is festive, yet relaxed. 

There is a myth surrounding this occasion that has carried over into the modern-day. Many Norwegians say that if you sleep with a sankthansblomst or a "red campion flower" underneath your pillow on the night of sankthans, then your future spouse will appear in your dreams.

READ MORE: Strange Norwegian superstitions foreigners should know about 

The bonfires 

Bonfires have been associated with this tradition since the Viking Age. Vikings were known to make large bonfires to ward off evil spirits. 

Today, there are far fewer bonfires than before, mainly due to there being more fire regulations. In many areas, the local municipality or community groups may organise large public fires, while some still make bonfires on private properties. If you are planning on making a bonfire on your property, check your municipality's rules to see if this is allowed. 

The bonfire held in Ålesund, on Norway's west coast, is the largest in the country, with previous iterations breaking world records. Also on the west coast is Bergen, and in the Laksevåg borough of the city, locals set fire to a tower made of herring barrels


Below you can watch a video of the annual bonfire in Ålesund. 

Bonfire bans

This year, bonfires are prohibited in a number of areas due to dry weather and the introduction of a ban on all fires. This means many municipal bonfires have been cancelled this year. Still, many places will host gatherings and events - just without the traditional fires.

You will need to check whether the municipality or area you live in is subject to a total fire ban to know whether the local display has been cancelled or that you'll land yourself in hot water if you light your own.

Anyone who breaks an extraordinary fire ban risks being prosecuted under Norway's fires and explosions act and receiving a fine or up to three months in prison.

The majority of bans introduced across Norway are valid until June 30th or until the local authorities have said there has been enough rainfall to reduce the risk of fires spreading.

Is it a public holiday?

Midsummer's Eve hasn't been a public holiday since the 18th century. Businesses will still have regular opening hours. In some cases, restaurants and shops will stay open longer to cash in on the extra foot traffic and crowds, perfect for those on the hunt for a late night snack. 

It's not a day many book off work as celebrations happen in the evening after normal working hours. 

What about Norway's neighbours?

The Swedes celebrate Midsummer on the Friday between 19th and 25th June. Midsummer's Day is the following Saturday. In Sweden, it is a national public holiday and is celebrated even more than in Norway.

It is a tradition to spend the celebration in the countryside. Decorative crowns made from flowers are worn chiefly by women and children. However, many men chose to wear them too. 

In Denmark, it is celebrated annually on June 23rd. The same as in Norway. Though previously religious songs were sung, the Danes have taken to holding speeches and singing the famous patriotic song, "Vi Elsker Vort Land" or "We Love Our Country" on this day.

Useful Vocabulary

bål - bonfire

Sankthansaften - Midsummer's eve

fest - party 

kyst - coast 


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