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FEATURE

What is Sankthans? How Norwegians mark the middle of summer

Although Sankthans is technically on June 24th, Norwegians celebrate with bonfires marking the occasion the night before. If you are in Norway on June 23rd this year, consider bringing a blanket and a chair to the coast, so you can sit back and soak up the festive atmosphere.

What is Sankthans? How Norwegians mark the middle of summer
A traditional Midsummers Eve bonfire. Photo by Carlo on Unsplash

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. 

Over on the west coast in the city of Ålesund, the bonfire celebration was taken to the extreme when the city was crowned with a world record for making the world’s largest manmade bonfire on Midsummer’s Eve in 2016. 

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, communities 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. 

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

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 perhaps 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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For members

MAY 17TH

What you need to know about Norway’s May 17th celebrations this year 

For the first time in three years, Norway will mark its national day of celebration, Constitution Day, without pandemic restrictions. This is what you need to know about May 17th.

What you need to know about Norway's May 17th celebrations this year 

What is May 17th? 

“Syttende Mai”, as it’s known in Norwegian, is Norway’s national day and marks the signing of the constitution on the same day in 1814, which declared Norway an independent nation. 

How is it celebrated?

For many, it begins with a large breakfast with friends or family. The breakfast is a typically Norwegian one, consisting of bread, rolls, spreads (or pælegg), and baked goods. 

Breakfast begins typically quite early, and it won’t be uncommon for the meal to be accompanied by champagne. 

The day is celebrated in pretty the same way everywhere across the country. 

The main feature of the day is marching bands and children’s parades through the town, city or village centre. 

These haven’t been as prominent in recent years due to the pandemic. However, you can expect a return to form this year as a record number of kids have signed up to take place in the children’s parade in Oslo this year

The parade in Oslo is the most iconic. Children parade up to the palace and wave at the royal family. 

The kids’ parade is followed by a worker’s one and then a russetog, consisting of final year high-school students who have spent the last month or so partying. 

People will then either eat out, grill at home, or have family dinners. 

What’s with the costumes?  

If you have spent any time in Norway, it is almost without doubt that you will have seen or at least heard of a bunad

The origins of the bunad has its roots in the period of national romanticism in Norway in the 19th century. This period led to an interest in traditional folk costumes in Norway and countries such as Germany. 

Folk costumes were worn in Norway a long time before the period of national romanticism, however. For example, in Setesdal, southern Norway, a tradition of folk costumes stretches back to the 14th century. 

READ MORE: What you need to know about Norway’s national costume

Do I have to wear a bunad

Not if you don’t want to. Which, to some, will be a relief as they are incredibly expensive. 

Although, you will be expected to dress smartly if you have been invited for breakfast, unless stated otherwise. 

A smart pair of trousers and shirt for men is recommended at a minimum if attending an event. Local men who don’t have a bunad may opt for a full suit and tie. 

Women are also expected to dress up for the occasion. 

What else do I need to know? 

If you are visiting Norway, you may find it hard to find a place to eat as many restaurants will either be closed or fully booked for a special May 17th menu.  

Also, getting about may be a bit of a hassle as roads will be closed for parades. In Oslo, people are being asked to avoid the National theatre T-bane stop. 

As it’s a public holiday, supermarkets, shops and state-owned wine monopolies will be shut. On the plus side, that also likely means that you’ll have a day off work too. 

Flag-waving is a big tradition, but there are a few general rules. If you hoist a Norwegian flag on May 17th, it will need to be taken down by 9pm. 

Additionally, if waving a small flag, you shouldn’t point the flag toward the ground because it is rude. 

And finally, while the celebrations may be strange for an outsider, Norwegians are very proud of the day and its traditions. To avoid making any potential social faux pas, you should avoid poking fun at some of the traditions. 

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