What is Sankthans? How Norwegians mark the middle of summer

What is Sankthans? How Norwegians mark the middle of summer
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. 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?

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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