Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Burning an Effigy of a Witch, or: How Denmark celebrates Midsummer

Last night, I joined some friends on Nyhavn for a traditional Danish celebration of Midsummer--Sankt Hans aften. Not having ever really celebrated Midsummer in any way before (it's not much of a holiday in America), my first Midsummer experience was one of the weirdest holidays I have ever witnessed, though admittedly a lot of fun. (Plus, my name means "the place where witches go to brew their potions." I had to see what this was all about.)

Wikipedia tells me this about Skt. Hans celebrations: In Denmark, the summer solstice celebration on June 23 is called Sankt Hans aften, or St. John's Eve. It was an official holiday until 1770, where the medieval wise men and women would gather special herbs that they needed for the rest of the year to cure people.

It has been celebrated since the times of the Vikings by visiting healing water wells and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits. Today the water well tradition is gone. Bonfires on the beach, speeches, picnics and songs are traditional. In the 1920s, a tradition of putting a witch made of straw and cloth (probably made by the elder women of the family) on the bonfire emerged as a remembrance of the church's witch burnings from 1540 to 1693. This burning sends the "witch" away to Bloksbjerg, the mountain 'Brocken' in the Harz region of Germany where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day.
A Midsummer hymn written by Holger Drachmann and P. E. Lange-Müller called "Vi elsker vort land..." ("We Love Our Country") is sung at every bonfire on this evening.

And there you have it: with drinks and snacks in hand, my friends and I enjoyed the wonderful people-watching on Nyhavn last night, and a little bonfire action. Because nothing says "summer" quite like burning a "witchified" scarecrow and sending it off to Germany . . .

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