Like Christmas Eve, Sankt Hans Aften (St John’s Eve) on 23 June is believed to originate in the prehistoric pagan rites of northern Europe that celebrated the shortest (winter solstice) and the longest (summer solstice) days of the year.
John's birth was handily timed
Many people believe the Christian missionaries and priests reinterpreted the old rites so they could be used to serve the spread of Christianity. The historical evidence that the birthday of John the Baptist was 24 June is thin. Very little is known about his early life.
Only the Gospel according to Luke dates the conception of John, claiming it was six months before that of Jesus, which enabled the church to locate John’s birthday at the time of the pagan midsummer festival.
The solstice since forever
Meanwhile, from ancient times the celebration of Midsummer’s Eve has been linked to the summer solstice.
According to pagan thinking, midsummer's night was rife with magical natural powers, both bad and good. To ward off evil spirits, which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again, flaming bundles of straw were hurled into the air.
People furthermore believed the midsummer plants had miraculous and healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night.
Midsummer’s Day was the day when the medieval wise men and women (the doctors of the time) would gather the special herbs they needed for the rest of the year to cure people. Popular belief also said that all healing springs were particularly sacred and should be visited.
Christianised and demonised
In the 7th century, Saint Eligius warned the recently Christianised inhabitants of Flanders against participating in the pagan solstitial celebrations.
He is reported to have said: “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint should perform solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chanting."
Indeed, as Saint Eligius demonstrates, midsummer had already been Christianised as the nativity feast of Saint John the Baptist. Unlike all other saints’ days, this feast is celebrated on his birthday and not on the day of his martyrdom, which is separately observed as the Decollation of John the Baptist on 29 August.
Burning the witch
In Denmark, the solstitial celebration, Sankt Hans Aften, has been celebrated since the times of the Vikings. It was an official holiday until 1770 and, in accordance with the Danish tradition of celebrating a holiday on the evening before the actual day, it takes place on the evening of 23 June.
The burning bundles of straw have turned into bonfires and, according to tradition, the bonfires should be surmounted by a witch-like figure made of straw and cloth in memory of witch burnings. This tradition dates back to the 1920s, while the bonfires seem to derive from German artisans who visited Kalundborg in 1860s.
Oral tradition says the witches fly back to Bloksbjerg (the mountain Broken) in the Harz in Germany, where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day, on St John’s Eve and night. Witch burning occurred in Denmark between 1540 and 1693 – and perhaps as recently as 1897 – but these incidents have not been connected with the traditional midsummer rituals.
Today Sankt Hans Aften is celebrated by public and private arrangements. The solstitial celebrations still centre upon 24 June, which is no longer the longest day of the year – when Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar, the date on which the solstice falls moved to around 21 June.
A typical program comprises a speech by a well-known person followed by the lighting of the bonfire. While the flames engulf the bonfire and the witch figure, the people attending will eat and drink. Towards midnight they will sing Midsommervisen (Midsummer song) by Danish poet Holger Drachmann (1846-1908), and there might be fireworks at midnight.
The Midsummer song ‘Vi elsker vort land …' (We Love Our Country …)’ is from Drachmann’s romantic play ‘Der var engang' (Once upon a time) of 1885 and sung to music by P E Lange-Müller (1850-1926).