Midsummer In Denmark

What is Sankthansaften? Everything you need to know about Danish Midsummer

If you would like to know more about Danish Midsummer celebrations you’ve come to the right place. Today we’re going to tell you everything you need to know Sankthansaften (including how to spell it) and explore Midsummer in Denmark. Let’s get started…

There is no shortage of traditions in Denmark. A country with a 1000-year history is bound to have its share of celebrations. It’s no secret that holidays in Denmark are very important to the people of this hyggeligt country. Danes love a good party, and Sankt Hans is one of the best.

Sankt Hans aften or Sankthansaften, is there a difference?

This Danish Midsummer celebration takes place annually on June 23. Sankt Hans aften is a mash-up of pre-Christian summer solstice celebrations and the Christian tradition of Saint John the Baptist’s birthday on June 24. 

Christian tradition has it that John the Baptist was born exactly 6 months before the birth of Jesus, which is of course celebrated on December 24 or 25, which also lands conveniently near the pre-Christian winter solstice celebration. 

Because the date was named after a person, Saint John, its spelling followed proper name format, Sankt Hans aften (Sankt=saint, Hans=John, aften=evening). But Danes love to smash strings of words together to denote very specific meanings. 

In the case of Sankthansaften, the meaning is not referring to the original Christian calendar date, but the celebration that takes place on that day. Similar to Christmas as December 25, and Christmas as a general event, as in “What are you doing for Christmas?”

In daily language and in the media, the two phrases are generally interchangeable. A non-native speaker would be hard pressed to hear the difference between the two phrases when spoken.

Midsummer In Denmark

When is Midsummer in Denmark?

Denmark celebrates this Midsummer tradition every year on June 23. While this does not always land on the true summer solstice, it occurs within a day or two. 

Danes will be quick to indicate the benefit of Sankthansaften being assigned a specific calendar day (unlike in Sweden where it changes annually): there is no confusion when the party will be.

For visitors and newcomers to Denmark wishing to get a flavor of this happiest country, the midsummer celebration is a perfect balance of Danish hygge, raucous fun, and gratitude for country.

Important celebrations in Denmark generally land on the evening before the proper holiday, and Sankt Hans aften is no exception. This can be confusing, especially for visitors from the U.S. where celebrations on the evening prior is a lead in to the main event holiday.  

But Danes prefer full tilt celebrations on the evening prior so the holiday proper can rest quietly as a non-event. Julaften (Christmas Eve) is also the big celebration, and nothing much happens on Christmas Day itself, quite possibly because the evening parties are exhausting and require a day to recover.

Why is Danish Midsummer celebration so important?

Denmark is a far north country. The winters are long and dark, generally gray and rainy, and sometimes very cold and snowy. The shortest days see light fully around 9:30am and see the light fading around 3:30pm. 

Keeping cozy indoors with warm fires, candles, good books and movies is balanced with spending time in the brisk cold. Staying active outdoors is important to Danes, even if the weather is less than ideal.

Once December crosses the solstice, the light begins its return at the rate of 2 minutes per day. Although the coldest stretch of winter is ahead, the returning light is a sign of hope that is shared repeatedly in conversations across Denmark. 

There is something genuine and endearing about the appreciation Danes have for the lengthening days. This astronomical event has occurred for millions of years, yet is still regarded as something quite magical. 

Understanding this about Danes underpins the importance of the lengthening days across spring and summer. As the “white nights” return, so do plans for the celebratory Sankthansaften.

Midsummer In Denmark

Danish Midsummer traditions

Sankt Hans aften is a festive, happy event. It is possibly the most casual of Danish traditions, without much of the formality that is prevalent on other Danish holidays. 

Mostly, it involves gathering together as friends and family for private celebrations, or in large community groups for public festivals, to eat and drink and enjoy life. 

These gatherings ideally take place near a body of water such as a lake or on the beach, and there is always a massive pyre of wood ready to be lit when the hour nears 10:00pm (22:00). If no lake or coast water is nearby, fires are lit but with caution and (for private gatherings) often in a garden firepit.  

As guests assemble, the bonfire wood is already stacked and ready for the evening show. Easy and familiar Danish food will often be available for purchase at public celebrations or laid out for guests at private celebrations: smørrebrød, pølse, vandmelon og jorbær, pankager, flødeboller and, of course, øl, vin, and schnapps. (Open face sandwiches, sausages, watermelon and strawberries, dessert pancakes, chocolate puffs filled with cream and, of course, beer, wine, and schnapps.)

The church did its best to rewrite the meaning of the Danish Midsummer celebration, but attendees are quick to understand that the annual tradition remains firmly rooted in its pre-Christian heritage. Sankthansaften is a giant party shared with nary a church reference in sight.

The only element of Sankt Hans aften historically connected to the Christian church is the witch effigy that is sometimes burned atop the bonfire.

This sometimes unsettling and controversial image itself has roots in early church hysteria of burning women for their supposed crimes of witchcraft. The burning of the effigy was added into the sankthansaften celebrations during the 1920’s. 

While no one quite knows the impetus for the addition, the general explanation is that burning the witch symbolically destroys any evil or harm that might befall the community.

 A small consolation for the witch is that being burned frees her to fly to a witch mountain community to live out her days. For some reason, the most popular of these burned witch retirement communities is near near Bloksbjerg in Germany. 

It is a tradition that seems to be falling away. Nowadays, many Sankt Hans aften bonfires burn without the witch or any other type of effigy.

Danish Midsummer speeches

Sankthansaften public celebrations are often hosted by Danish TV personalities, local celebrities, popular journalists, or semi-famous Danes who have recently captured the public’s attention. 

Speeches are given before the pyre is lit. The speeches are part stories of gratitude and resilience and part stories of community and future hopes. The Danish crowds pause their cacophony of conversation and laughter to listen respectfully to the speakers, and then offer raised glasses and applause as they conclude.

The pyre is lit close to 10:00pm (22:00) and as it blossoms into a great fire, the reaction is both joyous and awed. Midsummer has arrived, and for the longest night of the year (more or less) all of Denmark is joined in celebration.

Danish Midsummer songs

While every sankthansaften follows generally the same traditions, whether the event is public or private, each is unique. Denmark is a nation of islands and one very large peninsula, and each region has distinct cultural qualities regarding these celebrations as well as life in general.

Outsiders may consider Denmark to be a fairly homogenous society, often guarded against change and contributions from other cultures. While it is true that some Danes have unfortunately been very vocal in this regard, it is a small minority. 

Sometimes naive in their understanding of other cultures, Danes are rarely ill willed. They are simply…Danish. In that, there is a contentment of simply being that is not shared by many western cultures, and it is sometimes difficult to grasp as an outsider. 

This contentment carried collectively within Danes allows them to assume the same contentment in others. In turn, this engenders a sense of openness and community that is offered without expectation to strangers and newcomers in the most charming and unexpected ways. 

The lyrics to the Danish Midsummer song, “Midsommervise”, is probably the most revealing regarding the Danish people and why this celebration is so very important. Sung while the bonfire is burning, it reveals the heart of Denmark.

Den er bunden af sommerens
hjerter så varme, så glade
Vi elsker vort land
Men ved midsommer mest
Når hver sky over marken velsignelsen sender
Når hver af blomster er flest

It is the bottom of the summer
Hearts so warm, so happy
We love our country
But in Midsummer most
When every cloud over the field sends blessings
When flowers are most plentiful

Sankthansaften is not only about the long days of summer, but also about gratitude for experiencing those days in this country we love. Newcomer or descended from Danes of yore, we stand together and honor this place we call home.

Midsummer In Denmark

Finding Sankthansaften

If you are fortunate enough to be in Denmark over the summer solstice, there will plenty of opportunity to find a Sankt Hans aften celebration.

The most famous celebration takes place at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. The feel is friendly and festive with families and a lot of young children.

Amager beach also has a celebration with possibly as many tourists as Tivoli. But summer on a beach in Denmark is more laid back feel and possibly a bigger party scene.

If you are seeking a slightly less polished celebration within the Copenhagen area, Gentofte Kommune (municipality) puts on a fantastic bonfire at the edge of the local lake. There will be few tourists in the crowd, but visitors shouldn’t be shy about interacting. Most Danes speak English fluently and are happy to interpret what is happening. 

On the island of Fyn, celebrations take place in the cities of Aalborg and Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen of The Little Mermaid fame. Both cities hold their own share of attractions to visit in the days surrounding Danish Midsummer.

On the peninsula of Jylland, several locations host big events including the cities of Aarhus, Skagen, and Billund (of Lego fame). Small or large, every community holds some type of celebration, and it is the fortunate visitor that stumbles upon a lesser known venue to experience the serendipitous hospitality of Denmark. 

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