With alcohol, song, and fire, the celebration of Midsummer in Scandinavia tries to ward off the melancholy that can haunt the occasion. The beauty of the seemingly endless twilight marks a climax—the longest day of the year, but also an end. From here on darkness begins its long march to victory in late December. The morning-after-Midsummer hangover has three more minutes of night in which to nurse itself and brood on the downward, southerly trajectory of the sun over the coming half-year.
In Denmark the festivities of both winter and summer solstices have attached themselves to Christian holidays—Christmas with its candlelit trees and Sankt Hans with its flaming witch. In this alignment of pagan and monotheistic superstition, the pre-Christian doesn’t even bother to camouflage itself.
Sankt Hans falls on the birthday of John Baptist and like Santa Lucia—another Christian ritual of light in the darkness in Scandinavia—it was a German important. The celebration of this particular saint’s day would seem to be Southern, but there is nothing Catholic about it, nor much of anything Christian either. Saint John’s birthday allowed cover for the pagan rituals of gathering medicinal herbs in the forest and appeasing the gods of the woods and brooks with offerings. Still, some accommodation to the Christian calendar had to be made: Sankt Hans Eve is the 23rd of June, in fact, two days after the longest day.
In Sweden the pagan spirits have had to adjust their schedules to the work week of the capitalist gods. Denmark’s direct neighbor across the Øresund places its Midsummer on the Friday nearest the longest day.
Royal decree attempted to outlaw Sankt Hans in Denmark in the middle of the 18th-century, but the edict was so thoroughly ignored that it was soon rescinded. Like Christmas, it is difficult to disentangle the aspects of the truly ancient ritual from later accretions mostly of the 19th-century, but also of more recent vintage.
In the beach town of Aespergaerde, a commuter enclave up the coast from Copenhagen where I spent the evening, Sankt Hans begins with long and boring speeches from the mayor and head of the homeowners’ associations. Even if all of the ancient pagan rites cannot be safeguarded, house prices (which have fallen dramatically in outrageously expensive Copenhagen and environs) must be.
Luckily, there is nothing older or more authentic than a bonfire. This year, the fir branches were full of moisture from the wet spring and the showers of Sankt Hans itself. The boughs gave off huge plumes of dark smoke before gathering enough energy to burn an effigy of a witch. We admired this cute and colorful puppet in front one of the beachfront beer stands during our windy afternoon walk. She hardly seemed to deserve her fate, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that unlike the tens of thousands of her real life predecessors in the Christian witch hunts of the 17th-century in North Europe, she would feel no pain.
Nonetheless, our hosts’ daughter, an intelligent and feisty teenager with a taste for gothic clothing, refused to watch this part of the evening, rejecting it as anti-women and a malign relic of a barbaric past. Actually, this particular part of the Sankt Hans ritual appears to an early 20th-century modification: a picturesque reimagining of a Romantic Danish past in which the smell of burning human flesh rather than that of ground beef from the many beachside charcoal grills wafted through the Midsummer air.
Still more recently added to the rites is the dumping by high school graduates of their lecture notes and completed exams into the fire. I’m sure their forbears would have approved of this form of catharsis, especially knowing that anything you forget you can google anyway. It’s a welcome thumbing of the pagan nose at modern academic advancement. According to most indices, the Danes are the happiest people on earth. The two reasons most often adduced to explain this fact are interrelated: first, the robust social safety net allays fundamental fears about survival; second, the Danes seem to reject the culture of overachievement and the notion that any kid can (and should try to) become a Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates billionaire. Blend into the contented pack and have a good life.
On a circle of drift wood logs down the beach a group of teenagers drank beer and suspicious- looking vodka coolers around their own fire, miniscule by comparison to the roaring auto-de-fé fifty meters to the north. Many of them appeared to be younger than the high school graduates who had fed their papers to the flames.
The drinking age in Denmark begins at 16for beverages of 16.5% alcohol or less. At 18 all spirits can be consumed. The teenagers knocked back their drinks with gusto as old as the Vikings and though in a liquid form a good deal more powerful than the mead that fueled the rape and pillage of the north Atlantic. Eruptions of Nordic machismo could be seen along the beachfront road, where tattooed and skin-headed youths at the helms of vintage American muscle-cars laid down rubber in screeching bursts, the smell mingling with the plumes of black wood smoke. Denmark prides itself on being green, but Sankt Hans is an environmentally atavistic event. Up in the beach a few kilometers away in Hamlet’s old haunt of Elsinore we could see their Sankt Hans fire, seemingly ten times bigger than ours. This giant pillar of flame obliterated a long stretch of Sweden from the horizon beyond. On Sankt Hans something’s toxic in the State of Denmark.
Long twilight, big bonfires, and warming liquids set the scene for singing. A decent quartet with an excellent amateur tenor saxophonist and accented vocalist performed a potpourri of rock ‘n roll hits, bossa nova chestnuts, and jazz standards. In Aespergaerde, the 20th-century music of the Americas has rolled over the Victorian classics of a not-too-distant yesteryear.
Yet the main hymn of the night has till now survived the invading musical onslaught. The late 19th-century classic Vi elsker vort land—We lover our country—swells the Danish breast with pride. The text is by the Danish Holger Drachmann, a failed painter turned poet, initially an ardent republican who supported the Paris commune but later tacked hard to the side of reactionary nationalism. The song was published in Drachmann’s 1885 collection of Mountain Songs and Fairytales and two years later was taken up into the wildly successful fantasy play Once Upon Time, which was premiered in Copenhagen’s National Theatre before the Danish royal couple and their close relatives, the Tsar and Tsarina and the Prince and Princess of Wales. From then on the song became a kind of national hymn and is still sung at Saint Hans.
The first two verses make seasonal reference to Christmas and Sankt Hans: We love our country, but most of all at Midsummer.
The third verse gives voice to the shrill nationalism of its author:
Our country we love
and with sword in hand
we stand ready to face any foreign foe that gathers
but ‘gainst spirit of strife
upon field, upon strand,
we’ll light fires on the burial mounds of our fathers.
The original melody by Peter Lang-Müller has been partially supplanted by a version done in the late 1970s by the Danish pop band Shu-bi-dua, but the classic melody still holds its traditional primacy. In either version, most members of the younger generations stand alongside this sing-along with increasing muteness. Looking at the drunken youths down the beach, one doubts that, should the Swedes decide to launch a Midsummer raid, the Danes could mount much of defense. Their rituals—ancient and reinvented and reinvented again—are now just a good excuse for a beach party. As if any were needed.