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DANISH TRADITIONS

Why does Denmark celebrate Sankt Hans Aften?

Celebrating Sankt Hans Aften (Saint John’s Eve in English) is an important midsummer custom in Denmark. Why is the occasion so important in the Nordic country?

A Sankt Hans bonfire in Odense
A Sankt Hans bonfire in Odense. File photo: Sophia Juliane Lydolph/Ritzau Scanpix

Sankt Hans Aften, when people sing in chorus before lighting a giant bonfire and eating and drinking late into the light summer night, is one of the highlights of the Danish calendar.

The celebration always takes place on the evening of June 23rd, with Sankt Hans day being the following day, June 24th. It is therefore slightly after the actual midsummer, the solstice on June 21st.

The tradition is a long-standing one in Denmark and throughout the Nordic countries, with written accounts of it going as far back as the 16th century.

In its early years, the church was critical, given then unruly dancing, drinking and shrieking. Originally a public holiday, Sankt Hans Dag had this privilege removed in 1770 but customary celebrations the night before have continued to this day.

READ ALSO: Store Bededag: Why does Denmark have annual ‘Prayer Day’ holiday?

Sankt Hans is the Danish name for John the Baptist, said to be born six months before Jesus, so June 24th, six months before (and after) Christmas, is therefore his saint’s day. This also gives a connection to the solstice and days becoming shorter again after midsummer.

The first Lutheran bishop on Zealand, Peder Palladius, is said to have instructed Danish bishops in 1543 to preach about John the Baptist on Sankt Hans Aften.

The tradition of celebrating the feast day for John the Baptist in Denmark has both religious and pagan roots, though.

A particular example of the latter involves the custom of burning a witch at the top of the bonfire – which is a relatively recent adaptation of the celebration.

Because Sankt Hans is at midsummer, the power of nature is at its highest according to folklore, giving the connection between Sankt Hans and magic.

In earlier times, people with sicknesses were known to go to springs to drink the water or bathe their diseased limbs.

According to the National Museum of Denmark, witch-like figures on the top of Sankt Hans bonfires began to appear in East Jutland in the late 1800s at a different religious festival, Walpurgis Night (Valborgsaften in Danish), which is celebrated on the last night of April. The practice eventually made its way across to Sankt Hans Aften.

Although the witches being burned on Sankt Hans Aften are of the paper and hay variety, roughly 1,000 real men and women convicted of witchcraft were burned alive in Denmark in the 16th and 17th centuries. The last ‘witch’ to be killed in this way was Anne Palles, a Danish woman accused of sorcery and executed in 1693 on the island of Falster. 

Midsommervisen (“Midsummer’s Song”), also called Vi elsker vort land (“We Love our Country”) is the song you will hear crowds at Sankt Hans Aften celebrations in Denmark sing in chorus. It seems an incongruous combination with burning witches – the two traditions were not used together to celebrate Sankt Hans Aften until around 1900.

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POLITICS

Why does Denmark reopen parliament at the start of October?

Denmark’s new parliamentary year is always commenced on the first Tuesday in October. Why is the custom important and what can be expected this year?

Why does Denmark reopen parliament at the start of October?

Parliament is opened each year on the first Tuesday in October with a traditional speech given by the prime minister – somewhat comparable to a ‘State of the Union’ speech – in which she gives her assessment of the situation in the Scandinavian nation as the new political year begins.

In practical terms, the reopening of parliament means Danish lawmakers will go back to voting on and discussing law proposals.

The reopening of parliament meanwhile often sees demonstrators gather in front of Christiansborg. Different groups lobbied for causes including climate and childcare standards in 2021.

The opening speech is usually attended by the Queen and members of the Royal Family, who watch from the Folketinget parliament’s Royal Box.

After lawmakers attend a service at the nearby Christiansborg Slotskirke church – which is also used for royal ceremonies – the Queen and other royal family members arrive at parliament for the opening ceremony, where they are received by the Speaker.

This year’s ceremony will be attended by Queen Margrethe, Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary, and the Queen’s sister, Princess Benedikte.

The opening session is traditionally led by parliament’s longest-serving member. Formalities including voting for the Speaker and deputy speakers.

That is followed by the traditional opening speech from the prime minister.

While there are no predefined expectations as to the content of the speech, the Danish constitution states that the PM must make her assessment of the state of the kingdom and present some of the government’s initiatives.

Usually, the prime minister gives a speech at which she outlines the government’s strategies and key issues for the incoming parliamentary session, and sums up the previous year.

Two years ago, most of the regular traditions of the annual opening of parliament were observed amid Covid-19 restrictions, with the church service attended by most members of parliament moved from its normal location at Christiansborgs Slotskirke to the larger Holmens Kirke nearby, to allow social distancing.

Last year’s opening speech was used by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to talk about topics including affordable housing, international climate targets and education.

This year could be markedly different with the energy crisis and war in Ukraine dominating the political agenda.

An even more immediate point of interest at this year’s opening is the likelihood of an election being announced.

The Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party has demanded Frederiksen call an early general election, an ultimatum issued in response to the conclusions of an inquiry into the government’s 2020 mink scandal, which resulted in Frederiksen receiving an official rebuke.

The Social Liberals wanted an election called by the time of parliament’s return and have threatened to bring down the government through a vote of no confidence if an election is not called by October 4th. As such, an election would have to be called today to meet the demand.

Talk of an election is therefore high as parliament returns, but the government appears to have been given an extra day to call the vote, news wire Ritzau reported on Tuesday morning.

“The exact day means nothing for me. And I can also see that several commentators have noted that an election will be called on Wednesday [October 4th]. And that is completely fine with me and us,” Social Liberal political leader Sofie Carsten Nielsen said.

Legally, the government could wait until June 4th, 2023 to hold a general election – the last one was in 2019. Until now, Frederiksen has skirted the issue of calling an election when asked about it by journalists, but an announcement will now surely be made.

READ ALSO: Could Baltic Sea gas pipe leaks affect Denmark’s election timeline?

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