In the Middle Ages, summer solstice fires were lit at crossroads and in the fields to protect against evil spirits and demons, who were thought to be free to roam when the sun turned south again. After trying to prevent this pagan festival, the Catholic Church Christianised it by dedicating it to St. John, but without participating in the delightful rituals that were preserved at least until the 19th century in much of Europe.
In Norway, St. John's Day is called Sankthans or Jonsok, which literally means "the awakening of John" and refers to religious pilgrimages in medieval times. A public holiday in Norway until 1771, Sankthans/Jonsok was the most important festival of the year.
Nowadays, the celebration starts the day before, sankthansaften, on 23 June, because it is the shortest night of the year. Norwegians will celebrate the evening by dancing around bonfires and maypoles, telling fortunes and eating sweet pancakes. Others will celebrate by cooking over a campfire, organising a night hike. Celebrating on a boat in the fjords is a popular and picturesque way to spend Midsummer.
The great bonfire is the main symbol of the Sankthans. It protects from demons, represents the sun and strengthens its powers. Bonfires are burnt all over the country, mainly in the coastal areas. Their method of ignition is unconventional, only flint or sticks can be used.
Sometimes dolls are attached to bonfires. They represent old and difficult times. The fire sets them free and the awkward link with the past is broken.
Some traditions include barns decorated with cherry, birch, or rowan branches to prevent trolls from stealing cows.
Dances around the Maypole
The maypole represents Yggdrasil, a central tree that links nine worlds. The maypole is usually a wooden pole in the shape of a cross, with two rings on the sides. It is decorated with flowers and wreaths. People dance around it to increase their strength. Southern countries decorate the pole in May, but this is not possible in Norway because the flowers only bloom in June.
A magical night
Midsummer's Eve is considered to be a magical time when the natural and the supernatural meet!
At night, the girls would look for seven types of herbs and hide them under the pillow to dream of a future husband. The herbs collected also had the power to ward off farm diseases.
Women make flower crowns. This custom originated centuries ago when flower crowns were a gift to the gods in the hope that they would reward fertility.
Water also acquires magical powers. Dew is believed to improve vision and sacred springs have healing powers. Rolling naked in the dew on Jonsok morning ensured strength and health, while a few drops of this magic dew allowed beer to ferment well and bread dough to rise.
To celebrate the blossoming of a prosperous life to come, the staging of mock weddings between children was very popular in 19th century western Norway.
The most popular dishes are grilled meat, crayfish, Norwegian strawberries and rømmegrøten, a Norwegian pudding with sour cream. Children are spoiled with sweets, especially butter and sugar pancakes.