The tradition of lighting a bonfire on midsummer’s eve is widespread in Denmark. Some people might resent the fact that the custom has become quite civilised over the last century and a half. No more hilarious fiddle music, no all night dancing, or drinking with abandon. Instead, the danes sing a national romantic song or two. The most popular one is called Midsommervisen, i.e. Midsummer Ballad. Somebody prominent from the area makes a suitably short, edifying speech. And that normally completes the program.
Maybe there is beer. There will certainly be tea and coffee available and a suitable selection of soft drinks. About 11 P.M. it is over – there is no point in staying, for we no longer believe that midsummer night’s dew removes freckles and cures illness and besides, we have to get up and go to work tomorrow. Besides, the nights are still cold. Water is poured on the embers and people return to the comfort of their homes in an orderly fashion. But there is more to it.
Burning the Witch – neigbourly hygge after the edifying speech
Nowadays, the gathering is more about meeting friends and neighbours, and spending a “hyggelig” evening together. All in all, this is more an informal celebration of the beginning of summer than anything else. But the cultural connection to the past has not been completely lost. You find it in the widespread ritual of burning an effigy of a witch on the bonfire on midsummer eve. Most danes find that this is an integral part of the package on midsummer’s eve, but very few actually know what this is all about. Because the custom is not associated with the witch hunts of the 16th century at all.
The practice of burning a straw puppet on the bonfire on midsummer’s eve is known in many parts of Europe. But Denmark is the only place where a witch is being burned and it is a quite young tradition. In most other places, the straw puppet is burned in the hope that this protects the people and the cattle from disease. But why a witch? And why only in Denmark?
The explanation is that midsummer’s eve is a time full of magic. Bloksbjerg is the Danish name for Brocken, and on this night the witches are supposed to be on their way to the yearly diabolical company outing. If a witch should pass the bonfire riding her broomstick en route to Bloksbjerg, she will be quick to realise that this is not the place to try anything funny, or else! The symbolic meaning of burning the straw witch is rather obvious. But there is more happening on this night. The Trolls are coming out, leaving the subterranean caves and are up and about. Normally trolls are invisible if they choose to be, but if you pick a bundle of St John’s Wort on this night and look through it you can see them.
Evil abounds in the Magical Night – but the Danes are not quite serious
Even Old Nick himself is making his rounds. Should you happen to see a goat walking towards the fire, look out. It might be the lord of the flies. Demons are buzzing through the air as well, looking for a place to do mischief. They are not overly fond of bonfires though, and if they hear the sound of church bells as well, they will choose to go somewhere else and make the beer sour and the men impotent. It is not going to be at a place where the bonfire is blazing.
The custom of burning witches is quite new. Apparently it started in the years before WWI in the national romantic and general education crowd. And it started after poet Holger Drachmann composed the ballad Midsommervisen, the Midsummer Ballad. It is a quite famous song and included in the national cultural curriculum. In the third stanza (in translation) it approximately says,
Each town has it’s witches, each parish it’s trolls,
We keep them at bay with happy bonfires.
The straw doll is a reenactment of something they didn’t take quite seriously 100 years ago. And today, burning the straw witch has become an uncomplicated part of the traditional danish hygge. The ironic and humorous link to the superstitious tradition of yore is implied and stays below the treshhold of the common consciousness. In simple words, nobody worries about it.