Danish Language Blog

Sankthans: Denmark from the Fireside Posted by on Jun 24, 2011 in Culture, Traditions

Let’s start this plunge into Danish language & culture with two short words: øl and bål. The first one is very frequent, and you’ll hear it in any Danish bar and indeed most places where people socialize… If you thought ”beer”, you are absolutely right! The ø is the same as German and Swedish ’ö’, or French ’eu’. Take the first syllable of ’electricity’ and round your lips even more than you do when you say ’girl’. That should bring you pretty close…

Bål, on the other hand, is a rather rare word. Yesterday, however, thousands of bål or bonfires popped up all over Denmark, as people were celebrating Sankthansaften. Say ’bawl’, and imagine a happily burning and cracking heap of old logs and boards, the flames and smoke rising high above the beach where people of all ages have gathered to enjoy the warmth of the fire, the øl and the bright sky of the Scandinavian summer night.

Sankthansaften (Sankthans + aften ’evening’) is the evening before Sankthans (or Sankt Hans = Sankt Johannes ’Saint John’). This traditional feast always falls on the 24th of June. However, as we in the Nordic countries for some reason prefer to celebrate the evening before something happens (yeah, Christmas Eve is the big thing in Denmark!), the 23rd of June is the date to mark in your calendar.

My English dictionary translates Sankthansaften as ’midsummer eve’. Well, that doesn’t quite do it. ’Midsummer’ or ’solstice’, the date with the shortest night and longest day, hits the Northern Hemisphere on June 21st or 22nd. But well, we can’t be pedantic all the time, and to most people here Sankthans indeed is a midsummer celebration, like it has been for hundreds of years before Christian missionaries came and told us it was the birthday of Saint John the Baptist (so Wikipedia).

On Sankthansaften most Danes get together with their familie and venner (friends). Some people make a private bonfire, but the vast majority seeks out one of the many publicly organized bål, that are typically built and lit on beaches or the shore of some lake. In some places – but not at the beach where I went yesterday – a heks or witch effigy is burnt together with the logs. (A last remainder of the medieval witch hunts, I guess.) People socialize, and sometimes sing a song called Midsommervisen – ’the midsummer ballad’. At my beach there were even folk musicians playing.

Another important ingredient on Sankthansaften is, of course, kærlighed or love. So, now you’ve seen all the special characters of Danish: kærlighed, øl and bål.


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About the Author: Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.