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Midsummer: when in Germany St. John’s fires burn

Especially in Scandinavian countries, the summer solstice is a major celebration. Huge fires are built on St. John’s Eve, the night before Midsummer’s Day, and in Denmark and Norway, for example, when they are set alight, they often burn the straw effigy of a witch. This custom symbolises the warding off of evil spirits.

 

 

 

In Estonia, too, bonfires that burn throughout the night are the focus of celebrations and on some islands there is a tradition of incinerating disused boats. Similar festivities are held in Finland and Latvia as well.

Midsommar in Sweden – almost as important as Christmas

Swedes celebrate “Midsommar”. On the evening before, a decorated maypole is erected. Each region has its own traditions, but the pole is usually adorned with leaves and flowers. Then everyone dances around the maypole. Since 1953, “Midsommar” in Sweden has officially been celebrated on the Saturday between 20 and 26 June.

The greater the difference between the fruitfulness of summer and the harshness of winter, the greater tends to be the significance of the summer solstice for the populations of the various countries. As a result, in northern Europe Midsummer festivals are often the second most important celebration after Christmas. Even in southern Europe the longest day of the year is a cause for festivities: in Spain fires are lit along the beaches.

 

Germans celebrate summer solstice with Feast of St. John

In Germany, too, the summer solstice is celebrated. As in the Scandinavian countries, huge fires are lit on St. John’s Eve, around which people dance. The custom goes right back to the 12th century. According to popular belief, it frightens off the evil spirits that cause illness and harm livestock, and averts storms. In some areas straw dolls are thrown into the fire, a practice known as “Hanslverbrennen”. And certain regions still uphold the custom of the “Johanniskrone”, a woven wreath or “crown” of twigs and leaves decorated with flowers and ribbons. In earlier times, the wreath was hung up on the village green and danced around every night until the greenery died.

St. John’s Day in Germany is celebrated on 24 June, the feast of St. John the Baptist. According to St. Luke’s Gospel, John was six months older than Jesus, so his birthday was ascribed to 24 June. This conveniently allowed the church year to assimilate the far older customs associated with the summer solstice on 21 June and the winter solstice on 25 December.

Do you have this or a similar custom in your own country? How do you celebrate the longest day of the year? Have you witnessed a midsummer celebration in Germany? Share your experience with us in the community group KULTUR - CULTURE!

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July 2011

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