Saint John’s Night
I first got to hear of the festive celebrations of Saint John’s night when I read Viveca Sten’s thriller In the Heat of the Moment that takes place on the small island of Sandhamn close to Stockholm. Gathering around a huge bonfire and partaking in rituals is part of marking the summer solstice that has found its way into Northern Christianity’s holy days. At the same time I was reading the book, I was sitting on an EU committee dealing with evaluation in higher education chaired by a group of Scandinavian women said to be pioneers in the field. At one point we were planning our next session and someone suggested the third week of June. The upheaval was impressive as six Valkyrie type women (blond, tall and complete with long legs) immediately stood up booming that it was out of the question since they would all be celebrating Saint John’s night and had no intention of missing this important tradition to be sitting in a boring meeting (their words not mine!) in overheated Brussels. Obviously, this was the highlight of the summer solstice in Scandinavia and an event not to be missed on any account!
Not surprisingly, when I moved to Denmark, I was looking forward to my first Saint John’s day. I was a bit confused about the dates since, in Denmark, it is celebrated on the 23rd of June when in the catholic calendar Saint John is on the 24th of June. I have since learned that Sankthansaften (Saint John’s night) starts at sunset on the 23rd of June, the eve of the celebration of the Feast day of Saint John the Baptist. At dusk large bonfires are lit all over the country, typically accompanied by communal singing, drinking bear and eating hot dogs (which are called French hot dogs when served with remoulade and ketchup). According to popular belief and pagan traditions, St John’s Night was charged with a special power where evil forces were also at work. People believed that the witches flew past on their broomsticks on their way to the Brocken, in Germany. To keep the evil forces away, the bonfires were usually lit on high ground atop with an effigy of a witch, a reference to the days of witch trials and the burning of real women.
The first year (2017) I was in Denmark the weather was cold and windy on Saint John’s night and we didn’t feel up to huddling around a damp field watching the fire smoldering. Also, another typical Danish tradition was in full flow, the corteges of over excited and mostly drunk students celebrating their high school certificate and the start of the summer holidays. Wearing graduation caps, they drive around in open-backed decorated trucks blaring horns and playing loud music, and showing the parts of their bodies that rarely get to see the sun. Not always a pretty sight! The second year we were in Findhorn, Scotland, so I had to wait for this year, with exceptionally good weather, to sample my first Saint John’s night with all the trimmings.
We spent the evening in the seaside village of Gudhjem. A Norwegian band of youngster playing traditional songs marched down to the port where the bonfire was waiting to be lit up. We sat across the harbour watching the flames and smoke reflected in the water. I was amazed to see, not for the first time, how different traditions and rituals have blended together over time, for instance Norse mythology merging with Christianity. I sense Denmark as a place of inclusiveness where we can explore the paradox of “both/and” rather than stand in a place of “either/or”. I am not sure that everyone would agree with me here and some might like to underline all the divides that separate us (and I have experienced some of these places when we applied for our marriage license and subsequently when I applied for a new UK passport). I now know that I am here to embody and practice the “both/and” and to dive deeper into nondual consciousness. Naturally, I keep seeing places where this is a reality for me to live into and upto, offering me a way of being in the world and not of the world.
I feel strongly at home on Bornholm despite not being able to speak Danish. Nonetheless I do not feel the need to apply for Danish citizenship the process being very demanding in terms of mastery of the language and culture. Denmark has just got a new government with a woman prime minister, and maybe things will change over the next years. Hopefully, the witches on the Saint John bonfires and the women leaders will no longer need to emigrate in order to gather in new forms of leadership and speak their truth, in whatever language that might be.
Wishing you a perfect summer,