On June 23, the summer solstice, I was lucky enough to sail Oslo Fjord with my friend Hanne and her parents on their boat.
Midsummer is a big deal in Scandinavia, and has been since the days of Odin and Heimdal. Originally it was seen as a supernatural struggle between light and dark, heat and cold. These days it is perhaps nowhere more celebrated than in Sweden, where it’s a national holiday (as I understand it, no one has to work) but Denmark and Norway have their own celebrations too. In Norway and Denmark it’s called Sankthansaften (Saint Hans Day ) or Jonsok (John’s wake.) Though now largely a secular holiday, until the mid 19th century midsummer festivities included a pilgrimage to one of the stave churches in southwest Norway to visit a magical crucifix.
I witnessed several bonfires along the Oslo Fjord, though they were hard to see in the eternal glow of July. I was hoping to see–but didn’t–some effigies of witches. The bonfires predate the witch effigies (they predate Christianity too while we’re counting up predates) but since the late 19th century they’ve been adding witches to the fires (speculated to be an ugly German witch that corresponds with fears about Otto Van Bismark and Prussian expansion.)
Instead of witches and burnings and witnessing the eternal struggle of day vs night, we drank coffee and ate strawberries (Norwegian strawberries are by far the best I’ve ever had) dusted in powdered sugar (which they call flour sugar) and slowly floated down the Fjord on the boat of my friend Hanne’s parents. Some brave kids jumped into the chilly waters of the fjord. Neighbors floating by waved and stopped for friendly chats. Hanne’s mother told me about how they iceskate across the fjord in the winter.
On the way back, we stopped by a tower that has existed in the oldest town of Scandinavia for at least 800 years and even though it was approaching midnight we had enough light to explore like it was early evening.
It’s hard to imagine a more interesting place to celebrate midsummer. Even without the burnt witches and magical crucifixes, it’s a rather spectacular place.