The high point of summer. The longest day of the year with the least amount of darkness. 

If you have ever survived a brutally dark and cold Scandinavian winter (there are no other types, really), then you'll know why this day, Sankthansaften (St. John's Eve), also known as Midsummer is one of the most anticipated and celebrated cultural traditions, times of the year and parties all thrown into one. 

Pagan beginnings

One of the greater pleasures in life, should you be lucky enough to experience it, is to be in a Scandinavian country for the celebration of Sankthansaften. 

Now, the literal translation of this day is St. John's Eve, and this may very well trick you into thinking that, despite all the data and trends suggesting otherwise, Scandinavians are god-fearing Christians. 

However, despite the very Christian name of this day, its origins are steeped in pagan culture and tradition from the very dawn of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100 CE).

Sankthansaften is celebrated annually on the evening of June 23, the night before the summer solstice. 

In pre-modern societies, like those that the Vikings lived in, the passing of seasons, the phases of the moon, solstices, and other natural phenomena were an important way of keeping time and bringing some gaiety into an otherwise harsh everyday existence.

From the 8th century CE onwards, Christian missionaries slowly spread their message into Viking society. Danish Viking King Harald Klak may be thought of as the first "Christian" king in the Nordic region, when he was baptized in 826 CE, but it would take centuries before the population was thoroughly "cleansed" of their pagan practices

In fact, as late as the 1150s, Swedish rulers were said to be launching military expeditions against pockets of pagan populations. The celebration of the eve of Midsummer was one of these traditions had pagan origins yet was transformed, over centuries, into very much a Christian tradition.

The burning summer sun

Before we launch into how Christianity has shaped this celebration, let us first look at the origins of it. Why did people in Viking societies celebrate the eve of Midsummer? 

First and foremost, the summer solstice was held in high regard throughout the Viking world. This was the literal peak of summer, when the days were the longest, and the crops were flourishing (hopefully). 

Furthermore, the solstice was also associated with fertility, renewal, and life-giving properties. For a region that spends months in seemingly never-ending darkness and cold, this high point of the warmest month was a great excuse to celebrate the power of light over darkness, of heat over cold.

This celebration saw huge bonfires lit to honor the power of the sun, its fertility, and life-giving properties, as well as ward off evil and malign spirits. 

People in Viking societies loved a good bonfire, and they believed that these sacred blazes had protective and purifying (both literally and metaphorically) qualities. 

Communities would gather around a bonfire and offer sacrificial goods. This would not only bring good fortune for the people gathered there but also was a form of spiritual insurance to ward off misfortune and evil.

People in Viking societies also believed that this night saw a breakdown in the boundaries between the afterlife and the living world. A blurring of these worlds allowed communication with deceased loved ones, dead spirits, and general interaction with the spirit world. 

It should be noted that people in Viking societies held strong beliefs in the power of magic and the supernatural.

Several pagan elements are still part of Sankthansaften celebrations, such as the lighting of bonfires. Photo: sofie Frydenlund / Shutterstock

Fertile lands and people

Another key reason for the celebration of the summer solstice, by people in Viking societies, was its association with fertility. This was a time of fertility in both the natural landscape and with many humans. 

During the solstice, it was believed that the powers of the sun were at their peak, and couples would often be involved in rituals to help increase their chances of conceiving healthy, strong, and powerful children. 

However, in this regard, people in Viking societies were similar in this association of the sun with children with many other pagan cultures and civilizations.

What set the Viking celebration aside from other pagan summer solstice celebrations was the adoption of a symbolic plant, the aptly named St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). 

This was believed to have protective and healing properties and would bloom in abundance during the summer months. It was often gathered, collected, and used in a variety of rituals and sacrificial offerings during the celebrations.

The peak of summer also focused minds and bodies on the impending autumn months, which meant harvesting and preparing for the long and cold winter ahead. The summer solstice was the celebratory storm before the serious work of planning for winter occurred.

Hijacked by Christianity

By the early 12th century CE, the majority of the "Viking homeland" (i.e., the Nordic region) had undergone centuries of the process of Christianization, sometimes peaceful, often bloody. 

What modern historians call the "Old Norse religion" has been the focus of "top-down" repression. For the monarchs and rulers of the new medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, adopting Christianity was a vital way of interlinking their prestige and legitimacy with broader Christian Europe.

Pagan festivals and celebrations, like the eve of Midsummer, soon began to change and take on a very Christian flavor. The Christian feast of St. John the Baptist was held exactly six months after the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, in mid-December. 

This Christian feast was therefore held in mid-June, conveniently close to the pagan summer solstice festivities. These festivities merged to become known as St. John's Eve (Sankthansaften in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish). 

Yet though this new celebration had a Christian name, some of the pagan elements were still kept, with the most obvious being the lighting of sometimes huge bonfires.

Sankthansaften is celebrated widely today throughout the Nordic region and in communities where the Nordic diaspora had emigrated. 

It is a time of festivities, fun, and frolicking, a reminder that despite all the doom and gloom of the perennially seemingly eternal winter months, summer will arrive (eventually), and the sun will shine.

For more on pagan celebrations of the summer solstice, visit the Sky History website here.

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