Sankt Hans: Hygge and Burning Witches

Sankt Hans: Hygge and Burning Witches

*Bam! Bam! Bam!*

“Are those fireworks I hear? What the..”

I’m quickly assured by every Dane that there’s nothing to worry about. Its just the fireworks going off as a huge bonfire lights up a straw witch (which has fireworks in her head), meanwhile everyone sings and watches the pretend witch burn to death..

Okay, sure.

Welcome to the bizarre Danish holiday, Sankt Hans. What is that you may wonder? Well, it’s a little complicated.

Sankt Hans Explained

Danes are the masters of being efficient, even when it comes to their holidays. Put simply, Sankt Hans is the combination of Midsummers Night Eve, St. Johns Eve and infused with a bit of pagan traditions.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Midsummer is the shortest day of the year and the official start of summer. Countries all celebrate this a little differently, but most countries involve some sort of bonfire!

St. Johns Eve is the celebration of John the Baptist, who was born six months before Jesus. While most Danes aren’t religious, this is the reason the holiday is on this specific day.


The last element of this holiday is based upon pagan traditions.

In Denmark, during the 16th and 17th century there were actually over 1,000 witches that were burned alive due to witchcraft!

In the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and North America there was a mass witch-hunting and public hysteria about the threat of witches and bad souls.

This insecurity was particularly heightened in Denmark. Actually, the last witch to be burned in Denmark was in 1693.

It is believed that on this night of the year, witches would fly on their broomsticks across Denmark, on their way to Brocken, Germany


All around Denmark and other European countries, people make huge bonfires in order to ward off the evil spirits from the witches who are headed towards Germany.

In Denmark, there are bonfires all over the country in neighborhoods, parks, or right next to the beach. I’ve even seen a portable raft-bonfire on the ocean!

Often people go to the same bonfire each year and usually attend one with their neighbors. You run into old friends and get to enjoy everyone around.

Tons of people from the neighborhood or surrounding areas contribute to building the fire, with materials organized by neighborhood union leaders.

Often there is a speech to kick off the event. In our neighborhood, the former mayor of Aarhus speaks each year. After the speech, the bonfire is set on fire!

At the top of the fire is a makeshift witch make of straw and fireworks explode, symbolizing the witch screaming and the evil spirit escaping!

Songs and hygge

Despite of the traditional holidays combines, Danes really come to Sankt Hans for some quality hygge.

While the fire is burning, families often bring a one-time barbecues and roast red sausages. Families sprawl out blankets and set up camp for a wonderful hyggelig evening.

Lastly, as the bonfire burns on and after everyone has eaten, the group gathers around and sings old songs about nature, midsummer, witches.

What a wonderfully weird holiday.