Witch-Burning on a Midsummer’s Night

Robin Petré

A 'witch' burns outside of Chicago, Ill. (Photo by Robin Petré) By Robin Petré Today, June 23, marks the official Midsummer celebration in Denmark, called "Sankt Hans aften" ("St. John's Eve"). Throughout the tiny Scandinavian country, Danes gathered around huge bonfires to form choirs singing the Danish Midsummer anthem together. A few days earlier, on Sunday, this special day was also celebrated by a group of Danish immigrants here in the Midwest. At a bonfire party in the western suburbs of Chicago, around 30 people of all ages, all with some connection to Denmark, gathered around a tall bonfire as darkness fell. For someone unfamiliar with Sankt Hans, the life-sized paper-stuffed human doll atop fire might seem a bit disturbing. After all, the doll—with a scarf wrapped around her head, a long laced dress and pointed shoes all in black, represents the witch (or at least, the accused/alleged witch) once burned on Sankt Hans. One attendee, a woman with her Danish boyfriend, expressed mixed feelings as flames started tearing at one of the 'witch'’s nylon fabric hands. As do some Danes. The truth is, the tradition of witch-burning, harmless as it may seem when the victim is nothing but a stuffed doll, goes back to medieval times, when things were deadly serious. Children at the suburban party had fun around the bonfire, but little did they know the burning doll symbolized cruel 'witch' burnings executed by the Danish church from 1540 to 1693. Thousands of innocent women were mercilessly murdered during this period. When the tradition re-emerged on Sankt Hans evenings in the early 1900s, the ‘witch’ was made out of straw to symbolize these executions. (The neighboring Scandinavian countries of Norway and Sweden do not have similar witch-burning rituals in their midsummer celebration traditions.) Although Sankt Hans, with its singing and ‘witch’-burning, is now a merry get-together for the majority of Danes, some people do distance themselves from what the burning symbolizes, finding it grotesque and morbid. Some refuse to go to any Sankt Hans party that includes witch-burning. Others have begun throwing their own Sankt Hans parties with no human figure on the bonfire. Perhaps all Danes, just like the Norwegians and Swedes, would have as much fun celebrating summer around a bonfire without the vestigial ritual?

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