Friday, June 22, 2012

Jonsok (Midsummer's Eve) in Scandinavia

While the actual summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere takes place on June 20 or 21, in Scandinavia, the solstice is marked on June 24. Why is this? It's the nearest feast day (St. John the Baptist) to the solstice.

Midsummer's Eve, June 23, is the real celebration. During the height of Catholic faith in Norway, it was a night for a wake, and people traveled to holy sites for midnight mass. But of course, the day was celebrated well before the advent of Christianity in Norway.

Artist Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928), who grew up on Jølster lake at the same time as Elisabeth and Oleanna, captured the St. Hansbål (St. John's bonfire) many times over the course of his career.

The Main Midsummer Eve Bonfire, Nikolai Astrup, 1915

Here's a lovely explanation of the rituals, and the above painting, from the official Nikolai Astrup website:
Midsummer Eve is, from ancient times, a fertility celebration. Several rituals in praise of nature are performed on this lightest night of the year. The bonfire is the key ritual, and in the picture we see the main bonfire in Sandalen. When the participants lift their arms toward it, their eerie cast shadows vibrate behind them. From the lower left corner, a dark figure approaches carrying a juniper branch – juniper makes the fire crackle and emit sparks. This aids the fire’s protective function throughout the night, since it is thought that other-worldly beings and witches are particularly active on Midsummer Eve. Several other bonfires light up the night on the far side of Jølstravatnet; one is at Ålhus near Kleberfossen, another at Ålhusdalen.

Dancing and music are also important for the Midsummer celebration. These activities can be seen in the picture’s middle ground. The fiddler sits near the warm fire and plays for the six couples who dance a Norwegian springar. In this old folkdance, the objective is for the man to impress the woman. Flirting is essential, and the couples weave in and out of each other’s arms in ¾ time. The dancing and rhythm give the motif a pulse that contrasts with the calm summer night. The dancing couples also support the theme of fertility. Meanwhile, the most obvious fertility symbol is the apparently pregnant woman in the foreground.
The celebration is directed towards both the future and the present. First and foremost, nature at Midsummer contains signs whereby one can predict the outcome of harvest, weather-forecasting, marriages and so forth. Nature itself has magical powers that can be harnessed. On this night it is common to gather herbs, dew and flowers, since these are imbued with healing energy. Certain flowers even have prophetic power: when a young maiden puts freshly picked Midsummer flowers under her pillow, she will dream about her future husband.
Midsummer's Eve is an important day for Oleanna and her family (spoilers!), but I can tell you she and her nephew Torjus celebrate together at their saeter, throwing wildflowers for wishes into the fire, rather than placing the flowers under her pillow.

St. Hansbål ved Jølstravatnet, Nikolai Astrup

Today Norwegians celebrate Jonsok with gusto, and in ways not much different than their ancestors: dancing, music, picnics, and of course great bonfires.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire, Nikolai Astrup, undated. More information at

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