Sankthansaften – Norway’s Summer Solstice
While the international world hears of “Midsummer” celebrations in Sweden, Norwegians have a similar celebration on the same day referred to as “Sankthansaften”, also sometimes called “Jonsok”. This was thought to be the birthday of Johannes the Baptist. “Jon” comes from “Johannes” and the ending “ok” is a derivative of “Jonsvaka”, meaning the church would lie awake the night before, awaiting Jon’s birth.
The midsummer day has however most likely originated from pagan times and is one of our oldest customs, a celebration of when the summer sun turns. Decorations like birch branches and rowanberries, and branches of bird cherries were placed above each cow in the barn – the latter was said to avoid the trolls and any other supernatural powers from having any power over the cattle. People were also told to make sure nobody took their brooms!
This night was riddled with superstition, as one story from the town of Selje explains:
“Women” who had outgrown their baby carriage, had to walk three times around a rock placed in the ground or walk barefeet on Santkhans, if they wanted to be able to bear children in the future.”
A lot of rules to follow, if you were to have a normal life, in other words! Another story goes, that during the midsummer night, one would find out who they would marry if they slept near a place that had an underground creek with running water, or placed Jonsok flowers on their pillow at night… Sankthansaften was also the best time to gather medicinal herbs, because at this time they were fully mature and were most effective.
Another tradition is the bonfire that is raised in many places across Norway and Denmark. The fire was central in the celebration of the turning of the sun, as it was seen to help life-giving forces, and a symbol of strengthening of the sun, in this critical turn of seasons. The bonfire was also a natural gathering spot, and the unity of people was in itself a strengthening tool when one would enter into a time with less sun and light. The fire was also protection against trolls, witches, and other evil spirits. Among these supernatural creatures, below is a photo of the “fossegrim” – which according to Norwegian folkore, lives near waterfalls or rivers, and is a very talented violin player. He is willing to teach people if they bring him a fenalår (cured mutton leg) stolen from the neighbor’s “stabbur” (outhouse) every Thursday for four weeks in a row. This has to be done very discreetly and in secret, otherwise the fossegrim will undress and dance naked in front of you. (I’m not making this up!)
Sometimes paper witch figures were thrown into the bonfire (and still are today, mostly in Denmark but also in Norway), a tradition that was brought in by German carpenters in the 1860s.
Today, children especially look forward to the bonfire and playing games around it, and young and old dance and party into the early morning hours. People barbecue or bring picnic baskets with everything from pickled herring to sandwiches, smoked salmon, potato salads and bread, paired with lots of beer and aquavit. Some celebrate by the beach or take their boat out on the ocean, while others choose to spend time in their cabins up by the mountains.
In the old farming community, midsummer was a time to party, much like Christmas was during mid-winter. The plowing and sowing and other spring chores were done, everything that was supposed to be planted had been completed, and it was too early to start the harvest. During the Middle Ages the Church wanted to give the old celebratory days a Christian meaning, because they thought all of this superstition and celebratory drunkenness was highly immoral. So when Christmas Day was decided as Jesus’ birthday, his conception had to have been 9 months before, i.e. March 25th. The angels announced Jesus’ birthday when Johannes’ mother, Elisabeth, was in her sixth month of pregnancy. Appropriately, Johannes’ birthday would therefore be three months after, June 24th. This way, one could “christen” both Christmas and Jonsok. All the way until1770, Jonsok (or Sankthansaften) was considered a Church Celebration.
While many traditions have changed, some have not. Food is one that has remained the same in many places in the country. Rømmegrøt is a food that still is very popular to eat on this day, enjoyed with “spekemat” (cured meats) and flatbrød (flatbread). You can find a recipe for it in my previous post here.
Rømmekolle is another name for this dish, and in some areas of the country, this used to be served with freshly caught salmon.
Image from melk.no
One common theme for food on this day, is that the dishes are not complicated. Simple, easy to eat foods dominate here as many people are outside. I chose to include a recipe for “skagenrøre”, sometimes referred to as Skagen Toast, a creamy shellfish salad which is often topped on a piece of toast or served as a side. I think this is the ultimate Scandinavian food, and while its origins are from Sweden, “Skagen” is the name of a region and fishing port at the northern tip of Denmark. The dish was, according to a popular legend, invented by legendary Swedish epicure Tore Wretman while on a boat. Wretman began his cooking career in Stockholm in the 1930s. Participating in a regatta race in the very fancy Marstrand on the Swedish west coast, Wretman and his team did miserably and the entire crew were depressed and down afterwards. Wretman did what many chefs do during unsuccessful regatta races: created something tasty with ingredients he could find on the boat to cheer everyone up. He found some eggs, oil, dill and shrimp. A couple of minutes later he served the delicacy, which he named “Skagenrøre” after he looked out on the horizon and could see the tip of northern Denmark.
That was in 1957, and skagenrøre is now served everywhere in Norway as well. This dish really envelops Scandinavian food culture, which is why I found it suitable to post on midsummer, which is such a big Nordic celebration. Dill is a very important ingredient here… of course!
1 lbs cooked shrimp (small)
1/2 pound crayfish (or crab)
1 1/2 cups sour cream
3 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsp chives, chopped fine
3 tbsp dill, chopped fine
1/2 small red onion, diced fine
2 eggs, hard boiled and chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Mix everything in a big bowl except the shrimp, crayfish and boiled eggs.
Carefully mix in the shrimp, crayfish and finally add in the chopped egg at the end.
Season with salt and pepper and additional lemon juice until you get the taste you want. It should be bright, zesty and refreshing on the palate. You are now ready to toast some bread and top with your delicious skagenrøre! God midtsommer!!