Summer in Copenhagen: Burning the Witch and Loving the Land

The arrival of summer does not go unnoticed by Danes. They revel in it, on a day designated as Skt. Hans Aften. It is celebrated not on midsummer, June 21, but on June 24, in honor of St. John the Baptist.

This year we will celebrate the this religious holiday and the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, in which the sun will not set until close to 11:00pm, by picnicking, barbecueing and doing two things that can perplex and amuse non-Danes:

  • Burn a witch in effigy over a bonfire
  • Do it while singing “We Love Our Little Land”


Burning the Witch

Skt. Hans Aften or St. John’s Eve was an official holiday until 1770, and in Denmark that meant beginning the celebration the night before — of course, why not get started with some cold beer and lots of toasts! Thus the feasting and drinking and making merry began on the evening of June 23 On this day, the wise healer women and men, (the physicians of the time)  would gather the herbs they needed for the remainder of the year to treat people. People would visit healing water well and make bonfires to ward off evil spirits. The wells and the water traditions went away. The bonfires did not, and in the 1920s Danes began a tradition of putting an effigy of a witch on the bonfire to burn, complete with black hat and black dress. The burning of a witch is allegedly to be in remembrance of the of the Danish church’s witch burnings from 1540 to 1693. This burning sends the witch away to Bloksbjerg, the Brocken mountain in the Harz region of Germany where the great Wican gathering was thought to be held on this day.


..and Loving the Land

I recall midsummer 2007. I found myself in Rungsted along the water that year, on the beach near the Karen Blixen Museet with many, many people, lots of boats and lots of . After the relaxing, eating and drinking, speechmaking and while the witch is burning on the bonfire in the late afternoon Danes begin to sing a song dear to their heart – We Love Our Country”. It was written in 1885 by Holger Drachmann as a midsummer hymn (midsommervise) called “Vi elsker vort land…” with a melody composed by P.E. Lange-Müller.

Singing this surrounded by people and in full view of a flaming witch on a bonfire can feel very surreal. Burn the witch. Love the land. Burn the witch. Love the land. Drink some beer. BUrn the witch. Love the land.

I was interrupted in my singing in 2010 by a Danish woman standing next to me in the crowd, who asked me incredulously in English if I could really read the words (we had songsheets) and understand the Danish language. I replied in Danish with a smile, “Ja, ja. Jeg forstår det”. She told me with pride that she was glad I loved her “little land”, too, put her arm around me and began to sing with me.

My advice? Have a few large beers and a piece or two of smørbrød, and practice the song. You can get in the spirit of Skt Hans Aften, and here is the song in case you would like to practice:



By Barrett Clemmensen Powell • June 21, 2013
Categories: , , , ,



  1. Posted June 22, 2013 at 12:25 am by Bill | Permalink

    Today it is burn, burn, burn. Tomorrow they will be back to bragging about their carbon footprint and air pollution emission controls.

  2. Posted June 22, 2013 at 10:46 am by Barrett Clemmensen Powell | Permalink

    LOL; well that is quite true!

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  1. By Day 30: | Cool Ventures on June 26, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    […] watching a tradition of burning a witch in effigy, which confused us greatly, we headed home to get some sleep and get ready for our departure. I […]

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American Dream, Danish Dream

Barrett Clemmensen Powell

I am living out my American Dream in Denmark while I write, travel, cook and find ways to inspire and empower people. Professionally I am a Lifestyle Entrepreneur and have been for nearly 20 years. My passions are my family, travelling, surfing, being on the ocean, reading, good food, Bichon Frise puppies and beautiful hats. I am publishing a children's book called "Lori Leak Travels to Paris" in September 2015. In 2014 I published "Midlife Opportunity: Power, Money and Wellbeing in Your Late 30s and Early 40s" (with real life lifespan acounts from clients worldwide and featuring real life stories from Americans and Danes), and prior to that the novel "Congregation". was published. I am an entrepreneur, intercultural expert and writer who came to Denmark to study for a second master degree. I have been a guest lecturer at Denmark's Roskilde University in the Culture and Identity Institute, where I presented Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" and both co-designed and co-taught a special semester course on religion and social media.