Burn the Witch!

For the world’s happiest people, Danes sure have some morbid holidays. In February, kids bang on a barrel or piñata for the carnival holiday of Fastelavn. The barrel has a picture of a black cat on it. It used to have a real cat inside. Bang the barrel, drive away evil spirits, kill the cat in the process. Today only candy pours out.

Same thing with Midsummer, or Sankthansaften (St John’s Eve). It’s the summer solstice – the longest day of the year, where it won’t get dark until after 11pm. Families walk down to their local park to sing folk songs, light a bonfire, and burn a witch. Maybe drink some beer too.

Used to be a real witch back in the 16th and 17th centuries. After the screaming and burning had stopped, the witch was supposed to have “flown away” to Bloksbjerg, a mountain in Germany where the rest of the covens were rumored to have congregated. Today it’s just a straw and cloth effigy, stuffed with firecrackers that squeal and shriek when they go off.

Yes, we explained this to our kids. Things are just matter of fact here. You’ve also probably heard about how famously pragmatic Danes are about parenting. The midsummer bonfire is a perfect example – it wasn’t cordoned off, and kids could run circles around it if they wanted. They were just trusted not to get too close. We made sure our boys gave it a healthy berth anyway – and good thing too, because the bonfire collapsed within a few minutes and came tumbling down in a fiery heap of logs. The witch was trapped under there somewhere. No shrieking, but the crowd sang anyway.

The songs were surprisingly placid and peaceful – one of them translated to “We Love Our Little Land.” I wonder if people sang Christian hymns back then as the real witches burned? Given all the black leather jackets on the teenaged boys and girls alike, maybe some doom or black metal might have been more in line nowadays. Maybe that wouldn’t exactly be hygge.

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