Midtsommer vs. sankthans

Words about words


Photo: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
The painting “St. Hansbål ved Jølstervatnet” by Nikolai Astrup, depicts a bonfire in celebration.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In Norway, midtsommer, the everyday word for the period around the summer solstice, is celebrated on sankthans, the feast day of St. Johannes, June 24, and most popularly on its eve, sankthansaften, on June 23. The near match between an astronomical date and that of a Christian festival is a coincidence brought about by Norway’s location on the globe and the dominant faith of the country. In the Northern Hemisphere, Midsummer Day, the longest of the year, is the summer solstice on June 20 or 21, while the early Christian Church determined the feast day of Saint John to be June 24, six months before the birth of Christ.

The word sankthans itself most likely is an accident of Norwegian history. It’s the Danish name of the day of the feast of St. Johannes, which implies that it entered the Norwegian language during the 400-year period of Danish rule. Moreover, the name Hans is a diminutive of Johannes, an older form of veneration still used to convey a sense of endearment.

Sankthans also has a synonymic name, jonsok, from the Old Norse jónsvak, a combination of a contraction of Johannes and the word vaka, which then connoted being awake at night to pray before a feast day. The ending -ok is a diminutive found in the Norwegian names of many feast days, such as Olsok (for St. Olav, July 29) and Barsok (for apostle Bartolomeus, September 5).

Jonsok was originally a pagan midsummer festival, as the Swedish midsommarafton and the English Midsummer Eve. The pagan midsummer festivals differed considerably from the religious ones, in that they involved plays, singing, and dancing around bonfires. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, they were regarded to be immoral and were repressed by the church and the authorities in Denmark and Norway, but survived in Finland and Sweden.

So today in Norway, the popular sankthansaften bonfire celebration may be said to have both pagan and Christian roots. It takes place two or three days after Midsummer. In 2018, Thursday, June 21, is Midsummer Day, and Saturday, June 23 is sankthansaften.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.